Liberté, Virginité, Fraternité

Liberté, Virginité, Fraternité

Joan of Arc, head tilted back, getting her hair trimmed.
Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc in a still from the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc(1928), directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Slashers and Saints in The Passion of Joan of Arc

“Films that call to mind an author or historical period suggest that an atmosphere can seem to point outside itself, to connect a film to the world around it”—Robert Spadoni, “Carl Dreyer’s Corpse Horror Film Atmosphere and Narrative”


The story of Joan of Arc concludes much like any slasher film, with the spectacularized mutilation of a female body. Tracing along the requisites for mainstream horror, suspense in Joan’s story “is generated by an audience waiting for a woman to be torn apart . . . [an] act ‘morally’ prepared for—unconsciously sanctioned — by identifying her with illicit sex” (Rosenbaum, 1979). The unlikely symmetry between the pucelle and women of contemporary gore abrades at her dislocation to another time or place. It is this resonance that complicates the nature of the saint as a cultural figure, neither relic or myth, she is tightly imbricated with our moment in contradictory ways.

Joan is human suffering, gendered and neatly narrativized for the given teller. She is also an allegorical device, called upon by authors to wrangle with the past in the present. Joan is celebrated, and often championed as a timeless monolith for female heroism. Yet as the modern renderings of her biography persist, the breadth of her adaptations splay open new questions.

These films, plays, lyrics, and even paratext have created a “dialogic imagination”1 around the devout virgin, circling us towards larger inquiries on the nature of hauntings (Gordon, 1997). References to Joan invite us to contemplate the dense familiarity that her story endures, why her narrative has become so salient and malleable across time. Through the lens of horror analysis, we can look closer at the intersections between gendered murder, morality and illicit sexuality that compose her ghost story. The fundamental fixings of this french woman’s ending ecstatically reach out for us on a global and Western level. After each re-telling, Joan accrues fresh meaning for us to reckon with.


A nineteen-year-old woman raised in the peasant class of France, Joan of Arc testified in men’s clothing that she could speak to god. Her cross-dressing summoned outrage amongst male overseers that declared she had, “overturne[d] God’s law . . . violate[d] canons . . . offende[d] the female sex and its honor. . . [and] pervert[ed] all decency of outward attire” (Hobbins, 130).  Against the entropy of the Hundred Years’ war, Joan met charges of perdition, heresy, and a sentence to death, for claiming clandestine union with the divine. Self-evident within the pages of the original 1431 trial manuscript,2 each cross-examination probed the salience of this truth, and concomitantly challenged the validity of the pucelle’s celibacy.

While Joan’s abstinence symbolically represented a form of service to the church, it also failed to fix or immobilize her beneath the fifteenth-century hierarchy that organized patriarchal powers. Joan refused to bend for circumscribed female movement. Within the realm of Christian mysticism, she crossed gendered borderlines: led an army, wore men’s clothing, and spoke directly with others in higher rankings of class and power (Hobbins, 129-130). Yet it is understood that something unspoken in Joan’s actions challenged her papal authorities, outside of the realm of gender-bending.

Scholar Susan Schibanoff offers that perhaps “what threatened the patriarchal establishment about cross dressing was more complex than female usurpation of conventionally male power” (51). That “something” not explicitly mapped within primary documents was the desirability Joan failed to embody. This theme became central to her 1455 trial of rehabilitation,3 as it was the fear most notably “that the idol of masculinity [Joan] constitute[d] [had] rendered [men] effeminate, sexless, with respect both to her and to other women” (52). Actualized by her transvestism, Joan became a threat to heterosexual, male desire.

Divine virginity in the universe of occult Christianity provided a liminal space for women to exercise agency with authoritarianism. Joan of Arc relied on the gendered signifier ‘virgin’ to transcend her social confines and appropriate other-worldly qualities. At the same time, the young maid threatened to adulterate a fixed framework of female desirability with her androgyny. Working off of Schibanoff’s scholarship, I would offer that Joan’s deepest sin was not heresy, but instead the destabilizing of rhetorical devices that arranged medieval, patriarchal, male desire (Schibanoff, 54). Debris of anecdotal testimonies in her rehabilitation trial prove this notion as almost self evident. One male after the other insisted on the tolls that Joan’s presence took on their libidos with statements such as that from Gobert Thibault, who explained that when “talking among themselves about the sins of the flesh” if “they saw her and drew near to her, they could not speak like this anymore. Suddenly, their sexual feelings were checked” (Schibanoff, 51-52).

Judicial adversaries lambasted Joan not simply for heresy but for the nature of her failures: “shedding, wholly forsaking the decency and reserve of her sex, utterly without modesty and shamelessly having taken the disgraceful clothing and state of armed men” (Hobbins, 124). Often overlooked in scholarship is the central role that sexual stratification played in Joan’s witch hunt and official reclamation proceedings. (Schibanoff, 50-53).

Fifteenth-century papal authorities attempted to stabilize their social order by publicly burning Joan of Arc’s body and transcribing their event in a selection of original manuscripts (Hobbins, 2005). Primary source texts,4 excavated by medievalists like Hobbins and Schibanoff, tell a story of retributive reproach and the sexual interrogation of an actively gendered body. As Jonathan Rosenbaum offers, if violent alterations of the sexualized figure perhaps gesture towards a social panic, and an attempt at “unconsciously sanctioning” the punishment of illicit sexuality, then we might think about the ways in which Joan’s abstinence and lack of desirability fits into this idea.

Slashers and Saints

In the filmic universe of slasher films, fate circumscribes the mutilation of sexually active characters. Opening scenes of backseat-teen libido portend castration, gauging, and disembowelment for small-town victims, with a subtext of stratification that articulates itself against the killings of hormonal young couples in conservative spaces. Moments of extreme violence in horror films map an omnipresent threat to lust that atmospherically lurks against bodies with little explanation.5 This is made most explicit in films like Halloween (1976) or its later spin-off It Follows (2015), for instance. With bloody, campy parody, the monsters of horror film function as extensions of sexual stratification, and target those who transgress against heteronormative standards of respectability.6

Classic horror, if nothing else, hints at the trope of ‘unconsciously sanctioned violence’ and its relationship to systems of morality. The genre asks its viewers to engage with the dissonance between purge and purification, and to look closer at the ways in which this trope fuses narratives of world-making, of ordering social bodies, and binds stories like Joan’s together.


If, as many horror and film scholars offer, the body acts as the site-for-metaphor,7 we must look closer at the poetics of Joan’s bodily persecution and the resurrection. The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film adaptation of Joan’s story, decontextualizes Joan-as-person in lieu of presenting Joan-as-prisoner.. Spectators, are thrown, in media res, through a torrent of questions, trying to assemble cause and meaning to the scene of arraignment in which the film opens. The director re-structures the Joan’s biography and brings her murder to the center instead of the end of the conclusion of her narrative.

In her analysis of the pucelle, Françoise Meltzer argues that the reason to study Joan “is to reconsider the various metaphysical conundrums motivated by [her] story [and its re-tellings.] Why, for example, was virginity such a central concern for her; what was it about female virginity that gave Joan a special status? Why was her virginity probably essential for her to succeed?” (7). These are the questions we should be asking, much, much louder, particularly when considering the span of Joan of Arc adaptations in the present. And as Meltzer calls to our attention,

“Each artistic rendition of Joan . . . is yet another fresco in the Imaginary (in Lacan’s sense) of the West and yet another attempt to reconcile the variants on patriarchal hegemony with the notions on femininity such a hegemony has generated” (6).

Much like a horror film, The Passion of Joan of Arc focuses on the enfreakment and disfiguring of the female body when it threatens to unravel dominant systems of moral meaning. At the start of Dreyer’s film, viewers are greeted with a female captor whose gaze is at times emptied but often emboldened. The Passion of Joan of Arc is narrative cinema that asserts verité and visual emphasis on actress Renee Falconetti’s form. The camera fixes on an unkempt, gritty realism, stripped of makeup, while the dramaturgy of Joan is weighted by the young actress’s body, hyperbolically reactive to the male authorities in the courtroom.

Just as the original Hobbins manuscript fixed constantly on Joan’s clothing, features, and form, Dreyer’s visual text maintains a stylistic emphasis on the corporeality of Falconetti. Explained in the opening shot of his film, the director based his adaption on the French trial manuscripts, grating against the divide between narrative and documentary.


We can use scholarship around slasher themes to examine not only what “morally” sanctioned the historical burning of Joan’s body in the fifteenth century, but also question what forces stirred Dreyer to adopt her story much later in a modern context. Often the cultural desire to revisit discussions will birth ‘remakes’ of a theme, a trend, or a film,  and the tropes they recycle. The specificity of the 1928 release of the The Passion of Joan of Arc wedged the film between two seismic, global wars. Dreyer intimates that his viewers should look closer at the relationship between sexual persecution and animated nationalism, offering Joan’s story as guide.

The 1928 film brings into relief a story of female stratification and male ardor. Often occluded by discussions of the transgressive aspects of Joan’s cross-dressing,8 it is important to explore the central component of her desirability in the retrial (Schibanoff, 50-55). In reality, the maid’s sexual persecution was deep-toned and poetically foreshadowed trends faced by women in French modernity.

Dreyer’s Joan is not the solicitous teen of the slasher film. However, the emphasis placed on the nineteen year old’s sex-appeal in both the original trial manuscript and adapted 1928 script,9 highlighted how Joan’s embodiment was fastened against male frameworks of desire. The young maid represented an alternate form of illicit sexuality within the universe of patriarchal Christianity. She was both iconoclast and virgin.

Papal anxiety around Joan’s sexual status point to the central role that bodily stratification played in buttressing medieval systems of order. Joan depicted a dialectical dissonance of commitment and transgression. She actively transmuted patriarchal signifiers for woman, and enacted a militaristic virility outside of predetermined orders for feminized social roles. As we dive deeper into the modified retellings of Joan’s life, we find that she has become not simply a symbol of female power, but also a vehicle for diverse discussions around female sexuality, social surveillance, and gendered nationalism, among others. The question that continues to persist however, asks us to consider what other conclusions we might extract from Joan’s ghost and the nature of its resurrections.

“When we were in [Joan’s] company we had no wish or desire to approach or have intercourse with women”— Jean Dunois in Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc (Edited by: Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood)

Potency, Purity, and Warfare in Dialogic Imaginations

The pucelle’s persecution portentously looms against the past, present, and future of French history. Joan’s biography refuses to die, and the story of her life has in turn become a polysemic text, and a landscape for various thematic negotiations around depictions of gender and embodiment.

Within the contextual creases of combat and nationalism, the stratification of the female form has taken on concomitant urgencies. This phenomenon stretches over centuries well into the contemporary moment. We must use Joan’s story to focus in on the “fundamentally social modes in which [her] discourse lives . . . its dialogic orientation” (Bakhtin, 1981) and the ways that later adaptations of Joan’s life echo, foreshadow, and stretch to negotiate with one another. We might think about the myriad ways in which the Dauphin for instance, has been feminized in early and post canonizations, as Susan Schibanoff points out. Or, we might investigate why his relationship with Joan was sexualized in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. These intertextual dialogues can help us excavate patterns between histories otherwise left buried. The retellings of Joan’s biography conjure redundant anxieties around virility and gender—like ghosts—demonstrating how we place our heroines against the idea of sex or sexual metaphor in the process of remembering.


Historiographies of nineteenth century French history celebrate the Code Napoleon as the caustic moment of monarchical deterioration. It is also claimed to have birthed a new sect of French democratic reform. Having eradicated primogeniture,10 hereditary nobility, and class privileges for male citizens (Smith, 1989), the Code ushered a profound shift in social consciousness. With the same gesture, this new order heavily leashed women’s movements to domestic and brothel spheres—both in service of male sexualities (Joseph Martin, 2011)(S. Ulrich, 1919).

Wartime population recession aroused particular anxieties about male potency in France.  (Mansker, 194). With closer readings of primary medical and divorce journals of the nineteenth century, scholar Andrea Mansker gleaned how the “fears of [French] national decline were expressed through the biomedical framework of degeneration. Medical journals tended to dwell on male sexual dysfunction and its consequences for the country’s population strength, leading men to internalize concerns about their own sexual prowess on the private and political stages” (196).

Nationalism under Napoleon engendered a collectivist attitude towards social reform. With men encouraged to exercise their virility for the republic, the Code opened a new wave of androcentrism. Mansker explains that: “Potency served as the principle metaphor for male public and private power . . . Conceptualizing the honor code as an axis that linked the male citizen’s public and familial duties” (196). Transnational, suffragist texts like Alice Stone Blackwell’s “A Dangerous Legislation,” reveal that this new sexual, male order weighed heavily upon many women’s minds at the turn of the nineteenth century.

A spread of venereal disease began to climb with the industrialization of France. In this crisis, many women found an adumbrated utility and  “Work[ed] to undermine . . . male potency as the foundation for suffrage” (194). First-wave feminists campaigned to restratify male sexuality, in order to abate the ever-growing threat of contamination. Women in other words, leveraged their political aims through the propagation of conservative gender roles.

The maternal metaphor galvanized in this process. Essential maternity measured a woman’s call to duty, and held itself up like a mirror towards the French man’s neglect (Mansker, 186). This continued, flaring up amidst the First and Second World Wars. The year 1928 was a time when French legislature and popular feminists had vigorously negotiated the utility of the reproductive female body. It was here that Theodor Dreyer’s rendering of Joan circulated.

French population expansion had functioned as metaphor for national health throughout the first decades of the twentieth century.11.With a death toll of approximately 1.4 million in the first World War, the fertile female became interchangeable with the idea of national restoration for many suffragists (Breton).  On a cultural and legal level, francophone women were expected to marry and serve the nation through rearing children. Smaller sects of anarchist feminists challenged essential maternity. Yet poplar suffragist dialogue fervidly condemned sexualities that existed outside of the familial framework, or were not tailored towards population expansion.12 In 1943, Marie-Louise Giraud was charged for committing crimes against French state security after conducting myriad abortions for women under Vichy occupation. Her guillotine sentence demonstrated the apex of this cultural anxiety, where a woman could be charged for treason if she challenged the prescribed sex roles for women.

When we think about the reception of Dreyer’s film in the past and in the present, it is important to factor the potential histories that it conjures. The timely rendering of Joan of Arc’s persecution in 1928 not only straddled two periods of electrified anti-abortion legislation, but also sat between the two world wars. Through adapting the nineteen-year-old’s story, Dreyer opened diffuse dialogues around the historical enfreakment13 of female sexuality with a film that centers on the bodily persecution of a devout virgin. His film acts as a vehicle for larger discussions around the threat of female otherness, how it is constructed against nationalism, and what types of spaces it may occupy.


The pucelle’s legacy moves across histories like a plangent and longing sort of echo. This resonance ushers us to contemplate the meaning of female agency when it is written in male histories, and calls to our attention the ossification of womanhood in the patriarchal social body. The oversimplified mythology of Joan-as-heroine fails to recognize the ways that Western histories gender, sexualize, and narrativize forms of sacrifice. This casting of female form and meaning can seep into a culture’s production of motherhood, of sexualities, and the limitations it places around women’s subjecthood.

Social Anthropologist Tom Gunning argues that the female form acts as “uncanny photo mat . . . [for] . . .  spirit images . . . manifestations as representations of something otherwise unseen” (58). Appealing to the camera in order to emphasize the flesh of his female protagonist, Dreyer cues his viewers towards what Gunning might offer as a potential spectral reading.

Joan resigned herself to the company of a dissident, masculinized god, (explicitly gendered in Dreyer’s script) and refused to sexually engage with any man. Dreyer called upon Joan’s narrative against the backdrop of wartime, sexual codification, dramatizing the maid’s trial over combat. Instead of simply focusing on the transgressive nature of Joan’s achievements, he navigates a story of confinement through visual and thematic cues. Dreyer ultimately invites a discussion around what happens to bodies and their legacies under paternal codes, mores, and gendered metaphor.14 The Passion of Joan of Arc pushes us to engage with the fictions of our worlds and how they are mediated by notions of purity and of purging much like horror films.


Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination Four Essays. University of Texas Press, 1981. 269-434.

Beevor, Antony. “An Ugly Carnival: How Thousands of French Women Were Treated after D-day.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 04 June 2009.

Blackwell, Alice Stone and Mabel S. Ulrich, “As to ‘Dangerous Legislation,” The Woman Citizen, Vol. 3. 1918.

Blaetz, Robin. “Joan of Arc between the Wars,” “Joan of Arc Saved France, Women of America Save Your Country’: Cecil B. Demille’s Joan the Woman, 1916” Visions of the Maid: Joan of Arc in American Film and Culture, University of Virginia Press, 200. 81–94, 47-64.

Breton, Mathilde. “40 Years On The Struggle For Abortion Rights.” Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres. 2015.

Doolittle, Hilda. “Joan of Arc.” Rev. Close Up 3.1, September 1928.

Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters. Minnesota Press, 1997.

Gunning, Tom. “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theater, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny.” Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. 42-71.

Guðmundsdottir, Arnfrìður. “Joan As Jesus: A Feminist Theological Analysis of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology, Volume 55, Number 4,  Winter 2016.

Lepselter, Susan Claudia. The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny. University of Michigan Press, 2016.

Hobbins, Daniel. The Trial of Joan of Arc. Harvard University Press, 2007.

Kerchy, Anna, and Andrea Zittlau. Exploring the Cultural History of Continental European Freak Shows and ‘enfreakment’ Newcastle upon Tyne. Cambridge Scholars Pub., 2012. Print.

Mansker, Andrea. “Sexual Citizenship and the Political Culture of Shame in Women’s Movement.” Sex, Honor, and Citizenship in Early Third Republic France. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Martin, Brian Joseph. Napoleonic Friendship: Military, Fraternity, Intimacy, and Sexuality in Nineteenth Century France. University of New Hampshire Press, 2011.

McCabe, Susan. “Close Up & Wars They Saw: From Visual Erotics to a Transferential Politics of Film.” The Space Between VIII.1 (2012): 11-35.

Meltzer, Francoise. For Fear of The Fire: Joan of Arc and the Limits of Subjectivity. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Schibanoff, Susan.  “True Lies: Adultery and Transvestism in The Trial of Joan of Arc.” Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, ed. Bonnie Wheeles and Charles T. Wood. Garland Publishing: New York. 1996.

Shaviro, Steven. “Bodies of Fear.” The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993. 127-58.

Smith, Bonnie C. Changing Lives:Women in European History Since 1700. 1989. 120—122.

Smith, Shawn Michelle. “Afterimages Abu Ghraib.” At the Edge of Sight, Duke University Press, 2013.

Sobchack, Vivien. Screening Space. Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Spadoni, Robert. “Carl Dreyer’s Corpse Horror Film Atmosphere and Narrative.” A Companion to the Horror Film, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2014, 151-167.

Wheeler, Bonnie and Wood, Charles T. Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, Garland Publishing Inc, 1996.

White, Armond. “Dreyer: Bergman’s Bergman.” Film Comment, Vol. 25, No. 3, Film Society of Lincoln Center, 1989, 24-26.

  1. “The Dialogic Imagination” was first referred to by the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his work on literary theory in “The Dialogic Imagination.” In this text, Bakhtin argues that we should think about the ways in which adaptations of stories communicate with one another, not simply through a monologic framework but through a constant and continual dialogue. For more on this subject refer to Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. University of Texas Press, 1981. 269-434.
  2. In 2005, the modern English translation of the 1431 original trial of Joan of Arc by Daniel Hobbins was first published. Based off of Pierre Champion’s Latin text, Proces de condamnation de Jeanne d’Arc, vol. 1 (Paris, 1921), it was taken from an edition of the French translation of the trial argued by Hobbins to have been written in 1431. Two much later copies of the original French survive, along with three remaining Latin copies.
  3. For more primary source testimonies from the rehabilitation trial see Susan Schibanoff’s text “True Lies: Adultery and Transvestism in The Trial of Joan of Arc” from Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, ed. Bonnie Wheeles and Charles T. Wood. Garland Publishing: New York. 1996.
  4. Daniel Hobbins, The Trial of Joan of Arc, First Harvard University Press. 2005. (Translated text of 1431 original Manuscript and 1455 Trial of Rehabilitation).
  5. For more on the topic of atmosphere and horror cinema see Robert Spadoni’s text: “Carl Dreyer’s Corpse: Horror Film Atmosphere and Narrative” in Harry Benshoff (ed.) A Companion to the Horror Film, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2014. 151–167.
  6.  This theme is explored in an array of horror cinema scholarship and gender film studies scholarship on horror. For more explorations on this topic, see authors such as Carol Clover, Linda Williams, and Steven Shaviro.
  7. For more on the topic of atmosphere and horror cinema see Robert Spadoni’s text: “Carl Dreyer’s Corpse: Horror Film Atmosphere and Narrative” in Harry Benshoff (ed.) A Companion to the Horror Film, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 201. 151–167.
  8. See scholarship from Susan Schibanoff and Arnfríður Guðmundsdottir.
  9. Important to note, in adapting the story of Joan of Arc for the film, Carl Theodor Dreyer referred directly to the 1431 original trial manuscript over other written accounts of Joan’s biography.
  10. the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child, especially the feudal rule by which the whole real estate of an intestate passed to the eldest son.
  11. In 1902, a premium for birth rates was passed by the French government, with ten francs for a daughter, twenty francs for a boy. Later, in 1920, a law was passed that suppressed circulation of abortifacient and abortion clinic information. In 1923, legislation was instituted that criminalized the exchange of this information with threat of prison penalties. In 1939, the Vichy government established a “pro-family policy” that “awarded mothers with medals” and declared abortions, crimes against the republic (Breton).
  12. When I refer to “popular” French feminism in the context of this paper, I am referring to the more “moderate” sects of feminist and suffragist discourse that centered their platforms on education and disenfranchisement versus women like David-Neel who incorporated anarchy and drastic political reform into their feminist agendas.
  13. David Hevey argued that the disabled body “spoke to the abled body fear of millions” (Kerchy and Zittlau, 151). Hevey applied this concept to his examination of Diane Arbus’s work, whose photographs centered around dwarfs, giants, transgendered peoples/ transexuals, and circus performers in the early 20th century. His thesis argued that Arbus’s photographs “created a gap between the normal and abnormal body, a gap he then calls enfreakment referring to a construction of deformity that confirms the collected identity of its (non-disabled) audience” (Kerchy and Zittlau, 151). By dramatizing through retributive spectacle, the ways in which a body transgresses the norm, I would offer that this process is in form a mode of enfreakment, and thus call upon Hevey’s analysis. For more on this subject see Kerchy and Zittlau’s text, Exploring the Cultural History of Continental European Freak Shows and “Enfreakment,” 2012, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  14. For more on the relationship between maternal metaphor as extension and vehicle for patriarchal ideology see Virginie Despentes’s text King Kong Theory, 2010, Feminist Press, 23-27.
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