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transvestite saints

This tag identifies the specific hagiographical motif of women taking on male disguise in order to enter monastic life, especially stories set in the early Christian period when female monastic institutions were not prevalent.

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.

Preface

This book looks at how Catalina de Erauso’s story has been “constructed, interpreted, marketed and consumed” in the 17-20th centuries. Velasco identifies Catalina as a “transgenderist” (that is, someone who engages in transgender performance without necessarily having transgender identity) and uses she/her pronouns as the book is examining how Catalina’s image was used (the image of a woman performing masculinity) rather than interpreting what Catalina’s own understanding might have been.

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.

Around 1408 the Limbourg brothers (who created some of the most fabulous illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century) created a Book of Hours for the Duc de Berry. In the section covering the life of Saint Jerome, it includes a depiction of a “practical joke” where Jerome was tricked into putting on a woman’s dress without realizing it. The illustration shows Jerome being mocked for wearing women’s clothes, highlighting the incongruity by the visual contrast of the dress with Jerome’s prominent beard.

Chapter 1 (Introduction)

A discussion of terminology, some of the cross-cultural problems of defining the topic of the book, and a statement of intent.

Chapter 2 (In the Beginning: 40,000-1200 BCE)

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 article examines the specifically Christian uses of gender-crossing in a cultural context with highly polarized gender roles. Masculinity was associated with “honor”, the aggressive pursuit of military virtues such as courage, loyalty, and glory, and both the need and willingness to defend one’s claim to them. Femininity, in contrast, was associated with chastity and the protection of sexual purity, where the driving force was the avoidance of shame due to the loss of these attributes.

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.

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.

Pages

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