Joan of Arc and The Lord Have An Understanding: She’s On A Mission From God

Note: I wrote this paper back in 2018. I haven’t edited it since then.

When studying specific people in medieval history, we rarely hear about the lives of the Average Joe. Instead we tend to focus on the lives of the upper class, royalty especially. It is not hard to see why. Due to their wealth and power, the upper class had the ability to influence the outcome of history as well as the contemporary writings of their day. However, there are exceptions. One such exception was Joan of Arc, or Joan the Maid as she called herself. If it had not been for her courage and determination she would have been lost to history. Instead, Joan of Arc, a mere French teenage peasant, went from watching her father’s livestock in the fields to meeting the dauphine of France and helping him become king, as well as leading the French army against the English.

The reason Joan of Arc was determined to meet and help the dauphine, Charles VII, was due to the voices she heard and interacted with starting in the summer of 1425. However, “at first the voice simply advised her…to be good and go to church” and it was only later on that the voice ordered her to ‘“go to France”’ (Gies 23) and to help Charles VII become king. Now, according to Joan, at first she was not exactly thrilled with this plan. Apparently “she pleaded that she was ‘only a poor girl who knew nothing of riding or of leading in war’ but the voices insisted” (Gies 30). Needless to say, in the end Joan listened to the voices. 

It should be noted that hearing voices in the fifteenth century was not exactly unusual. However, it was necessary to figure out if the voices a person heard were divine or demonic (Castor 5). For Joan of Arc, her voices came from saints, specifically St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. Because Joan of Arc was not the only medieval woman to hear voices from divine sources, what made her voices special? For one, when other “female visionaries…had experienced their revelations…they were already under the care of a spiritual advisor” and these spiritual advisors “could testify…the nature of their claims” (Castor 95). Joan, however, did not have a spiritual advisor. Instead she “had appeared alone, apart from her escort of armed men” (Castor 95). Joan’s voices were also exceptional because of what the voices were telling her. Unlike other “mystical theologians”, Joan of Arc was not told “sublime truths” (Wilson-Smith 213) like religious doctrine or the upcoming apocalypse (Wilson-Smith 12). Instead, she was told “simply what to do or not to do, and what would happen” (Wilson-Smith 213). And Joan was told to go save France (Wilson-Smith 12) and she would do just that. 

However, Joan of Arc was correct to be concerned when the voices told her to go to France, “raise the siege of Orléans” (Warner 146) and make sure that the dauphine was crowned king. After all, she was a teenage peasant girl with no experience in warfare and at this point she could not even read or sign her own name. She knew that no one was going to take her seriously. However, the voices told her to “go to Vaucouleurs and find Robert de Baudricourt, who would give her men to accompany her” (Warner 146). After all, if she had supporters she would look more creditable. Unfortunately for Joan, Baudricourt did not take her seriously either. But due to the fact Joan refused to go away until she got what she wanted (Castor 89) and that Baudricourt started to realize Joan was not mentally ill (Castor 91), he eventually obliged and gave her men so she could go to the royal court. It also helped Joan’s case considerably that she was able to “correctly [predict] the outcome of the Battle of Rouvroy well before any messenger could have conveyed the news” (Margolis 259) to Baudricourt to convince him that she really was sent from God.

Another way Joan of Arc was exceptional was how she dressed. Now, while she certainly was not the only holy woman to have dressed in men’s clothes, the way she dressed was quite different. Instead of dressing “like her models, that of a monk” (Warner 144), Joan dressed as a knight. This is significant for several reasons. The first reason is because she was dressing above her station. It was extremely expensive to be a knight and Joan “had nothing to her name” (Warner 146). Luckily for Joan, the wealthy and influential people she told her plan to believed in her so much that they donated the items she would need to fulfill her role as one of the leaders of the French army. Wearing armor and men’s clothes also gave her creditability when she led the army in battle. This is especially true when you take into consideration the idea that “clothes were capital” and that “apparel signified social position” (Warner 156). Joan of Arc was dressing for the social status she needed, not the social status she had. 

Joan of Arc was also exceptional in terms of her military prowess. She had no experience, but she still excelled in battle. After all, it was God’s will, so why would she fail? This reasoning convinced others as well. And the fact there were several old prophecies that applied to Joan did not work against her cause either. One prophecy reported “that France would be ruined through a woman, and afterward restored by a virgin” (Gies 31). Another prophecy reported “that a Maid” would put on armor “and deliver the kingdom of France from its enemies” (Gies 31). The third prophecy, which dated back to “King Arthur’s Merlin” said that “from the oak forest in the marches of Lorraine a virgin would come who would perform marvelous acts and save France” (Gies 31). Even though there were several prophecies, the main theme was always the same: “a virgin would save the kingdom” (Wilson-Smith 31). However, the dauphin was not about to let a teenage peasant girl lead his army without solid evidence she could actually do it, prophecies or no prophecies. After passing many tests, including one to make sure she was a virgin (Castor 94) and another one where the dauphine pretended that he was not actually the dauphine (Quintal & Rankin 18), it was eventually decided that if Joan could raise the siege of Orléans, then she had actually been sent from God. After all, the English already captured Orléans and if Joan failed, the French had nothing to lose (Castor 96). 

So on March 22, 1429, Joan of Arc dictated a furious letter to the English forces including Henry VI, who I will note was about six or seven years old at the time. In the letter Joan warns that she has “been sent here by God, the King of Heaven, to drive you out of all France, body for body” (C. Taylor 75). The rest of the letter can be summed up as ‘get out of France or I will slaughter you all. You are not only fighting against me, but God himself.’ Naturally the English did not take this letter, or Joan, seriously. However they would regret dismissing her. Joan of Arc might not have had any military experience, but “after six months of siege [at Orléans], and with the kingdom of Bourges in disarray, Joan the Maid had freed Orléans in just four days…of fighting” (Castor 112). Joan of Arc was able to do ‘“something that 5000 men could not have done”’ (Wood 142) as Christine de Pizan would later write. Not only did Joan raise the siege, she also led the French army in other assaults against the English. Even if the French did not win all of these conflicts, she caused enough damage that the English thought she really was sent from God (Castor 112) and consequently were frightened of her. 

In hindsight, it was probably a good thing Joan had no prior military experience. She “attacked when and where she could, without concern for the ‘rules’ that had often hampered and defeated French armies in times past” (L. J. Taylor 221). Because she ignored the rules of war, the English and their allies no longer knew what to expect. And when your enemy is doing the unexpected, you cannot prepare properly. However, because she disregarded the rules, that meant she also disregarded the wishes of “the king, his counselors, and some of her fellow captains” (L. J. Taylor 221). This would be the cause of her downfall when the English captured her. Charles VII made no effort to rescue her, “claiming himself too destitute” while in reality he was “jealous of her popularity” and was “convinced by scheming courtiers that she had outgrown her usefulness to him” (Margolis 263). 

Needless to say, Joan of Arc was an incredible woman who turned the Hundred Year War in France’s favor. However, the most exceptional thing she did was after her death: influencing other women, including queens and other female politicians, to get their hands dirty and fight for the things they believe in, even if it was dangerous and they were not likely to win. While Joan of Arc certainly was not the first “woman who bravely takes armed action against her people’s enemy—a woman with blood on her hands” (Warren 103), the women she inspired were likely to reference her while they went into action themselves. One such woman was Margaret of Anjou, who “compared herself to Joan in a speech to her troops” (Warren 66). According to reports she said ‘“You who once followed a peasant girl, follow now a queen”’ (Warren 66). Needless to say, Joan of Arc set a precedent for other women, especially when they were about to do something considered traditionally masculine. Joan of Arc is an obvious example for why representation is important. It shows that if one person can do it, why not others? 

Nancy Bradley Warren argues that, “during her lifetime and afterwards, Joan of Arc challenged…gender identity and national identity” (58). This is especially true regarding gender identity. Over the course of her short career, Joan of Arc proved that the traditional ideas of gender can and will be broken, or at the very least bent into a semi-recognizable shape. She also proved that one’s social class does not determine what you can accomplish. As previously stated, Joan was a peasant, but when given the chance she was able to succeed and do things that were beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Joan of Arc is exceptional because she is the poster child for not judging a book by its cover and that everyone, no matter their age, gender, race, social status, etc., should be given a chance to learn and succeed.

WORKS CITED

Castor, Helen. Joan of Arc: A History. Faber and Faber. 2014.

Gies, Francis. Joan of Arc: The Legend and The Reality. Harper and Row. 1981.

Margolis, Nadia. “Joan of Arc.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing. edited by Carolyn Dinshaw. 2003, pp. 256-266. 

Quintal, Claire & Rankin, Daniel, translators. The First Biography of Joan of Arc. University of Pittsburg Press. 1964. 

Taylor, Craig. “The Life of Joan of Arc.” Joan of Arc: La Pucelle. Manchester University Press. 2006, pp. 68-136. 

Taylor, Larissa Juliet. “Joan of Arc, The Church, and The Papacy, 1429-1920.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 2, April 2012, pp. 217-240. 

Warner, Marina. “Knight.” Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. Oxford University Press. 2013, pp. 144-167.

Warren, Nancy Bradley. Women of God and Arms: Female Spirituality and Political Conflict, 1380-1600. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2005. 

Wilson-Smith, Timothy. Joan of Arc: Maid, Myth and History. Sutton. 2006.

Wood, Charles T.. “Joan of Arc”. Joan of Arc and Richard III: Sex, Saints and Government in the Middle Ages. Oxford University Press. 1988, pp. 125-151.

Medieval Clerical Celibacy, Part 2: The Religious and Financial Reasons for Chaste Priests

Celibacy was not always a requirement for Catholic priests. From Christianity’s beginnings to the 12th century, clerical wives and families were quite common. However, that didn’t mean the Church didn’t attempt to enforce clerical celibacy. They did. And they tried to do it a lot. You can read my first post about the Church’s attempts to enforce clerical celibacy here

This begs the question, why enforce clerical celibacy in the first place?

A priest baptizing a baby while the mother watches | Ms. 46 (92.MK.92), fol. 41v | Source: The Getty Museum

Why Did Medieval Catholic Reformers Want Priests to Take a Vow of Celibacy?

Like most questions about why people want anything, the answer isn’t a simple one. Reformers had a few reasons for enforcing clerical celibacy. Today’s post will focus on the religious and financial reasons reformers had when advocating for clerical celibacy. 

Religious Reasons For Clerical Celibacy

One argument for clerical celibacy was that priests needed to be pure to uphold sacramental purity. Priests performed holy rituals and held holy items. The only way to maintain that the sacraments had the ritual purity they deserved was to make sure the person performing them was pure as well. Sex is unclean and impure, thus, priests should not have sex. 

Now, I’m sure some readers are indigent about the idea of sex being dirty. Well, sexual uncleanliness isn’t just a ritualistic concept. Practically speaking, it’s reality. There are fluids involved. Would you really want to receive communion from someone who just had sex and possibly didn’t wash their hands that well afterward? 

As clerical marriage was a reality for the first thousand or so years of Christianity, there were practical rules in place to ensure ritual purity. When a priest had sex, he needed to wait a certain amount of time before he could perform sacraments, touch the Eucharist, etc. If he did have sex within the allotted time frame that allowed him to regain his ritual purity, he had to find another priest to say mass for him. 

Medieval priests were on call 24/7, so reformers argued they should be celibate all the time. That way a priest wasn’t scrambling to find someone else to perform Last Rites at 3am because a parishioner is dying and the priest and his partner were having a bit of fun before he received the news someone needed him.

Another religious reason for clerical celibacy was from a moral standpoint. I don’t mean moral in a “sex is bad” way. I mean moral from a “once sex is involved, there’s a greater chance of vile acts occurring.” Reformers were aware priests had a lot of power over their parishioners. Even if a relationship is between two consenting adults, power dynamics make things extremely complicated at best and disgustingly immoral at worst.

(Also we’re talking about the Catholic Church. You know, the institution that’s infamous for the copious amount of sexual abuse cases (some ongoing) that have happened over its 2000 year history. (As a side note, I know some people claim that clerical celibacy causes sexual abuse. To that I say, the average person doesn’t prey on children when they haven’t had sex in a while. I’m extremely suspicious of anyone who says otherwise.))

Financial Reasons For Clerical Celibacy

Sacramental purity wasn’t the only reason for clerical celibacy. Like with most rules people make, money is usually a factor. And clerical celibacy was no different.

Generally speaking, when a man and a woman marry (or are just not celibate with each other) there’s a good chance of babies happening. In an era with not super reliable birth control (though it did exist) babies happened a lot. 

That, combined with the fact medieval masculinity depended on how many children you had and the Christian view married couples should only have sex to conceive a child (Note: in theory, medieval Christians followed this. In practice they didn’t.), meant some priests had a lot of children. 

Babies are expensive. 

And so is educating children and finding good dowries and making sure your children can financially support themselves as adults. For medieval clerical sons, the priesthood was a family business. Priests, especially ones in positions of power such as bishops and archbishops, sought to make sure their sons inherited their prebends and benefices.

In short, priests used Church money to support their families. Reformers did not like this.

Reformers also did not particularly like priests spending lots of Church money on their wives/concubines/girlfriends. They claimed priests “create public spectacles by taking their women, decked out lavishly in fine clothing and jewels, to weddings and to church” (Thibodeaux 30). 

(Of course, the extent of how bad this supposed “lavishing” was could very well have been exaggerated by reformers in certain situations. I’m sure some priests spent too much money buying their partners nice gifts and I’m also sure other priests could have put in a bit more effort making sure their partners had something nicer than what they currently own. In situations like these, there wouldn’t be one absolute that applied to every single English/Norman Catholic priest from the beginning of Christianity to when priests actually started following the reforms.)

By lavishing their special lady friends with expensive things, reformers thought priests were paying more attention and in a sense worshiping women more than the church they were supposed to serve. I will go more into the medieval gender implications for priests “serving” women in a later blog post where I’ll discuss the gender-based reasons for and against clerical celibacy. 

Source:

Thibodeaux, Jennifer D. The Manly Priest Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Medieval Clerical Celibacy, Part 1: The Start, Hypocrisy, and Attempts at Reform

NOTE: This post is shorter and a bit sillier in tone than what I normally write.

In my last post, I discussed monastic masculinity versus secular masculinity. To summarize, monastic masculinity was basically the Church’s way of saying “being celibate is cool and masculine you guys, we swear!!!”

For centuries, convincing secular priests celibacy was super cool, holy, desirable, and something they should start doing right this second was a losing battle. So how exactly did the Catholic Church convince their priests to embrace celibacy? To fully understand the process, we have to start at the beginning of Christianity.

A Priest Celebrating Mass | Ms. Ludwig IX 5 (83.ML.101), fol. 171 | Source: The Getty Museum

Clerical Celibacy’s Beginnings

From the beginning of Christianity, secular priests (meaning they weren’t monks so they didn’t take a vow of chastity) could and often did get married. The third century Church suggested priests should be chaste. After all, priests handled the Eucharist. It wasn’t exactly a good look to touch something so holy with unclean hands. However, in the third century clerical celibacy was more of a suggestion than a mandate.

Then in the fourth century, the Council of Elvira occurred. The Council of Elvira is notable as it was the first time the Church mandated clerical celibacy. As it was a local council, it didn’t have widespread authority. It had some influence because other councils/synods started mandating clerical celibacy too.

Between the fourth and tenth centuries, many more local councils mandated clerical celibacy. So there was some effort to stop clerical marriage. However, a lot of the rules came from local councils/synods so they didn’t have widespread authority. 

Based on the number of times the church made the rule “priests can’t marry” it’s pretty obvious that a majority of priests went “how about we do anyway?” It didn’t help that a lot of the Church’s efforts to actually enforce the no marriage rules were pretty lackluster. (Think Willy Wonka going “no. Stop. Come back.”) 

The Hypocrisy of Enforcing Clerical Celibacy

So why didn’t the Church enforce all the rules they made?

One reason was that many bishops and archbishops (AKA the people who enforced rules) were married. Clerical celibacy was already an unpopular reform. If you want people to follow an unpopular rule and you break that rule, people won’t follow it. After all, if it’s okay for the bishops and archbishops to get married, why can’t priests?

The Church Gets Serious (Sort Of)

Things changed around the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Now Church became serious about enforcing clerical celibacy. This change was partially due to more monastic priests gaining higher positions in the church. 

Punishments for non-celibate priests included:

  • Fines
  • Excommunication 
  • Losing his benefice 

That being said, some reformers didn’t actually give priests punishments. Married priests could go years with constant slaps on the wrist before they received a serious punishment.

Source:

Thibodeaux, Jennifer D. The Manly Priest Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Medieval Monastic Masculinity vs. Medieval Secular Masculinity

NOTE: Due to personal reasons today’s blog post is shorter than normal. This is a topic I may revisit in the future.

When it came to image and public relations regarding masculinity, medieval monks knew they had a bit of a problem on their hands. See, monks were not exactly considered masculine by the secular population. The pinnacle of masculinity in early Medieval English and post-conquest secular culture was to be a good warrior and have lots of children.

Horsemen Meeting an Abbot and Two Monks at a Monastery | Ms. Ludwig XV 9 (83.MR.179), fol. 186v | Source: The Getty Museum

Monks on the other hand didn’t fight and didn’t have sex. (Well, theoretically. In reality plenty of monks got physical with others, whether it was through punching, stabbing, or other means.) 

Because monks were not supposed to do either of those things, they created a new type of masculinity for themselves. Medieval monastic masculinity valued self-control in all forms. Masculine monks were disciplined when it came to their gluttony, anger, ambition, and of course, lust. 

Celibacy meant you controlled your body, mind, and soul. However, when secular society values a man’s virility, saying chastity is definitely super manly is a hard sell. Monastic leaders developed a lot of arguments about the manliness of chastity. 

I think my favorite argument is that it’s feminine to have sex. And they weren’t just talking about same-sex copulation. Reformers tried to say that a man sleeping with a woman made him feminine too. (It definitely reminds me of the “Fellas Is It Gay?” meme!)

Source:

Thibodeaux, Jennifer D. The Manly Priest Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 

Queer Saints: An Important Preface

On this blog I have several on going series I am writing/have written. They all focus on medieval written texts. However, this series will be much different. Instead of writing about established texts, I will be writing my own hagiographies of medieval saints. Specifically, saints that can be read as part of the LGBTQ+ community. I know that there is a lot of controversy about claiming historical figures’ sexualities as well as the use of the word “queer” in general so I want to clear things up before I begin writing the hagiographies.

Why use the word queer?

I have two reasons why chose to title this series “Queer Saints” instead of “LGBTQ+ Saints.” The first reason has to do with the word “queer” itself. In the past the word was used as a slur against LGBTQ+ people. In recent years it has started to become reclaimed by the community. (Including myself.) Now days, the term has another meaning: simply anyone who is not straight and/or cisgender. (Cisgender meaning anyone who is not transgender.) Because I am writing about historical figures, it’s impossible to say what labels they would give themselves. So instead of giving them a solid label (like gay, bisexual, asexual, trans, etc.) I am arguing that these saints can be read as queer. In that they behave in similar ways that people today who use those labels do.

The second reason I have titled this series “Queer Saints” has to do with which view point I plan to write these hagiographies through. I plan to write with queer theory in mind. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines queer theory as “an approach to literary and cultural study that rejects traditional categories of gender and sexuality.” Basically, it means that we can’t just assume everyone is straight and cisgender. I will also note that I say “in mind” because a lot of things written through the lens of queer theory are extremely inaccessible to the average person. I want everyone to be able to understand what I’m saying. (Personally, I think a lot of queer theory authors write the way they do because if you can’t understand what someone is saying you can’t argue against their bad points. But that’s a topic I will not be exploring, as this is a medieval blog and not a ‘Why I Think Academic Writing Should Be Easy To Read’ blog.)

Why are you writing about saints?

I’m writing about saints is because I find a lot of their stories extremely interesting. And despite the Roman Catholic Church’s less than stellar treatment of the LGBTQIA+ community, there are many saints that don’t conform to Western society’s ideas of what “normal” is. While I’m not super religious myself, (I was raised Catholic) I think it’s important for queer religious people (especially younger folk) to see that people like them have been loved, accepted, and even favored by God. There is a lot of self-hatred that comes when you cannot conform to what society wants the norm to be. And if I can help at least one person out there, then I think I’ve done a good job.