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Historic Cross-dressing: Transvestite Saints

Any instance (either historic or fictionalized--I've lumped them together) where the motivation for passing as male is to enter a religious profession restricted to men or to escape a heteronormative life in order to pursue a religious vocation. In the latter case, the cross-dressing may be temporary and the religious profession may be entered as a woman. I've kept the label "transvestite saint" that is used in the literature, although in general I've avoided the word "transvestite" as outdated and carrying implications of identity rather than behavior.

LHMP entry

This is an examination of gender and sexuality in a “transvestite saint” legend from France. Saint Euphrosine wanted to remain a virgin and so ran away from home. To help avoid being tracked down by her father, rather than entering a convent, she disguised herself as a man and claimed to be a eunuch to enter a monastery. Sight of her inflames the lusts of the monks such that the head of the monastery requires her to live secluded to prevent sexual temptation.

Because monasticism is assumed to preclude sex, historians often work to desexualize passionate language used by medieval monastic writers, for example, in the context of writing about friendship. Language and actions that could be interpreted erotically are depicted as purely conventional, for example, possible interpretations of kissing on the mouth.

(blogged by Heather Rose Jones)

Krimmer’s primary focus is on the motif of cross-dressing women in 18th century German literature (novels, plays, etc.), but as part of the background, she reviews a great many historic cases. The issues of theory that are covered in these opening parts of Krimmer’s work, with the complexities of gender theory and clothing as signifiers of all manner of social classifications, are thoroughly covered in the analysis of chapters 2-5. The present summary is simply a rough catalog of the examples she cites.

This is a study of one of the “transvestite saint” legends (for which generally see Anson 1974 et al.). The general context of these stories is the misogynistic and gender-segregated context of early Christianity, in which women who wanted to pursue a religious life might choose to pass as men both for logistical reasons (in order to be able to join a male-only monastic community) and for spiritual reasons (following Biblical language that suggests that women need to become “male” in order to achieve heaven.

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.

“Travesty” comes literally from “cross-dress” with the theatrical term later picking up its sense of general transgression. Anyone familiar with theater and opera from Shakespeare onward is aware how popular it was to include gender disguise in its many forms and consequences. The two most common expressions both revolve around anxiety about female-female desire: a woman disguised as a man who attracts female romantic attention, or a man disguised as a woman to gain intimate access to a woman who then worries about the ensuing “wrong” erotic attraction.

In the context of an increased interest in the cultural role of theatrical cross-dressing in the Renaissance through modern times, these authors extend the analysis backward to look at similar themes in medieval theater.

The article begins with a survey of the discussion of, and attitudes toward distinguishing biological sex and gender behaviour in professional literature. Especially in distinguishing transvestism, transexualism, gender non-conformity, and more situational uses of cross-gender behavior. This article focuses more on those situational uses rather than cross-dressing as a feature of gender or sexual identity.

This article looks at gender-status issues in the context of medieval crossdressing motifs (both literary and historical). It begins with a consideration of crossdressing as psychopathology with an essentialist approach (keep in mind this was written in 1974!) then shifts to looking at the role of culture in reactions to crossdressing, especially differences between the reactions to crossdressing men and women.

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.

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