Thinking about the name Chicks With Crossbows, the first image that came to mind was a heroine that was some sort of a hybrid between stock characters in video games, fantasy novels, and action movies. I also thought of my mom who would occasionally do target practice in our backyard with her crossbow. Yes, you read that correctly. My mom would go into our backyard and shoot arrows at a target using her crossbow. It was pretty bad ass.
But when I tried to think of historical records of women using crossbows, I couldn’t think of one. Historically crossbows were used in war and wars were fought by men. Women did not typically go into battle because that was considered men’s domain. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any women who fought alongside men.
During the Siege of Orleans in 1428 Jeanne d’Arc – also known as Joan of Arc – was hit by an arrow fired by a crossbow. Crossbows are a fascinating weapon and, if Hollywood has it right, it looks like a horrible way to die if you’re hit in a vulnerable spot. Jeanne d’Arc was hit in the leg and that’s not so bad, I suppose, but it probably doesn’t make for a very successful day on the battlefield. Well, to be forthright, it’s not known beyond the shadow of a doubt that the arrow was shot by a crossbow, but that was the weapon of choice for many warriors on both the British and French sides, so we can surmise it was a crossbow that did the damage.
But it’s not the crossbow that I want to focus on, but Joan of Arc and her crime of cross-dressing. It’s probably no surprise that she wasn’t wearing a dress while in battle. It would have made her more physically vulnerable to weaponry and she would have been a much easier target for the English. But the fact that she wore men’s clothing became a central aspect of her trial because there were laws against that sort of deviant behavior. And those laws were supported by Biblical scripture.
Relying on Deuteronomy 22:5 – “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God” – those overseeing her trial built a case against the 19-year old that was grounded in Christian dogma. Of course, the clothing that men and women wore had changed dramatically since the book of Deuteronomy was written, but such trifles were not to be bothered with.
Jeanne also wore men’s clothing while imprisoned by the English, an act that was viewed as not only sinful, but arrogant as well. The Chief prosecutor of her case, Pierre Cauchon, built much of his case around her violation of gender roles that had established women as modest and passive.
But Jeanne was not foolish; she utilized Christian dogma to support her donning of male garments. In the court record she stated that, “I believe this seems strange to you, and not without cause; but since I must arm myself and serve the gentle Dauphin in war, it is necessary for me to wear these clothes, and also when I am among men in the habit of men, they have no carnal desire for me; and it seems to me that thus I can better preserve my purity in thought and deed.” It has been speculated that Jeanne d’Arc was sexually assaulted while a prisoner of the British and that her clothing defiance was an attempt to protect herself. Regardless of her motivation, it was this perceived act of defiance that her enemies used as one of the reasons to sentence her to death when she was only 19 years old.
For more information on Jeanne d’Arc, including the transcript of her trial, please visit http://primary-sources-series.joan-of-arc-studies.org/PSS021806.pdf