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LHMP #210 Bullough 1982a Transvestism in the Middle Ages

Full citation: 

Bullough, Vern L. 1982. “Transvestism in the Middle Ages” in Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage eds. Prometheus Books, Buffalo. ISBN 0-87975-141-X

Bullough "Transvestism in the Middle Ages"

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Vern L. Bullough wrote a number of articles in the 1970s through 1990s on topics relating to crossdressing and “transvestism” in the middle ages. They are all thoroughly outdated, especially with respect to contextualizing gender presentation as it relates to gender identity and sexual orientation. I’m going to summarize the article using more current terminology (that would not have been available to Bullough at the time this was written).

This article operates within a Freudian worldview but tries to challenge a purely psychological approach to understanding historic attitudes towards crossdressing by examining the differential attitudes towards masculine and feminine presentations and how they related to assumed status differences between the sexes.

Bullough does not reject the Freudian view of transgender presentation, but rather discusses variation in the reception to the phenomenon depending on the assigned gender of the person in question and the context in which the transgender presentation occurred.

For example, transmasculine presentation by AFAB (assigned female at birth) persons could be tolerated and even encouraged because masculinity was more highly valued and it was considered admirable for a woman to aspire to it. In contrast, the negative value assigned to femininity made it difficult for medieval societies to understand why an AMAB (assigned male at birth) person would perform femininity--and thus a decrease in status--unless for some ulterior purpose such as illicit sexual access to women.

Temporary cross-gender performance was tolerated in the context of specific events such as carnival or Halloween, or as part of overt masquerades. The Biblical reference cited for opposition to cross-dressing (“The women shall not wear that  which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment”) does not explain this situational allowance or the differential attitude towards masculine and feminine presentation.

Bullough explores how these differential attitudes played out in the biographies of “transvestite saints”. Women who “became male for Christ,” by setting aside not only their female presentation but their sexuality were viewed as praiseworthy, though it’s uncertain to what extent actual women were accepted and praised for doing so (as opposed to the safely legendary saints). But there are no legends of male transvestite saints (that is AMAB saints presenting as female), not only because this would be a loss of status, but also because trans-femininity was viewed as inherently associated with eroticism. The handful of anecdotes about AMAB persons living in convents as women invariably involved the suspicion or fact of heterosexual fornication.

An assortment of the most archytypal “transvestite saint” biographies are presented and discussed, including several more plausibly historic anecdotes from the medieval period proper, plus mention of Joan of Arc and the legend of Pope Joan.

This is followed by contexts where male crossdressing (i.e., AMAB persons with female presentation) were permitted, such as dramatic performance in contexts where all performers were male, or during Carnival, which in some regions was strongly associated with cross-gender performance.

Bullough concludes that Western hostility to cross-gender performance is far more rooted in issues of change of social status than in Biblical prohibition.



"For example, transmasculine presentation by AFAB (assigned female at birth) persons could be tolerated and even encouraged because masculinity was more highly valued and it was considered admirable for a woman to aspire to it." Leaving aside Joan of Arc, that vile traitor, whose real crime was wickedly and repeatedly opposing her true, lawful, and rightful lord Henry VI, king of England and France:

Granted that it's a one-sentence generalization, and a lot those are dubious, would you generally agree with it? Further, was it a matter of presentation versus status -- it was acceptable to *look* male as long as one doesn't appear to take any of the privileges or rights of actually *being* male? I have a feeling that these questions are likely best answered by "I can't really do it justice in a blog post; for a good understanding, you should read the books in this annotated bibliography ...".

You make a key point about the difference between "looking" male versus "privileges and rights of being male". But when you look at the distinguishing cases--the ones where an AFAB person living as a man was identified as such with no serious penalties, the biggest predictor was whether that person had engaged in penetrative sex with a woman as part of that identity. For example, the unnamed 15th century student at Krakow University was "rewarded" with the only approved available female role for a scholar: establishing her as an abbess at a convent. A number of cross-gender soldiers were acclaimed as heroes (as long as they hadn't gotten married during their military career!). And in literary contexts, cross-dressing heroines were presented as admirable (even when their lives were eventually resolved back to a feminine presentation and heterosexual marriage). It's important to distinguish literary tropes from real life, of course, but the genre of female "transvestite saints" can be paired with at least a couple documented examples of AFAB persons taking up male monastic roles and receiving praise (though typically safely after death) for their life choices. Those examples can be paired with the myth of "Pope Joan" in interesting ways: Pope Joan was most likely invented as an anti-Catholic satire, hence it was part of the purpose of the story to find reason to condemn her. Furthermore, an essenail part of the myth was that she was discovered due to having violated the chastity required of her assumed clerical status and thereby becoming pregnant. (We can ignore all the male popes who fathered children, of course, because: hey, double standard.)

I really love these reviews. I'm interested in the Italian Renaissance literature on female beauty, where beauty itself was defined as "intersex," the male sort taking from the female and vice versa. Every now and then, this gender-blending makes its way into portraiture: e.g., a wonderful image of an unknown lady (with the attributes of St. Margaret) by Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo, in the Pinacoteca Capitolina in Rome. She's middle-aged and not a conventional beauty, but her right elbow is cocked in an unmistakable masculine gesture, with the gloved right hand nonchalantly holding the left glove, and a book in her bare left hand.

Glad you're enjoying the site! Another context where you find a "non-gendered" take on human beauty is in chivalric romances. This becomes particularly interesting in the context of cross-dressing incidents (in all directions) where the observers are expected to find a beautiful human being desirable, regardless of physiology, as long as the presentation frames the attraction as heterosexual.

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