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LHMP #197 Bennett & McSheffrey 2014 Early, Exotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London

Full citation: 

Bennett, Judith and Shannon McSheffrey. 2014. “Early, Exotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London” in History Workshop Journal. 77 (1): 1-25.

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This article takes a focused look at all the women (and there were only 13 of them) recorded in London legal records for cross-dressing as men in the century after 1450. While this data set is too small to draw strong conclusions, the variation among the cases challenges our understanding of the purposes and motivations for female cross-dressing. The article provides a longer chronology of cross-dressing in London before 1603 from sources that include letters and courts overseen by the city, the Bishop’s commisssary, and the chancery. Often the descriptive details of the act are few, simply noting that the woman had worn a “man’s gown” or further details of how she had obtained the clothing might be given. The women might simply hide their hair under a hat or cut it short. Whatever their contemporaries felt about cross-dressing in general, the legal records primarily focus on contexts where sexual misbehavior is involved or suspected. In some cases, the cross-dressers were arrested during general action against whores (a category that basically covered any woman of “ungoverned sexuality” and that was distinguished--although inconsistently so--from prostitution as an occupation). The cross-dressing was often noted only as a side issue in relation to the sexual offense, and the punishments for cross-dressed whores were typically identical to those for their conventionally dressed compatriots.

The article compares the cases of these women with the notable case of a male cross-dresser in London, that of John/Eleanor Rykener in 1395. Rykener was arrested for engaging in prostitution as a woman with a man, while also engaging in sex with women while presenting as a man. The article notes another male cross-dresser in 1425, John Tirell, where no sexual offense is mentioned in connection. In addition to the obvious difference of physical sex, the 13 women’s cases differed from Rykener’s in that they were not, in general, attempting to live as men. Only two of the cases involved women attempting to live as men for an extended period: one in order to pursue an illicit relationship with a man, one in the context of a sexual relationship with a woman. The others either engaged in very temporary cross-dressing, or wore male garments but with no attempt to be taken for men. Because the recorded cases focus on moral transgressions, they obscure the more general issue of cross-dressing. If women were cross-dressing for reasons other than sexual misconduct, we have no record of them.

Discussions of women’s cross-dressing often treat it as a “modern” phenomenon but with examples beginning before 1450 the later increase in numbers during Elizabeth’s reign can be seen simply to parallel the increase in London’s population at the time. The rhetorical focus on sartorial gender transgression in the late 16th and early 17th centuries seems to indicate a shift in attention, not in behavior. Although there are no similar reports of cross-dressed women in other towns in England, there are plenty of examples from the continent in the 15th and early 16th centuries, such as Katherina Hetzeldorfer in Speyer (1477), Nase de Poorter in Bruges (1502), Glaudyne Malengin also in Bruges (1510), and any number of prostitutes in Italy (Venice, Florence, and Rome). These examples push the phenomenon back toward the 14th century changes in fashion that create a more sharply-differentiated appearance between men’s and women’s clothing. Even as the new fashions emphasized male sexuality by featuring the legs and crotch, they created an opportunity for women’s erotic display when cross-dressed that had not existed when clothing styles for both sexes covered more of the body. But gender differences existed even before this fashion shift, especially in hairstyles but also in subtle distinctions of clothing. And those differences meant that the adoption of male styles by women could act as gender disguise, as in the cases of Christina of Markyate (1120) and Hildegund of Schönau (1187).

The more plentiful examples of cross-dressing cases in the 15th century and later can be ascribed in part simply to the better survival of records from those eras. London court records are fragmentary and scarce before the 15th century. Earlier examples come from other types of records, both fictional and not, and offer a wider range of motivations. Medieval perceptions of gender difference placed men at a higher status than women, therefore cross-dressing was a way for a woman to elevate her status or essential nature. Cross-dressing might be the only clear avenue for entering certain activities (as with the Krakow university student). But despite the category-crossing nature of cross-dressing, sumptuary legislation, which had as its purpose the control of sartorial category-crossing, rarely addressed the question of gender boundaries, though perhaps because the forbidden nature of the act was considered too obvious to need legislation. Whatever the rationale, women’s cross-dressing generally offended only religious law rather than secular law.

While modern analyses of cross-dressing typically focus on its overtly transgressive nature and is associated with lesbian or transgender identity, the examples from the London records, while erotic, primarily align with heterosexual activity and play to a male audience. The article notes “playful” crossdressing associated with festivals or the stage and not meant to “pass”. Today, this category is more commonly associated with men. Many of the medieval and early modern cases of women cross-dressing are for more obviously practical purposes: to pass incognito, to escape notice (in contexts where a woman might be automatically noticeable), for safety. Popular culture showed an awareness of these multiple possibilities, and the motivation of the woman who wore the clothes might not match how others perceived her. A woman might claim that she wore breeches to protect her chastity while at the same time the motif of a woman wearing breeches was associated with prostitution. In one of the London cases, cross-dressing may have been motivated by an erotic relationship between two female-bodied persons, one of who was presenting as male, though the scanty evidence provides no clear distinction between possible lesbian and transgender readings. It isn’t even entirely certain from the wording that the cross-dressed “concubine” was the concubine of the woman with whom she was living, as opposed to simply being a resident there and in a relationship with another person. (Though the interpretation that the cross-dressed woman was the concubine of her hostess is the more straight-forward reading. In which case, the fact that the court seemed to consider it of no particular significance is interesting.)

Erotic disguise could take many forms, crossing boundaries of nationality and class as well as gender. When done for erotic purposes, the titillation came from an awareness of the contrast between the inner reality and the outward appearance. In some contexts (e.g., as addressed by a Venetian law of 1480) prostitutes presented themselves in male clothing and hairstyles to attract a male clientele with same-sex desires.

One interesting feature of the 13 London cross-dressing cases is the significant proportion of foreigners involved. (Five out of the thirteen.) Like most foreigners in London at that time, they came from the Low Countries or the German states. This unusual presence may simply be due to a disproportionate participation of foreigners in the sex trade. But if not, it suggests that cross-dressing may have been more popular among some nationalities (an argument made by Dekker and van de Pol). Or it may be that migrant women were more likely to cross-dress for economic purposes in general, due to lesser access to more established female professions. A third possibility the authors suggest is that the wearing of male-coded garments was associated with foreign cultures (such as the Tartars) and that cross-dressing was used by these women as a deliberate association with that motif to appear more “exotic”. Fourthly, it may be that the London courts displaced the idea of cross-dressing onto foreigners, and therefore it was differentially noted or differentially prosecuted when done by foreign women. [Note: there’s an interesting parallel with the ways in which many cultures displaced lesbian activity onto foreign cultures, denying that it was engaged in by local women.] All of the 13 London cross-dressing cases involve some element of “distancing” from the norm: displacements of geography within England, of foreign origin, of sexual involvement with priests, of singlehood. This could allow the legal system to dismiss cross-dressing as an ordinary phenomenon, but rather see it as one associated with otherness.

It may also be that the multiple possible motivations for cross-dressing were part of the appeal for the women engaged in it: erotic titillation and freedom of movement, play and economic advantage.

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