Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, August 28, 2009

Guest Author Blythe Gifford on Cross Dressing in the Middle Ages

Please join me in welcoming guest author, Blythe Gifford! Today she is here to tantalize us with her article, Cross Dressing in the Middle Ages.


Joan of Arc may be the most famous cross dresser of the Middle Ages, but as I researched my September release from Harlequin Historical, I discovered she was hardly the only one.

I took heart from that when I wrote IN The MASTER’S BED. In it, my medieval heroine runs away from home disguised as a man in order to study at the University. At that time, women were not even allowed into the living quarters to do laundry, let alone into the classrooms to take courses. My heroine ends up living in the 14th century equivalent of a fraternity house, where she manages to maintain her secret for longer than you might expect.

Strictly fiction, you might say. But no. There is a reliable account of a woman in medieval Poland who attended the university there for two years before she was discovered. Her story had a happy ending. She was not punished, but, revered for her scholarship, joined a convent and became the abbess. Like my heroine, when she was disguised, this woman lived in an all men’s hostel and “behaved properly toward others, did not frequent the baths, and attended the lectures diligently.” (Note: I’ve listed the sources for this post below.)

This happened less than fifty years after my story is set, so I felt totally justified in thinking that it COULD have happened the way I wrote it.

In fact, the idea of a woman dressed as a man was not as foreign to medieval people as we might think. Marjorie Garber says the “transvestite female saints of the Middle Ages were legion as well as legend.” At least thirty have been counted. When the miracles started coming, some of these women were even graced with beards.

The common thread in the stories of these cross-dressing saints is that the woman suffers a personal crisis and reinvents herself as a man. In the words of St. Jerome: “As long as a woman is for birth and children she is different from man as body is from soul. But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman, and will be called man."

This is, of course, consistent with the medieval concept of the hierarchy of the universe: God, priest, man, and then, woman, who only reaches God when given permission by the two ahead of her.

The women saints who chose the path of pants were a colorful lot. One, a prostitute, converted to Christianity, changed her name, and dressed as a man. No one discovered her real sex until after her death.

Another, disguised as a monk and accused of fathering a child, refused to expose her true sex in order to prove her innocence. She was expelled from the brotherhood and, still living as a man, raised the child. Seven years later, she was accepted back into the monastery and lived as a man until discovered to be a woman after death. (No reports of who raised the seven year old child after that.)

Yet a third woman, prohibited from joining the monastery, dressed as a man so successfully that she was elected an abbot of the house. Then, accused of rape, she revealed her identity and proved her innocence by baring her breasts in the middle of the court before her father. (Freud, had he lived in medieval times, would have had a field day with that one. I have visions of the monks repeating this tale with relish over cognac and cigars after dinner.)

No male saints, apparently, felt it necessary to don a skirt to grow closer to God. Then, as now, it was more acceptable for a woman to don pants than the other way around.

That is not to imply that it was accepted. The book of Deuteronomy stated "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man” and medieval audiences took that literally. When Joan of Arc was condemned to death for heresy, her mode of dress was a key issue at her trial. Yet unlike so many of her fellow saints, Joan didn’t pretend to be a man. She just thought that riding astride at the head of an army was easier without a skirt in the way.

Of course, she was right, something even Thomas Aquinas, himself a saint, understood. He knew it was “sinful for a woman to wear man's clothes, or vice versa, especially since this may be a cause of sensuous pleasure.” But he allowed a pass under certain circumstances, stating that it might not be a sin if done “on account of some necessity, either in order to hide oneself from enemies, or through lack of other clothes, or for some similar motive."

And there are examples aplenty of such motives, such as ease and safety when traveling. There are also examples of women who dressed as men in order to save a husband’s life. Two such German tales tell of the wife disguising herself as a man to visit her imprisoned husband, who faces execution because he committee adultery. Dressed as a man, the wife then switches clothes with him and he escapes, leaving her in prison. (This is lauded as the epitome of wifely virtue. Twentieth century women can only ask What was she thinking?) In court, she reveals all, again, yes, by baring her breasts.

There are reports of women dressing as men during the Pre-Lenten carnival and sneaking into a monastery, though no report on what they did once inside. While this all sounds like good, Mardi Gras fun, the reality could be quite different. In Nuremberg, Germany, in 1481, a woman was put into the basement prison for her offense, presumably the standard punishment.

Earlier, the city had banished a woman for nine years because she “walked about in manly ways and wore man’s clothes.” Banishment was the lighter punishment under consideration. The other option was to bury her alive. Of course, this woman was also accused of “permitting her brothers and cousins to have sex with her,” so that might have been the burying offense.

But wait, you say. Were there no men who felt the need to cavort in women’s garb? Well, yes, there were. There are reliable accounts of Franciscan friars escaping the monastery, dressed as woman, to run through the streets. In Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, Margaret Shaus calls the practice “ubiquitous.” It tended to happen, however, during holiday celebrations, the Feast of Misrule or the Pre-Lenten carnivals, when it was practiced by “ebullient, usually youthful, male revelers.”

Exactly the type you would find in a university hostel.

At the University of Paris, those in charge complained that “Priests and clerks…dance in the choir dressed as women, or disreputable men, or minstrels.” There are repeated prohibitions by University governance bodies against loud singing and playing of music, dancing in the streets, and dramatics. The regularity of these pronouncements suggests their ineffectiveness. Then, as now, copious quantities of alcohol were necessary to higher education, and likely contributed to frolicking in the streets in various states of dress.

In discussing cross-dressing, I have not explored sexual preferences or gender identity.

There is a reliable report of a man at Oxford, who called himself Eleanor and worked as a prostitute. He was accused of practicing the “abominable vice” with “three unsuspecting scholars.” It is not clear from the records whether these “unsuspecting” innocents knew his sex at the time. They reportedly visited him “in the marsh,” so they may not have disrobed, but they also visited “Eleanor” often.

Often enough to know?

That, we will leave to the mists of history.

I hope you enjoyed this look backward at an “undressed” part of history and welcome your comments and thoughts.

Sources for this post include: Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross dressing in the Middle Ages, by Valerie R. Hotchkiss; From Boys to Men, Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe, Ruth Mazo Karras; Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Marjorie B. Barber; The Cambridge companion to medieval women’s writing, Dinshaw and Wallace; Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, Margaret Shaus; Obscenity: Social Control and Artistic Creation in the European Middle Ages, Jan Ziolkowski; The Seekers: The story of man’s continuing quest to understand his world, Daniel Joseph Boorstin; A Female University Student in Late Medieval Krak√≥w, by Michael H. Shank, published in Signs, Vol. 12, No. 2, Reconstructing the Academy, Winter, 1987, pp. 373-380, and Wickepedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-dressing,_sexuality,_and_gender_identity_of_Joan_of_Arc#cite_note-6.org/wiki/Cross-dressing,_sexuality,_and_gender_identity_of_Joan_of_Arc#cite_note-6)
Picture of Joan of Arc, public domain, from Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, AE II 2490


Author Bio: BLYTHE GIFFORD (http://www.blythegifford.com/)is the author of a four medieval romances from Harlequin Historical, three of which feature characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket. Her September release from Harlequin Historical line is IN The MASTER’s BED. When not nurturing her first love, writing historical romance, she feeds her muse with art, music, history, long walks, good food and good friends.

(Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved ®and T are trademarks of Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or its affiliated companies, used under license.)


Keena Kincaid said...

What a fun blog, Blythe. In my grad school studies, I don't think cross-dressing came up as an approved course of study, but it would have been fun and much more entertaining than some of the courses I suffered through.

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...


Thanks for including your reference material. I'm always looking for new additions to my collection.

Debra St. John said...

Hi Blythe. This is fascinating...I'm always intrigued by women who dressed as men so they could fight in wars. I've done some research on this happening during the Civil War.

Keith said...

I am very surprised that no mention was made of Anne Bailey and Mrs Pentry, these women too had their reasons for wearing men's clothing and their story far more interesting.
Regards, Keith.

Blythe Gifford said...

Keena, actually, as you can see by my reference list, this topic is now getting more academic study. Too late for you! Gwynlyn, glad the list is useful. I wanted to give credit, but thought footnotes might bog things down. Debra, there are really interesting US Civil War stories, too. And Keith, I limited this blog to medieval examples, but you're right, the "woodswomen" are also great examples.

Cheryl Ann Smith said...

I enjoy the romances where women dress as men to hide out for whatever reason. Great blog!

June said...

Great blog, Blythe. I really enjoyed it.



ab said...

Let's not forget Pope Joan! (I can't remember her time period off the top of my head, so I'm not sure whether or not she was Medieval...)

Blythe Gifford said...

Ab - Good point! Pope Joan, considered legendary, but dated in the 800's, I think, would certainly have fit the bill here. Cheryl Ann and June, thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed it.

Patricia Barraclough said...

What a wonderful article. Great information and references. The reasons for women passing as men throughout history has always been interesting. Considering their status within society, can you blame them. Early on it was often because of a total lack of opportunity. Later it was their desire to fight for their country.
If history classes had been this interesting, I would have had a different major in college.