Saint Joan of Arc (Sackville-West)

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Saint Joan of Arc is a biography of Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West first published in New York and London in 1936. The Grove Press (New York City) re-issue of 2001 runs to 395 pages including appendices which collate the events of Joan's life, present a chronological table and give a bibliography of related pre-1936 works.

Critical reception[edit]

Deeply and rightly as one mistrusts the historian who draws too freely on his imagination to fill in the details of the cold outline provided by official documents, there are occasions when it becomes only reasonable for him to do so.

— Vita Sackville-West, Saint Joan of Arc, pp. 66-67.[1]

Historians began to criticize this book shortly after its publication. One issue, as indicated in the quotation above, was that Ms. Sackville-West often created many details by engaging in personal speculation. This sometimes included subjects for which documented evidence does exist, but which the author either deliberately ignored or was unaware of. Sackville-West was a novelist rather than a historian, and may have been following the usual habit of novelists to invent plot elements while nonetheless presenting this book as a work of historical fact.

It seems inevitable that such an approach would elicit criticism especially when applied to a personage who is well-documented in historical sources. There are two matters in particular which seem to have sparked the most opposition.

The first issue is Ms. Sackville-West's suggestions with regard to Joan's sexuality, which include the implication (although never explicitly stated) that Joan may have been a lesbian.[2] Historians - and, somewhat paradoxically, Sackville-West herself - have pointed out that this claim was based on nothing more than the standard medieval practice of coping with limited bedspace by having guests share a bed with others of the same gender. Sackville-West herself points out in Chapter VI that Joan's occasional practice during her childhood of having sleepovers with a little girl named Hauviette was "a common custom, especially between girls who had made their first communion together".[3] But the author then cites a Latin translation of Hauviette's description of these sleepovers which Sackville-West claims is "curious" - as if it implies something less common - but without explaining why. Here again is an indirect implication of lesbian activity but without presenting any direct evidence.[4] Joan of Arc was also occasionally bunked with girls such as the nine-year-old child Charlotte Boucher and other girls or women.[5] But the eyewitnesses who mention such situations specify that Joan of Arc was chaste rather than sexually active, therefore any theory proposing a lesbian context to their statements would need to explain how they could be describing lesbian sex while simultaneously saying that Joan didn't have sex at all.[6] This is the case with Marguerite la Touroulde, whom Sackville-West claims had said that Joan had slept with her "on terms of considerable intimacy";[7] but historians have pointed out that Marguerite la Touroulde had actually said that Joan "was a virgin", and the practice of sleeping in the same bed was the routine custom.[8] Whatever Sackville-West may have meant by "intimacy" - a term which she doesn't elaborate on - an implication of sexual intimacy is not supported by the evidence, but in fact is contradicted by it.

The cross-dressing issue is another point which has provoked criticism or has been contradicted by historians. Although Sackville-West briefly touches upon the practical side of dressing as a soldier while traveling with soldiers through enemy territory,[9] on the other hand the book makes no mention of the other practical side of the issue covered by various historians, an issue which became the crucial context for the final stage of the trial : the need to prevent rape by tying the various parts of her outfit together with cords at the waist, attaching the long boots and underlying hosen to the doublet so they couldn't be pulled off by someone trying to rape her.[10] Joan was convicted of cross-dressing when she put this male clothing back on, but Sackville-West only mentions the issue of attempted rape briefly, and only in order to dismiss it.[11] Sackville-West mentions Martin Ladvenu's statement that Joan told him she had put this clothing back on after having "been raped" - historians have translated his words as "tried to rape" instead[12][13] - but then dismisses this account by bringing up the unrelated issue of whether Joan knew the Latin words of the "Pater Noster" and "Ave Maria".[14] The book also fails to mention other eyewitnesses who also said Joan had told them she was using this clothing to prevent rape, such as Guillaume Manchon, Pierre Cusquel, and Isambart de la Pierre.[15][16] Sackville-West does mention Jean Massieu's statement that the English guards had taken away her dress while giving her back the male clothing, then refused to allow her anything else.[17]

Another point of contention concerns the following statement by the author in reference to Joan: "I think it is not unfair to qualify her as unattractive".[18] This statement is based on testimony from several eyewitnesses to the effect that soldiers and other people with whom she spent much time, felt no carnal desire for her. However, these eyewitnesses also said that she was "beautiful and shapely", noting that they were surprised by a lack of desire for her, attributing this to the effect of Divine grace suppressing their normal impulses.[19] Ms. Sackville-West has therefore been criticized for glossing over this context in order to make an unsupportable claim.

Historians have rejected a number of other of the author's interpretations.

Such issues have led some critics to condemn the entire book outright. For example, Bonnie Wheeler of the International Joan of Arc Society and the author of a book about Joan, has stated that the book is "dead wrong".[20] And yet, as a whole, Ms. Sackville-West's treatment of her subject shows a great deal of sympathy and respect. In fact, even her harshest critics[who?] generally qualify the book as being one of the most readable treatments of the Joan of Arc story, as the author was a professional and successful novelist.


  1. ^ The quote occurs in a passage in which the author speculates about Joan of Arc's possible knowledge of Robert de Baudricourt before she met him at Vaucouleurs.
  2. ^ Although the allegation of being a lesbian is never directly made, the author certainly implies it at several points such as on pages 86-87. It could be noted that Sackville-West herself was an open lesbian, which has led some critics to question whether this factor may have influenced her decision to imply that Joan of Arc was also a lesbian, much as transgender activists have alleged that Joan was transgender for cross-dressing. For more information on this issue and the 15th century evidence, see the sources cited in: "Joan of Arc By Herself And Her Witnesses", pp. 40, 62-64 and "Primary Sources and Context Concerning Joan of Arc's Male Clothing".
  3. ^ Sackville-West, Vita. "Saint Joan of Arc", p. 86.
  4. ^ Sackville-West, pp. 86-87.
  5. ^ Sackville-West mentions Joan sleeping with Charlotte Boucher on p. 166, and with Marguerite La Touroulde on p. 101.
  6. ^ Pernoud, Regine. "Joan of Arc By Herself And Her Witnesses", pp. 40, 62-64.
  7. ^ Sackville-West, p. 101.
  8. ^ Oursel, Raymond. "Les Procès de Jeanne d'Arc" p. 284.
  9. ^ Sackville-West, p. 9. On this page, the author states that cross-dressing was "a measure necessary for a girl who proposed to ride in the company of six men for hundreds of miles over a countryside thick with soldiers".
  10. ^ A lengthy analysis of the issue of tying this clothing together to prevent a would-be rapist from pulling off her clothing can be found in : "Primary Sources and Context Concerning Joan of Arc's Male Clothing", pp. 1 - 11.
  11. ^ Sackville-West, p. 334.
  12. ^ Pernoud, Regine. "Joan of Arc By Herself And Her Witnesses", p. 220.
  13. ^ "Primary Sources and Context Concerning Joan of Arc's Male Clothing", p. 6.
  14. ^ Sackville-West, p. 334. 'Luckily, his incredible assertion that she "scarcely knew the paternoster and Ave Maria" robs his well-meaning evidence of half its value.'
  15. ^ Pernoud, Regine. "Joan of Arc By Herself And Her Witnesses", pp. 219 - 220.
  16. ^ "Primary Sources and Context Concerning Joan of Arc's Male Clothing", pp. 5 - 8.
  17. ^ Sackville-West, p. 334. 'She had been sleeping in her clothes, but one of the soldiers took them from her, emptied the sack containing the man's dress, threw it on to her bed, telling her meanwhile to get up, and stuffed the woman's dress into the sack in its place. Then, according to what she told Massieu, she was obliged to put on her old dress, but protested as she did so, saying, "Sirs, you know this is forbidden me; I cannot take it without falling into fault." But nothing that she could say would persuade them to restore the other, although she argued with them until noon..."
  18. ^ Sackville-West, Vita. "Saint Joan of Arc", p. 7.
  19. ^ Pernoud, Regine. "Joan of Arc By Herself And Her Witnesses", pp. 40, 63-64.
  20. ^ This comment by Wheeler is located online at: