When I was a little girl, one of things I wanted to be when I grew up was a Knight. Over years, I’d taken up knightly sports like fencing, kendo, archery, horseback riding, etc. Whenever I’d get scared, I’d hold tight to whatever practice sword I had handy (foil, shinai, or bokken), sometimes going to sleep that way. It was part of why I chose this name, as is the knightess I’m going to be sharing with you today as one of my sources of strength and courage on this healing journey.
Lots of women out there know and like St. Jeanne (aka Joan of Arc), whether they think she’s a saint or not. With her cropped hair, armor, and sword, it’s easy to see how she’s a symbol of feminine strength, her canonization occurring shortly after women were granted the right to vote. As a fun fact, many women at the time cut their hair short into the 1920’s trademark bob in imitation of her. Since then (and maybe beforehand) she has been recognized in the Church as the patroness of women, soldiers, martyrs, captives/POWs…and also rape victims.
“Wait…rape victims?” Yes, rape victims.
To learn why, we have to go back in time again, this time to 15th century France.
Jeanne d’Arc was a humble girl who lived in a small village called Domremy with her older sister, mother, and father. She never learned to read, never received much (if any) schooling, but her childhood was anything but boring; English invaders would come and attack her village every now and then, setting fire to houses, and making all kinds of trouble. A movie retelling her story, The Messenger, shows her sister being murdered and raped right in front of little Jeanne during one such attacks, but like other things, this was a creative liberty. Still, it can’t have been easy for her, seeing so much fire and violence at a young age.
In spite of all this, she was always a very devout child, consecrating her virginity to God like St. Dymphna. She was also said to communicate openly with St. Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret of Antioch in prayer. When she was 13, she was charged by these saints to help against the English invasion of France, and help the Dauphin Charles VII be crowned king in Reims. Some dismiss this as schizophrenia and/or mere legend. Even if it was, just means a mentally-ill, illiterate, teenage peasant girl accomplished more than men (and women) in higher places did; more props to her.
What happens in the three years between then and accepting this duty is a bit of a mystery, but I’d imagine she’d physically and spiritually prepared herself for the task. When she was 16, she left behind her family and home, albeit reluctantly: she was recorded to have said, “Although I would rather have remained spinning [wool] at my mother’s side…yet must I go and must I do this thing, for my Lord wills that I do so.”
From graces she received from the saints, she predicted the location and outcome of battles, gaining the garrison commander’s trust and respect, eventually leading her to traveling across enemy territory to the royal court. Following the advice of her companions, she cut her long hair and took on the clothes of a male soldier, and this is how she appeared when the court received her. She soon had support from the crown, and now equipped with armor, a horse, a sword, and a banner, she rode onto the battlefield. She’d suffer wounds, famously from arrows or crossbow bolts, but while being known to have a bit of a feisty spirit, she still kept her gentle nature, preferring to carry her banner over her sword “40 times” more.
Throughout her service, and in spite of her aid and inspiration, there was a lot of back-and-forth on whether Jeanne’s visions and help on the field were from heaven or hell, from her friends and enemies both. She would be kept out of certain meetings, submitted to examinations of her character and spirituality, and of course, eventually be executed by fire as a witch and a heretic when she was sold to the English by Burgundians. In all this suspicion and confusion, Jeanne just did her best to do what she was tasked to do, and to be truthful and honest in all things. This steadfast honesty and virtue was eventually rewarded; as her life and death was carefully examined by both Church and state, she was rightly declared innocent, and almost 500 years following her death, she was canonized a saint in 1920.
“Okay, this was all interesting, but just how is she a patroness to rape victims?”
Well, the primary reason for St. Jeanne to wear men clothes in the first place was to avoid being raped and/or molested. She had to wear it especially when she was in the hands of the English; she wore a dress when men’s clothes were not necessary, including much of her imprisonment and trials. While in prison though, an English Lord attempted to rape her one night, causing her to wear men’s clothes again to protect herself from further attacks (which of course was another count against her as a “heresy,” though her dress being stolen by the guards, she was left with nothing else to wear but the men’s clothes).
Additionally, among the many examinations she had to endure, she even suffered the humiliation of being checked whether or not she was a virgin, as she told them she consecrated her virginity. The Messenger portrayed the scene as a matronly woman going behind a strategically placed curtain surrounding St. Jeanne from the waist down, and from there, checked her body to look for an intact hymen, all while in the presence of the French royal court. I can’t say if this is creative liberty again, as I read another account where it was the English who examined her, and another that says that she was examined “at least twice”. Like all the other violations on her person, I’d say she felt as embarrassed, scared, and hurt as I and other victims/survivors felt when submitting to a sexual assault examination.
Some girls do end up preferring pants and boyish clothes to hide and protect themselves like St. Jeanne had to. I would sometimes feel tempted to detach myself from my sex, and conversely, apart from things like skirts and flowers making me feel pretty (for once), I’d use them to hide my figure. No matter the length or style, I feel so exposed in pants, as everyone can see the shape of my legs that my abusers lusted after, that my mother condemned as very unattractive (like everything else I allegedly got from my father’s, European side). It’s a very sad and frightening thing for me when I’d still get the lewd glances and comments in spite of my modest clothes and manners (most often by middle-aged or elderly men, and often under the impression that I was a teenager).
I also had to do a sexual assault examination for the police, even though it was at least 10 years since I was last raped (to my knowledge). There are some out there who had to endure similar examinations, and would thus know how traumatizing they can be. It was also in my examination that I found out I was left intact. When I expressed my shock and confusion (as I’ll admit, I made deliberate efforts to “break” myself), the examiner let me know that this was actually very common, saying that she’d even examined intact pregnant girls. Conversely, I’ve learned from personal study that one’s intactness could be compromised with simple, innocent things like horseback riding, which St. Jeanne did a lot. Sometimes I wondered if she did pass every one of those humiliating, invasive, and altogether useless “virginity tests”…but then, I think that’s more her business than mine.
In My Peace I Give You, Dawn described how she’d searched long and hard for a saint/martyr of chastity who actually was raped rather than the failed attempts that St. Jeanne, St. Dymphna, and others had suffered. The reason for this is the common belief that those saints are only called saints/martyrs of chastity because they didn’t lose their virginity. As Dawn writes, St. Augustine decried this belief, and his “teaching on virgin martyrs remains the doctrine of the Church: a virgin who was raped before being martyred is still considered a martyr of chastity.” (p32, Introduction) In the end though, she decided that it would be somewhat intrusive to learn whether or not a saint was raped, not unlike how I just decided that I didn’t need to know if St. Jeanne passed her “virginity tests”.
In many ways, St. Jeanne was an ordinary girl who did many extraordinary things. She can very much be a role model to us, like St. Dymphna and other saints I’m going to share who’s helped me on this journey. She reminds us to not be afraid to take the sometimes frightening and difficult road towards healing, for as she once said “j’ai Dieu, mon Seigneur,” [we] have God, [our] Lord.
Through her intercession and example, we too can say, “C’est pour cela que je suis née,” “I was born for this.”
St. Jeanne d’Arc, pray for us.