CLIO mr brice - page 43

not only are medical diagnoses across half a millennium
impossible to substantiate without physical evidence
(and, of course, even physical evidence wouldn’t help in
the case of a psychiatric disorder), but they risk failing
to take into account the entirely different landscape
of belief in which Joan and her contemporaries lived.
People in the fifteenth century knew that it was entirely
possible for angels and demons to speak to people of
completely sound mind. Where we look for scientific
explanations of unusual sensory experiences, they
looked to God and the devil. So mental illness is one
possible explanation of the experiences of Joan and the
many other men and women who heard voices and saw
visions in medieval Europe, but it’s not the only one
– and it doesn’t help us understand the way in which
contemporaries interpreted their experiences.
Why was cross-dressing such an important issue at
that time?
The way people dressed was an outward manifestation
of the order of God’s creation. So – as it said in the Old
Testament book of Deuteronomy – a woman in men’s
clothing was ‘an abomination unto the Lord’. Joan
initially seems to have dressed as a man as a practical
measure – for ease and safety when she rode 250 miles
across country from her home village to the royal court
at Chinon with six men-at-arms for an escort – but by
the time she arrived it seems that, for her, her clothes
had become part of her mission. Her supporters sought
to justify her cross-dressing as a manifestation of the
exceptional role for which God had sent her, but for her
enemies it was always a sign of her unnatural sinfulness,
not least because she was never trying to disguise herself
as a man, as several female saints had done. She was
always evidently a girl - ‘The Maid’, as she called herself -
dressed as a boy.
Would the French still have won without Joan?
The first thing to say is that, during Joan’s lifetime,
‘the French’ was not a simple term to use. France was
divided on itself by a brutal civil war, and by the 1420s
one side, the Burgundians, had allied themselves with
the invading English against the side Joan supported,
who were known as the Armagnacs. The Burgundians
and the Armagnacs each claimed to be ‘the French’
and called the other ‘the false French’ – so there is an
alternative history, had things gone differently, in which
France might have ended up ruled by the English or
divided into two separate states. Historians will argue
for ever about the significance of Joan’s intervention
in 1429, but certainly her victory at Orléans and her
success in leading the Dauphin to his coronation as
King Charles VII at Reims had a powerful effect on
the Armagnacs’ military position and on their self-
belief. And Joan’s eventual canonisation in 1920 raises
important questions about the nature of faith and how
we interpret cause and effect: did her king win the war
because she came from God, or did she come from God
because he won the war?
By Polly Holmes
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