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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #35 – Hotchkiss 1996 Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe

Full citation: 

Hotchkiss, Valerie R. 1996. Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe. Garland Publishing, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-8153-3771-x

If you intend to make crossdressing and passing a key feature of your historic lesbian novel, the two books you really need to read to get a sense of this historic context are this one and Dekker and van de Pol’s The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe. In both cases, I can barely do more than briefly summarize key examples, due to the scope of the material covered.

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This review will necessarily be somewhat cursory, as the entire book is relevant to the LHMP project. In general, I will summarize data not covered in detail elsewhere, and include references to the rest.

Ch. 1 - Introduction: Women who dressed as men were anomalies and more common in medieval fiction than fact. The motif (both in fiction and fact) addresses the idea of female inferiority in contradictory ways: by successfully acting as men, the disguised women refute inherent female inferiority, but they can do so only by assimilating to male identity. Hotchkiss reviews previous studies of historical transvestism and reviews its cultural meaning as well as modern psychological interpretations. Historically, the motivations tended to be more practical than psychological, including economic and emotional goals, while literary purposes included gender-role conflicts and salacious comic relief. She discounts Dekker & van de Pol’s assertion that the (real-life) practice functionally began in the latter 16th century, noting that the scarcity of earlier examples is in the context of generally smaller quantities of records. She notes the overlapping issues of transvestism and transgenderism. Both in literature and life, female crossdressers seem to have had little trouble passing as men. Mitigating factors include the early age for the start of male careers (apprentices, novices, servants, squires) which made passing easier for women of a similar or slightly older age. Some cases address practical issues, as in several of the transvestite saints’ lives that mention breast binding. In literature, it’s noteworthy that ideals of masculine and feminine beauty are often described in similar terms. Religious policy, also reflected in civil law, forbade crossdressing, even specifically mentioned women in male disguise, but this was in conflict with popular culture which often took a more admiring stance (at least for female crossdressers).

Ch. 2/3 – Hagiography and real-life similar stories: This chapter covers the legends of crossdressing female saints (covered in detail in the entries for Anson 1974 and Bullough 1974). Although the early legends are likely fictional, there is solid evidence for women with similar experiences. One example is Hildegund von Schönau (d. 1188), whose story has a historic basis that was probably somewhat fictionalized. She was born near Cologne, her mother died when she was young and her father took her on pilgrimage with him, dressed as a boy. The father died on the journey and the servant entrusted with her robbed and abandoned her. She was befriended by another pilgrim who saw to it that she gained schooling and eventually she served as a papal messenger, then later entered a monastery as monk. She died while still in her first year there, after telling her life story (except for the disguise part) and saying they would discovered a "great miracle" after (s)he died. Similar motifs to the saints’ legends are also seen in the cases of Angela of Bohemia (sister of Ottokar I) in the 12th century, who was said to have escaped her bridal chamber in disguise as a man and traveled to Jerusalem where she became a nun. Similarly, Christina of Markyate (1096-1160) and Juana de la Cruz (1481-1534) dressed as men to flee enforced marriages and later led holy lives as women. Agnes of Monçada (early 15th century) disguised herself as a man to live as a holy hermit.

Ch. 4 – Jeanne d’Arc: The most famous case of a real-life woman openly crossdressing in a military context is Jeanne d’Arc. While her literary sisters may have been admired for similar actions, the real-life case was transgressive enough that her crossdressing formed a major component of her eventual trial. The transcripts from the trial give (a reported version of) Jeanne’s own reasoning for her crossdressing: "since I must arm myself and serve the gentle Dauphin in war, it is necessary for me to wear these [male] clothes, and also when I am among men in the habit of men, they have no carnal desire for me." (More detailed consideration of this case will come when I cover an edition of the trial transcripts.)

Ch 5 – Pope Joan: The legend of Pope Joan runs parallel to the crossdressing saints until it diverges into a lesson on women’s weakness rather than praise of a “de-feminized” woman. The legend is set in the 9th century and follows the career of a woman who assumed male identity to attend university with her (male) lover. Her scholarly brilliance led to advancement in the clerical ranks until she was elected Pope. However her true sex was revealed when she became pregnant and gave birth during a papal procession. (The legend has been debunked but was considered true during middle ages.)

Ch 6 – The Disguised Wife: There is a popular motif in both heroic and comic literature of an abandoned woman who takes a male identity to correct her situation by means that require a masculine role. The specifics of these stories are widely varied. There are several German stories of the 15th century about wives swapping clothing with imprisoned husbands so the husband can escape (and then revealing themselves to win their own freedom), or women who win their husbands’ freedom in disguise as (male) minstrels by means of their performance. In the French tale of Aucassin and Nicolette, Nicolette disguises herself as a male minstrel when returning home to Aucassin. (Disguise for the purpose of personal safety is common.) In Boccaccio's tale of Zinevra, the heroine is described as "more richly endowed than any other woman ... with all those virtues that a lady should possess, and even, to a great extent, those virtues that a knight or a squire should possess." Her husband makes a wager about her chastity that sets her up for an accusation of infidelity. Falsely accused, she flees execution disguised as the man Sicurano. Sicurano rises high in the service of the sultan and eventually clears his/her name and brings judgment on her betrayer. The 13th century Franco-Flemish tale "Conte du Roi Flore et de la belle Jehane" has a similar motif but here the disguised, calumniated wife becomes a companion to her falsely-accusing husband as his squire in order to clear her name. In the ca. 1300 Icelandic “Magus saga jarls”, the calumniated wife must win certain tokens from her husband and get pregnant by his to prove her virtue. She gets the tokens in male disguise in a game of tafl and gets impregnated when he thinks he's seducing his "opponent's wife" in the dark. There are even more ribald versions of this motif in French fabliaux.

Ch 7 – Sexuality: A number of stories specifically address the complexity of sexual attraction and response in the context of crossdressing women. Although these stories involve a transitional state where a woman experiences to erotic desire for another woman (in disguise) they all resolve into heterosexuality by some means. In Ovid's Iphis & Ianthe (familiar to medieval audiences by various transmissions) Iphis, who has been raised as a boy, falls in love with Ianthe and resolves her crisis of desire with a divinely-mediated sex-change. Unlike the other stories included here, the disguised woman experiences desire as well as her female beloved, but the character/storyteller cannot envision the successful possibility of same-sex love. In the French romance Tristan de Nanteuil (14th century), the character Blanchandine is asked by Tristan to disguise herself so she can accompany him on his travels, and this is an open secret among his companions. But when Tristan is believed killed Blanchandine (still in disguise) is pressured into marrying another woman against her will. She's offered the chance at a magical sex-change and only after taking it (and then experiencing love for her wife) she discovers Tristan is still alive, but now (as a man) she feels no desire for him. There are two versions of the 14th century French story "Yde et Olive". Yde flees her father's incestuous advances in disguise as man and becomes renowned as a knight both in battle and at court. The king offers her his daughter's hand in marriage and after some attempt to dodge the issue, Yde confesses her secret to her betrothed and Olive accepts this and promises to continue supporting her as her wife. This situation cannot be allowed to stand, however. In one version, Yde is discovered and the matter is resolved by Yde marrying the king and Olive marrying Yde’s father. [Excuse me, but ICK!] In the other version, Yde is granted a magical sex-change and the couple continues happily married. In the French “Roman de Silence” (late 13th century), the title character is raised as a boy because women aren't allowed to inherit. She travels to the king's court and wins fame but is desired by the queen who, when rejected, accuses "him" of misconduct. The consequences of this accusation result in even greater fame as a knight. Eventually Silence is charged with the capture of Merlin who reveals her secret. As a result, the king changes the inheritance laws.

Ch 8 – Conclusion and index of case studies: Other miscellaneous cases (both fictional and historic) not previously mentioned. Eleanor of Aquitaine was said to have donned male clothing on one occasion to escape Henry II's anger. The 15th century case of a woman disguising herself to be student at the University of Krakow. (Shank 1987) Saint Theodora (4th century) condemned to serve in a brothel for resisting pagan practices, exchanged clothes with a soldier (Didymus) to escape, after which they were both martyred. A legend concerning Hildegard of Swabia, wife of Charlemagne (8th century) who disguised herself as man to escape execution when falsely accused of adultery, and then became a famous doctor. After curing her accuser she was vindicated and returned to her old life/role. A 12th century penitential code lists "If a woman, judging it useful according to her own decision, put on male clothing ..."; while penitentials of the 9th and 13th century condemn transvestism in the specific context of carnival.

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