Joan of Arc vs. John of Arc: Because Joan was the fairer sex

By Raymond Hinds

An illustration of Joan of Arc, book plate in Twain's novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)

An illustration of Joan of Arc, book plate in Twain’s novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)

There are many mysteries that surround the legend of Joan of Arc, but one thing can be agreed upon by all who tell her story – she was a woman in a male-dominated world. Mark Twain attempted to put his own spin on the tale in his ninth, and self-admittedly, best novel to date. Even though he based his novel of the true story of Joan of Arc, Twain’s narrative was highly fictionalized. For his novel Twain invents a character—Joan’s childhood friend—who was present before her visions until she stood trial and suffered her unjust demise (Twain, introduction). This character serves Joan’s story by bringing Twain’s reader closer to, and creating more sympathy for, our heroine as the story unfolds.

When she is first overheard speaking to the voices by the narrator in Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Joan laments that she is a woman and wonders how she will be able to converse with men, and soldiers to boot! She feels that she would be given over to insult, she would ruin her reputation, and be submitted to rudeness and scorn (Twain, 27).

The sense of right and wrong, as far as the two sexes were concerned, was so strong that when our heroine finally shares God’s purpose for her with her confidants and family, her father is beside himself with rage and embarrassment. He states that he has dreamt of her calling on prior occasions, and that he would insist that her brothers drown her, or himself should they fail, if she were to unsex herself by going away with the armies (Twain, 32).

The line that separated the dress and manner of men with those of women was not to be blurred or be cause for confusion, and so Joan of Arc, in the novel, went so far as to receive the church’s dispensation to dress like a man (wear armor) and do men’s work (wield a sword). This was the unsexing that her father was afraid of. The dispensation did nothing to release her from culpability in the end, as one of the crimes that she was sentenced to death for was that of wearing the trappings of a man (Twain, 176). The Burgundian priest at her trial even asked her, “[d]o you think you would have sinned if you had taken the dress of your sex?” (Twain, 191).

One of the many things that Joan had to endure because of her sex was the test to ensure that she was still a virgin (Blaetz, 5). She could not have been the Maid of Orleans if she were not a maid after all. The same could not be said of the male soldiers of the time– a double standard that Twain highlights in his novel. Shortly after Joan’s initial meeting with La Hire, she proclaimed that all of the soiled doves in the military camp must leave at once and not a one was to remain (Twain, 73). Though this scene points to a double standard that Joan was well aware of, it also demonstrated how Joan was conscious of keeping her honor and reputation intact. She was still a Maid despite being in the disreputable company of less honorable men.

As James Freedman points out, much like Jesus Christ in the Gospels, there are not any descriptions of Joan’s physical attributes, but over time she has become easily recognizable by many people around the world and in America especially because her iconography has been disseminated in mass media. Similar to the Jesus painting that was on my Sunday school wall while growing up (that of a fair-skinned, green-eyed, light-haired Caucasian) Joan was also drawn by artists in ways that typically emphasized her femininity: as a physically attractive young woman who was, at the same time, courageous, undaunted, and fearless in the face of danger (Freedman, 616).

There are many things in the story of Joan of Arc, regardless who is telling the story, that are compelling precisely because she was Joan of Arc and not John of Arc. If she had been a man, there would have been no negative connotations about displaying characteristics of honorable masculinity, and obviously no concerns about his clothing, weapons, ability to lead armies, or the many qualities that made one nation kill and then immortalize her and the church condemn her for heresy and then canonize her.

The fact that Twain published this in 1896, at the tail-end of the ‘Gilded Age,’ a term he coined for an era in which Twain saw America rotten to its core as it displayed the trappings of wealth and goodness on the outside. Did America need a new hero, or heroine, to battle against the robber barons of industry and uphold her honor and her good name? Maybe so. Mayhap he longed for a Joan of Arc to answer America’s call much like she answered France’s almost five centuries earlier.


Blaetz, Robin. Visions of the Maid: Joan of Arc in American Film and Literature. Charlottesville, 2001.

Freeman, John. “Joan of Arc: Soldier, Saint, Symbol — of What?” Journal of Popular Culture 41, no. 4 ( 2008): 601-634.

Twain, Mark. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Moorside Press, 2013.