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Saint Eugenia

3rd century Roman saint said to have cross-dressed to become a monk and later abbot. Her disguise was uncovered when a woman accused Eugenia of fathering her child.

LHMP entry

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.

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.

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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