Anson, John. 1974. “The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism: The Origin and Development of a Motif” in Viator, 5: 1-32.
From the point of view of plot logistics, the motif of crossdressing and passing as a man is incredibly useful when writing historical lesbian fiction. As for the characters in the next few blog entries (both literary and historic), passing provides opportunities for safety, for traveling freely, for engaging in adventures, and -- perhaps most critically -- for creating an ambiguous gender context which invites transgressive explorations of desire, relationships, and sexual activity. Not all of the articles in this next run involve situations that would make sense for lesbian fiction. (Being the only woman in an all-male monastery is hardly an inviting context for lesbian plots!) But as a group they provide a picture of the range of situations and motivations for women who changed their gender presentation.
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This is an extensive survey of early saints’ lives that involve the motif of a woman crossdressing and passing as a man, generally in order to participate in a monastic community at a time when there were no women’s communities available. Given that the context is hagiographical, this activity is framed positively, not only in pragmatic terms (it enables the woman to do something holy) but due to the greater value placed on men, especially in the context of religious practice. These women were becoming more holy, not only because they were participating in the monastic community, but because they had “become more like men”, or at least were becoming “un-women”. The historicity of the stories (indeed, of many early saints of both genders) is often quite questionable and the way that the crossdressing motif tends to occur in fixed tropes suggests that this was often simply a “building block” of the literary genre. Some scholars have connected a subset of crossdressing saint stories to figures with attributes suggesting carryover from the cult of Aphrodite of Cyprus whose worship involved crossdressing. Anson proposes instead that the motif is primarily a response by male monastic authors to the tensions of celibate ascetism, becoming a way of neutralizing female temptation with the fiction of an unsexed woman living as a man among men. He also discusses the symbolism of clothing-changes in the context of baptism. However my summary here will focus on the story-types taken at face value, as representing a motif familliar to historic people.
One of the earliest, the story of Saint Thecla in the apocryphal Acts of Saint Paul, provides little motivating context for the act. After hearing Paul preach about chastity, she left her fiance and family to follow after him, at one point cutting her hair and wearing men’s clothing. The only possible motivation (which must be drawn from context) is for safety in traveling, although there are also suggestions that the hair-cutting is an attempt to diminish her beauty and so help protect her chastity.
A legend of a woman named Margaret has her fleeing her wedding night disguised as a man, assuming the name of Pelagius, and entering a monastery. There her holiness caused her to be assigned to supervise a neighboring convent. When one of her charges became pregnant she was accused of being the father, which accusation she quietly accepted, refuting it only with a letter left after her death. There are perhaps twenty similar stories, centering on the region of Alexandria in the 5-6th century, whose basic format involves a flight from the world, disguise as a man and seclusion, and then eventual discovery. (Because, of course, without discovery there is no story.) In some cases the original flight is motivated only by desire for a religious life, but more often there is a sexual component where marriage, and especially forced marriage (sometimes just forced sex) or marriage to a non-Christian, is the spur.
A transition from this relatively simple version to the more elaborate crossdressing legends is found in the legend of Anastasia who disguised herself as a man in order to join her husband in a monastery (apparently without him recognizing her). Similarly: the story of Euphrosyne who became enamored of monastic life just on the eve of her wedding and disguised herself as a man to enter a monastery. Her father, distraught at his daughter’s disappearance, received counseling and comfort from his disguised daughter and at her death the secret was revealed. These motifs of continued (if unknowing) family connections appear in a substantial number of the tales.
The next most elaborate version involves the motif previously mentioned of a false accusation of (male) sexual impropriety that is accepted and suffered in order to maintain the masquerade (with an added element of martyrdom). This story motif also occurs in the lives of male saints, but without the added aspect of biological impossibility. An example is Apollonaria Syncletica, supposedly the daughter of an emperor who left a pilgrimage group and disguised herself as a man to join a monastery. (A number of these stories involve the women presenting themselves as eunuchs, a motif that was plausible in that era and would explain away certain physical characteristics.) Under the name Dorotheus, she gained a reputation for healing powers and it happened that her sister was sent to her to be cured of possession by a demon. The demon then made the sister appear pregnant with the blame falling on Dorotheus, after which her secret was discovered.
Skipping over the story of Eugenia which brings in the element of the pregnant woman making the accusation, we come to the legend of Saint Marina which combines most of the various motifs. Marina’s widowed father enters a monastery and disguises her as a boy in order to be able to care for the child. Marina continues in monastic life as an adult until she is accused of fathering a child. She accepts the accusation and leaves the monastery to raise the child, with both of them later returning to the community. Only at Marina’s death does the false accuser confess.