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Some Articles Do Not Age Well

Monday, August 27, 2018 - 09:00

If the last 30 years have seen a blossoming in academic research on homosexuality in history, they have seen an even more drastic shift in the academic approach to transgender topics in history. It's one thing to take a hard, dispassionate look at attitudes towards transgender topics within the historic context itself. It's a bit more painful to read the work of "modern" academics and recognize how their work is tainted by the application of frameworks that themselves are products of a specific historic and social context. I continue to cover articles like this one for three solid reasons: They often have references to historic sources that others may find valuable. I have a responsibility to my readers to provide guidance regarding the content of publications so that they can determine whether they would find them useful. And once I get to the point of actually reading and evaluating a work, it's already on the schedule to be covered. Blogging is not necessarily advocacy.

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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"

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 They are all thoroughly outdated, especially with respect to contextualizing gender presentation as it relates to gender identity and sexual orientation.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.