Medieval History Database - Review : The Second Coming of Joan of Arc by Carolyn Gage -
Medieval History Database MHDB Homepage Academic News About Contact

Medieval History Database - Review : The Second Coming of Joan of Arc by Carolyn Gage

Review : The Second Coming of Joan of Arc by Carolyn Gage

"The Second Coming of Joan of Arc" imagines Joan of Arc coming back to speak to modern women. The play has the stated goal of presenting the "real" Joan of Arc based (ostensibly) on the trial transcript and the eyewitness depositions during the posthumous appellate trial in the 1450s; however, Gage's description and interpretation of that evidence is erroneous on virtually every important point, including basic events such as battles and issues such as the nature of her military campaigns and trial, her alleged lesbian relationships (which are fictional since the eyewitnesses did not describe anything similar), and her alleged motives and viewpoints which are likewise unhistorical. A significant percentage of the play presents an imagined set of opinions which Joan is supposed to have developed after death, seemingly drawn from the playwright's own political views and often the diamatric opposite of the historical Joan of Arc's recorded statements and personality described so vividly in the same eyewitness accounts which Gage allegedly drew her material from.

The claims made in the play or the author's standard summary include the following:

A central theme is the idea that Joan opposed, and was opposed by, all men; and was killed by the "patriarchy" due to her gender while going up against "the entire Church" after being abandoned by her own side, which manages to distort history almost beyond recognition on all these points. Historians have long pointed out that English government records and the eyewitness accounts (which Gage claimed to have read) prove that the trial transcript's version of the subject - i.e. the idea that the "Church" opposed her on theological grounds - was an element of English propaganda utilized by her judge, Pierre Cauchon, who had served as an advisor to the English occupation government for over a decade before the trial and was placed as judge by the English government itself, as stated explicitly in English government records from 1430 and 1431, much as the English also executed a boy named Guillaume le Berger for making the same types of statements against them as Joan did. If Joan had been male they would have killed her just the same, and for the same motive. Many of the tribunal members later admitted that the trial was motivated by revenge for English defeats; the charges were deliberately false or misleading; the transcript was deliberately falsified on crucial points; and the purpose of charging her with heresy was to undermine her assertion that God supported Charles VII against the English. This manipulation of an inquisitorial trial by a secular government and its partisans is one of the reasons the tribunal itself was later condemned for heresy during the postwar appellate trial (which Gage claimed to be familiar with) conducted by the Chief Inquisitor, Jehan Brehal, after the English were expelled from Normandy. Brehal's ruling reflected a common view that had been held by many clergy during Joan's lifetime, since she had gained the support of many high-ranking clergy including the Inquisitor for Southern France (Pierre Turelure), the Archbishop of Embrun, the prominent theologian Jehan Gerson, and many others. She was likewise supported by numerous other men rather than being opposed by a male conspiracy: the Royal army gained a large number of new volunteers who signed up because she was there (according to letters from these men themselves such as Lord Guy XIV de Laval). Many men died carrying out her suggested military campaigns; her bodyguard and one of her brothers (Pierre) were captured along with her while trying to protect her (Pierre subsequently spent eight years of misery as a prisoner-of-war for her sake); and large numbers of men took part in the four attempts to rescue her during her captivity, taking heavy losses deep within enemy territory to try to save her. Charles VII took revenge for her imprisonment by launching scorched earth raids against Burgundian territory, and he was said by eyewitnesses to have been so upset by her death that he contemplated killing English civilians in retaliation. Her own stated motives and views were likewise the opposite of Gage's portrayal, since the eyewitnesses said she continued to defend Charles VII, even shortly before her death, as "the noblest Christian of all Christians" (and similar statements) rather than turning against him. Joan said at her trial that God "greatly loved" the Duke of Orleans, for which reason she said she had been hoping to free him from captivity in England through either a prisoner exchange or direct invasion of England. The same eyewitnesses whom Gage is ostensibly invoking said repeatedly that she supported the Catholic Church rather than opposing it, which is also borne out in the letters she dictated to scribes, eleven of which have survived. These provide the most vivid glimpses of her authentic "voice" since some of the text was written phonetically in her dialect while retaining her peasant grammar and village slang terms; but the views expressed in these letters are the diametric opposite of Gage's version. Gage would likely argue that she is presenting what Joan "truly thinks" now after her death, but these posthumous opinions were by definition invented out of whole cloth from Gage's imagination unless she's claiming to have met Joan's ghost. Most of the views attributed to Joan in the play are recognizable as Gage's own stated personal views rather than anything that Joan of Arc actually said.

Related to the above issue is the idea that Joan opposed traditional gender roles and "broke all the rules", which is directly contradicted by her own statements (including those related by the eyewitnesses which Gage claimed to have read) as well as being based on a number of misconceptions about her role in the army and her reasons for wearing "male clothing" (i.e. soldiers' clothing that had been given to her). The idea that she fought in combat is contradicted by her own statements during the fourth session of her trial (27 February 1431) : “during assaults I carried the banner, so as to stay out of any killing; and I have never killed anyone.” She didn't lead directly since the Royal records give the full command structure (which consisted of noblemen) and the eyewitnesses said the commanders often didn't even tell her their plans. Her "male clothing" was nothing more than the outfits given to her by the soldiers or the Royal government or nobles, and which she said she continued wearing in prison for practical reasons (an issue that will be dealt with in the next paragraph). Her actual role was that of a religious visionary like so many other young female visionaries and mystics in the medieval era: e.g. St. Catherine of Siena advised Pope Urban VI, and religious figures sometimes accompanied armies. Moreover, one of the soldiers, Jehan de Metz, quoted Joan as saying : "I would rather stay home with my poor mother and spin wool" rather than having anything to do with the war, explaining that the saints in her visions kept goading her against her will. At her trial, she boasted about her skill at sewing and spinning wool. The eyewitnesses from her village said she enjoyed those tasks, rather than being a tomboy as is often stereotypically assumed. She was therefore somewhat analogous to another reluctant famous woman, Queen Victoria, who is often held up as a feminist despite her stubborn efforts to give the throne to her husband and her vocal denunciation of the early feminist movement as "this mad, wicked folly of 'Women's Rights,' with all its attendant horrors", and similar statements such as "Feminists ought to get a good whipping". Joan of Arc was also reluctant to serve in the role that she is now best known for.

Connected to this issue is Gage's claim that Joan "died for the right to wear male clothing", which is contradicted by the eyewitness descriptions of the circumstances under which she was convicted for an alleged "relapse" into cross-dressing which was deliberately engineered by her captors rather than being her choice. To understand her circumstances, it's necessary to examine the context: she first put on "male clothing" when the soldiers who escorted her to Chinon gave her an outfit suitable for the long horseback journey : two of them (Jehan de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengy) later said they brought up the idea and gave her the clothing. The reason was partly because the long hip-boots kept her legs from chafing against the horse's flanks and partly because the large cloak and hood disguised her features in case the group was captured by enemy troops, in which case she might be raped if the enemy knew she was a girl. The eyewitnesses said she additionally used this clothing's cords to securely fasten the various parts of the outfit together to discourage rape by her own side's soldiers when camped with the army, and likewise she continued wearing it in prison for protection against her English guards. That's because this type of clothing had dozens of thick cords that were drawn through metal eyelets in the tunic in order to lace and knot the long hip-boots, trousers, and tunic together, which made it more difficult for someone to pull her clothing off. The eyewitnesses said she told the judge she would switch back to a dress if they placed her with female guards (meaning nuns, following standard Inquisitorial practice for female prisoners) instead of abusive English soldiers, and they said she also protested that she wasn't violating the Church's rules since standard medieval theology stated explicitly that a motive of necessity (such as protection against rape) would merit an exemption from the normal prohibition against cross-dressing. The tribunal deliberately ignored this principle, and their final act involved the use of a particularly reprehensible method to manipulate her into a "relapse" via a two-stage process: she was forced to give up this protective clothing under threat of summary execution on 24 May 1431, after which the bailiff, Jean Massieu, said the guards took away the dress she had agreed to wear and then gave her the soldiers’ outfit again, forcing her to put it back on for lack of anything else. She was then declared "relapsed" and given a death sentence. This sequence of events wasn't the result of her choice and hence doesn't indicate any motive to "die for the right to wear male clothing".

There were several reasons for this standard sleeping arrangement: large family sizes combined with the cramped, narrow scale of town homes which city laws generally limited to specific dimensions; lack of central heating which forced people to sleep together for warmth; the tendency for travelers to arrange lodging in a private home because many people viewed inns as disreputable places and others couldn't afford the cost; and other practical factors.
Gage claims (or strongly implies) that Joan of Arc was a lesbian by misinterpreting the postwar appellate testimony of several women (most of whom had been children when they "slept with" Joan decades earlier) who described the nearly universal medieval practice of sleeping with multiple people per bed due to several practical reasons [see sidebox]. Two of them (Hauviette de Syonne and Charlotte Boucher) had been children at the time, and the third (Marguerite la Thouroulde) said Joan never had sex with anyone as far as she was aware, which rules out the idea she was describing sex with Joan. Gage claims that Joan ran off to join the army in disappointment after her "girlfriend" Hauviette married once she reached the age of puberty, which alters history on every point by inventing a romance which Hauviette never described and by making Hauviette the same age as Joan while contradicting Joan's actual statments about her reasons for leaving. It also presents an impossible sequence of events given that Hauviette said she was "three or four years" younger than Joan and hence only about eleven years old (below the age of puberty) during Joan's first attempt to leave in May 1428. Eleven was a bit young to marry even in the Middle Ages, and also makes it very unlikely that Joan and Hauviette were lesbian lovers unless Joan was a pedophile. More to the point, Hauviette merely described childhood sleepovers (a common practice among little girls) at "Joan's parent's house", in which case Joan, her sister Catherine and Hauviette would have all been in the same bed since Joan and her sister shared a bed. Are we supposed to believe that the two sisters were having three-way sex with a child and Hauviette later voluntarily described this to an appellate court of the Inquisition in front of her family and acquaintances and the local Bishop, or was Hauviette just describing the common practice of childhood sleepovers? Another girl who "slept with" Joan and later testified at the appellate trial was Charlotte Boucher, who had been only nine years old in 1429 when the government placed Joan and her group in the house of Charlotte's father (Jacques Boucher) at Orleans, where Joan was assigned to share a bed with Charlotte and her mother while Joan's bodyguard Jehan d'Aulon slept on a couch next to them. This circumstance is very unlikely to have led to sex with a child and her mother while the bodyguard looked on from a few feet away, and Charlotte doesn't describe or imply anything of the sort in her testimony. Marguerite la Thouroulde was in a similar circumstance when the government placed Joan and her group in the house of Marguerite's husband (a treasury official), again with the bodyguard sleeping next to them. Marguerite said Joan never had sex with anyone to the best of her knowledge, and she doesn't describe anything but common activities with Joan (such as eating and going to the public bathing pools which most townspeople regularly used) when she stayed at her house at Bourges. None of these circumstances are likely to involve any sexual or romantic encounter, and since sharing a bed with multiple people was the norm in that era, it therefore tells us nothing about a given person's sexuality unless one is going to claim that virtually the entire population was gay or lesbian. Gage has transformed the two children into grown women or teenagers - unless Gage is claiming Joan was a pedophile - while also altering the circumstances substantially.

The play has Joan say: "watching the fire come closer and closer, I realized that God the Father was a lie", although the eyewitnesses said the last thing she did before she died was to invoke the name of "Jesus". Gage is claiming to know her inner thoughts, and claiming that those inner thoughts contradict her final spoken statement.

The play's characterization of Joan's personality and opinions bears little resemblance to the historical Joan of Arc. None of her recorded quotes contain any complaints against "the patriarchy" or similar, not even any objections to France's rule barring women from the throne. On the contrary, her main recurring pronouncements included the assertion that God supported Charles VII's claim to the throne and "greatly loved" the Duke of Orleans. Gage claims Joan was "irreverent", despite her usage of the standard respectful formalities even when addressing enemy commanders and the tribunal members who put her on trial (whom she respectfully called "my lords"). Gage seems to be misinterpreting some of her bluntly honest statements, which can probably be best understood by what the eyewitnesses called her "simple" (non-calculating, open, direct) nature which was described by dozens of eyewitnesses, making this characteristic one of her best established personality traits. And yet, Gage's standard description / introduction of the play argues against the "traditional" portrayals of Joan as "simple" despite how often this term was used by eyewitnesses when describing her. Gage also claims that Joan would object to "making women feel ashamed of their own body" but Joan never said anything of the sort, nor did she represent the archetype of "the angry woman" as Gage alleges since the eyewitnesses repeatedly described her as "sweet-natured" (which in fact was one of the most common terms they used to describe her) and indicated that she was more given to crying (even when English troops were killed by the Royal army) than being angry. They describe her becoming angry "whenever she heard the name of God being blasphemed" (according to one eyewitness) and other more common circumstances, but this hardly qualifies her as a perpetually angry person.

The play portrays Joan's "voices" as just her own voice, in stark contrast to the historical Joan of Arc who described them as visual and tactile apparitions that she and certain other people could perceive at the same time, and she maintained until death that they were specific saints, according to eyewitnesses who were at her trial and execution. Gage is putting words into her mouth that she never said. Moreover, the idea that she described only "voices" (rather than apparitions) is partly the result of Thomas de Courcelles' systematic mistranslation of the original French minutes into Latin: we have both versions for most of the hearings, proving that the Latin version is consistently mistranslated on that issue often enough to be clearly deliberate.

The play routinely misrepresents battles and other basic events. For example, the sortie against the enemy camp at Margny on 23 May 1430 (when Joan was captured during the siege of Compiegne) is presented as if the Armagnac troops fled at the first approach of Burgundian forces and then simply shoved Joan aside in their haste to flee across the drawbridge while she single-handedly fought off the entire Burgundian army by herself, then her own men raised the drawbridge behind her; which is not what she or the eyewitnesses described. In reality, the Armagnacs retreated because the Burgundians came at them from two directions in a pincers movement using a unit of 500 cavalry concealed behind the Mont-de-Clairoix hill to attack them from behind, which forced a retreat in order to avoid being surrounded. Joan was pulled back by the soldiers, some of whom formed a rearguard to protect the rest. Joan stayed with the rearguard but, as usual, was carrying her banner rather than fighting. The drawbridge was drawn up by either the city's garrison commander, Guillaume de Flavy, or by panicked members of the city's garrison who may have thought the enemy would enter the city otherwise. This trapped the entire rearguard outside (not just Joan by herself), including Joan's bodyguard Jehan d'Aulon and one of her brothers (Pierre), who were both captured with her, as were other soldiers. Gage rewrites this battle to suit her typical narrative, painting Joan as a "Xena, Warrior Princess" character while portraying all the men as both useless and perfidious, including men in the rearguard who in reality died or accepted capture and long imprisonment to try to protect her. Historians have debated who was to blame for the premature lifting of the drawbridge - Guillaume de Flavy is the most common suspect - but there isn't any evidence to indicate why it was raised or who made the decision.

Gage claims there were several attempts to prove whether Joan was a man or a woman, which is a misinterpretation of virginity tests (to determine whether she was telling the truth when she always called herself "the maiden" or "virgin" - "la pucelle"), done at Joan's insistence to put the matter to rest. Eyewitnesses said there wasn't much ambiguity as to her sex, since they said she was very feminine: "beautiful and shapely" according to her bodyguard, Jehan d'Aulon, and similar descriptions by other soldiers and commanders; hence she wasn't likely to be mistaken for a man except when her outfit concealed the shape of her body and enough of her face to make it difficult to see very much of her (as was the case during her ride to Chinon when she had a loose-fitting cloak and hood that concealed most of her features).

They stayed at Rheims for a month because the city government paid for a month's lodging at an inn called the "Ane Rayé", hence they naturally made use of the city's hospitality. There are additionally other obvious reasons why they would stay that long: their daughter was still in the nearby vicinity, and any person in that era would have stayed as long as possible before beginning the exhausting trip back home. If it takes weeks to travel to and from a city that they were likely to only visit once in their lifetime, most people would try to see as much of the city as they could before leaving, as well as resting as long as possible and staying long enough to make the lengthy travel time more bearable.

Gage claims that Joan's father Jacques was an incestuous alcoholic, which was invented out of whole cloth, based partly on Carolyn Gage's own father, not Joan's. The alcoholism allegation seems to have been partly borrowed from an idea conjured up by novelist Andrew Lang (and repeated by novelist Vita Sackville-West) who claimed that Joan's father allegedly stayed alone in Rheims for a month after Charles VII's coronation to try the wines there, which is just as fictional as Lang's other work. Jacques wasn't there alone since his wife was with him, and there are logical reasons why they would have stayed there a month before beginning the long journey back home [see sidebox]. Whatever their exact reasons may have been, staying in Rheims for a month certainly doesn't prove that Jacques was an alcoholic since there isn't any correlation between the two issues. The claim of incest is entirely fictional since there isn't any historical evidence to back it up. Joan never said anything similar, nor did any eyewitnesses. Joan said she cherished two rings her father had given her (which an incest victim isn't likely to do), and the eyewitnesses were unanimous in agreeing that he was a decent and trusted neighbor whom the other villagers respected. While this may not prove him innocent, neither is there any evidence to suggest he was guilty. It is never a permissible procedure to invent charges of serious crimes against someone without any evidence to back it up.

Gage claims that Joan's family turned against her when she was seventeen, before she left the village, which doesn't correspond to anything that Joan or the eyewitnesses ever mentioned. The closest would be her father's statement that he feared she was planning to become a prostitute by getting involved with the army (since the only women who usually followed armies were either prostitutes or the mistresses or wives of soldiers), and he said to prevent such an occurrence it would be better to drown her; but treating this as a rift in her family would be ironic given that Joan herself opposed prostitutes to the point of sometimes hitting them with her sword to drive them away from the troops; hence she and her father had similar views on that subject.

The play's standard description claims Joan was a "runaway", which is misleading. Joan herself said she left home with her cousin's husband Durand Laxart (whom she called "uncle"), who took her to see Lord Robert de Baudricourt at Vaucouleurs in May 1428 and January 1429; and she said she sent a message to her parents to explain the situation and they forgave her. Her mother sent two of her brothers (Jehan and Pierre) to watch over her in the army. Joan's stated reason for leaving home was to obey a Divine command, which is not the normal circumstances for a "runaway", a term which implies rebellion against authority (which clearly seems to have been Gage's intention for choosing that term).

The play claims Joan suffered from anorexia by using fasting as a means of delaying puberty (based on the play's claim that she viewed puberty, marriage and childbearing as the beginning of a woman's problems), which mischaracterizes her practice of religious fasting while inventing a motive that she never described. Joan fasted frequently by eating only twice a day, similar to the standard Lenten requirement in that era and similar to the practice of many medieval saints. At no point did she condemn puberty nor childbearing nor marriage in any of her recorded statements, in fact she made statements that would seem to approve of marriage and child raising: e.g. she helped Heliote Poulvoir with her wedding arrangements by asking the city government of Tours to provide money, and she told Catherine de La Rochelle to "return to her husband, do her housework and feed her children" rather than trying to help out with the military campaigns.

Gage claims that Joan bore her mother's "maiden name", which she claims was "Romée", which is misleading on both counts. People in that era were almost always known by only a first name plus a nickname or place of origin, and Joan of Arc said at her trial that she was just called "Jehanne" or "Jhennette" ("little Joan" or "Joannie") in her home village of Domremy, and during her campaigns she always called herself "Jehanne la Pucelle" ("Joan the Maiden" or "Virgin") as her chosen nickname and she is usually described that way in the chronicle sources, government records, private letters, and so forth. When she was asked about her surname at her trial, she initially said she didn't know of any - because surnames were not used with any consistency in the 15th century - then she later said her surname was either "d'Arc" or "Rommée" while explaining that her region had a traditional local custom of often labeling girls after their mother's name. It can be debated whether "Rommée" was her mother's surname or rather a nickname, but it's unlikely to be classifiable as a "maiden name" since the closest thing her mother had to the latter seems to have been "de Vouthon" (which was also used by her relatives such as her cousin Nicholas de Vouthon). Women, including in Joan's village, were routinely known by a designation that included the name of their father or husband, as can be seen from the statements made by the Domremy villagers who testified at the appellate trial since they called some of the women in the village : "[name], the wife of [husband's name]" if that was needed to differentiate the woman from others who had the same personal name.

The play claims Joan was tortured during her trial, and then has Joan compare torture to "fat shaming", wearing a bra, making a woman "afraid of sex", ignoring women or interrupting them, etc. On the first point: several eyewitnesses said Joan was only threatened with torture, which the judge decided not to actually carry out. On the second point: asking us to believe that Joan of Arc would extend the definition of torture to include wearing a bra or being ignored is a tremendous stretch; and claiming she would link the issue to the disapproval of sex is even more of a stretch given her documented views on sex : eyewitnesses said she hated unwed mistresses and prostitutes enough to hit them with her sword in order to drive them away from the army's camp, and she constantly called herself "the virgin" because she said she took an oath of virginity.
Related to this is the play's claim that her English guards called her "fat" (presumably as a form of "torture"). English soldiers called her a "whore" and similar names, but not "fat" as far as we know. Fat-shaming would have been the very least of her worries in any event, and she was very unlikely to have struggled with obesity especially given her frequent fasting and the fact that she spent a year in prison on a minimal diet. Medieval women as a whole were not generally worried about getting fat due to a relatively poor diet for most of the population. The modern fashion industry's promotion of an extremely thin body type had no counterpart in that era.

There are many other, more minor errors, such as the claim that Joan's parents testified at the appellate trial (a claim made in the play's standard description). None of her immediate family members testified, but rather only her cousin's husband Durand Laxart. The surviving members of her immediate family (her mother Isabelle and her brothers Jehan and Pierre) were listed as the plaintiffs, and the rest had died by that point including her father. The witnesses (a total of 115) included twenty-two of the people from her home village or environs, including childhood friends; but her parents were not called as witnesses. Likewise Gage claims that Joan is the "most thoroughly documented figure of the fifteenth century", which is an exaggeration since the kings, dukes, and other government leaders are almost certainly better documented except perhaps in terms of their childhood (which may be better documented in Joan's case due to the appellate testimony of her childhood acquaintances).

In summary: the playwright's claim of presenting the "real history" drawn from eyewitness accounts is itself part of the fiction. There are of course many detailed eyewitness accounts of her life, not just in the appellate testimony but also in many private letters and other sources. Government records give us many details as well. This play, however, does not accurately represent the evidence and in many cases doesn't even make an attempt.

Homepage Academic News About Contact