Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Why was cross-dressing the only crime Joan of Arc was charged with?


Joan of Arc Condemned on a Technicality
Joan of Arc was tried by an Inquisition tribunal.
Joan of Arc was tried by an Inquisition tribunal.
©istockphoto/duncan1890

After prolonged, intensive questioning by Cauchon and the other members of the tribunal, Joan ­of Arc gave them no answers that could constitute heresy. They accused her of practicing sorcery, but she testified repeatedly that she only followed the word of God and believed in the infallibility of the Church and Pope. The clerics then proclaimed that her cross-dressing was an abomination to God, to which she answered, "the clothes are a small matter, the least of all things" [source: Pernoud and Clin]. However, Cauchon soon realized that through a technicality in canon law, the tribunal could condemn her on this small thing.

When Cauchon later asked Joan of Arc whether she would ever disobey the Church, she responded, in her usual fashion, that she only fulfilled the word of God. But the Church that Cauchon referred to was something called the Church Militant, or the Catholic Church on Earth, not the Church in heaven with God, known as the Church Triumph [source: Pernoud and Clin]. That meant if Joan of Arc didn't obey the directives of the tribunal on behalf of the Church Militant, she would technically be in disobedience of the church and a heretic.

On May 24, the tribunal convinced Joan of Arc to sign a legal document stating her submission to the Church and recanting her claims about hearing the saints' voices. Attached to that document was a cedula, or royal decree, also avowing that she would no longer wear men's clothing. Upon her renunciation, the tribunal released Joan of Arc back to prison without indicting her for any crime.

Yet, three days later in prison, Joan of Arc was again wearing men's clothes. In a later trial, some testified that guards had stolen Joan's female clothes and replaced them with male clothes. Whatever the case, as soon as Cauchon heard the news, he immediately condemned her for lapsed heresy on the grounds of cross-dressing. The same day, the tribunal handed Joan of Arc over to the secular court for her punishment: burning at the stake.

On May 30, 19-year-old Joan of Arc was taken into the public marketplace of Rouen, tied to a stake and burned alive. Based on a technicality buried within canon law, the Maid of Orléans died for the crime of cross-dressing. Twenty years later, once Charles VII had driven a majority of the English forces out of France, the verdict was nullified. In 1920, the Catholic Church canonized Joan of Arc as a saint. The last word the supposed heretic screamed before dying amid the flames was the name of Jesus.


More to Explore