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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #108 Schleiner 1996 “Cross-Dressing, Gender Errors, and Sexual Taboos in Renaissance Literature”

Full citation: 

Schleiner, Winfried. “Cross-Dressing, Gender Errors, and Sexual Taboos in Renaissance Literature” in Ramet, Sabrina Petra (ed). 1996. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-11483-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers with an anthropological angle on how gender is viewed within the context of specific cultures. I have only covered the articles that are relevant to my project.

Schleiner, Winfried. “Cross-Dressing, Gender Errors, and Sexual Taboos in Renaissance Literature”

It's common to consider the censoring or concealment of forbidden sexual topics in literature as a product of the Victorian age, but cultures have swung back and forth between candor, prurience, and reticence multiple times. The techniques of that reticence are often familiar: linguistic gate-keeping (using Latin or original non-vernacular quotations rather than the everyday language of the readership), selective erasure (where problematic details are silently omitted or altered), or complete excision (where entire anecdotes or topics are removed from later editions or adaptations of a work).

Schleiner examines how earlier sources relating to the sexual implications of cross-dressing were altered for early 17th century English readerships, implying a shift in the reception of such material, and perhaps a shift in prevalent cultural attitudes. Note that this shift need not be unidirectional. Other authors covered by this project note that the 17th century in England was a time of significant pop-culture interest in gender transgression. The editorial opinions of the authors discussed here may reflect, not a general social prudishness, but rather the reverse: an elite distaste for being lumped in with authors who did have an explicitly prurient intention.

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In considering various types of transgressive cross-dressing (e.g., for theatrical purposes), Schleiner begins by looking at some literary models available within that context that focus around logistical gender disguise.

A story cited in Thomas Heywood’s Gynaikeion (1624) recounts a 2nd century story of a young Athenian woman who achieves her forbidden ambition to become a surgeon by cutting her hair and dressing as a man to learn the art. While attending on a woman in labor who was too modest to allow the services of a male physician, she revealed (literally) her true sex. This made her a very popular physician among female clients but brought her to the attention of the authorities (who didn’t know she was a woman and assumed her popularity was for sexual access). Once again, she physically revealed her true sex in defense (since evidently being a female physician was better than being a licentious male one). But when the authorities would have punished her, the women of the city rose up demanding the right to be attended by female physicians. This is presented as being the origin of midwives.

More relevant to the thrust of this article, Heywood suppresses the more salacious details of the story in his version, in particular the description of the woman disrobing to prove her sex. The potentially salacious aspects (either via voyeuristic reading or implied by the context of the event) are softened or removed and the anecdote is situated as "serious medical literature".

A similar concern appears in a treatise by Jacques Duval on hermaphrodites (1612) when he recounts how he saved Marie le Marcis from death in prison by convincing the court that Marie was actually Marin and a man. But Duval feels the need to insist explicitly that he is not writing about the subject for any lascivious purpose. Another medical writer of the era, when treating on the subject of masturbation between women (i.e., lesbianism) in a Latin treatise on women’s diseases, notes that the section should be omitted if the book is translated into the vernacular for a popular audience. All three texts show significant discomfort around the possibility of same-sex sexuality and even more so around the potential for the text to educate readers about a possibility that might not previously have occurred to them.

A similar tension exists around discussions of cross-dressing and gender disguise, including an account of a soldier in the Emperor’s army taken prisoner by the Turks in 1595 who was revealed to be a woman in disguise. Phillip Camerarius treats this example in a book discussing the basis for Biblical prohibitions on cross-dressing, identifying certain pagan ritual cross-dressing practices as an impetus, but also disapproving of cross-dressing as it gives both sexes a greater ability to enter officially homosocial spaces for sexual access to the opposite sex.

Despite Camerarius’s equal concern for men and women who cross-dress, when he comes to list legal cases he gives none where the accused is a man disguised as a woman, only the reverse. Whether this is from ignorance, an actual lack in the records he was familiar with, or an assumption that male cross-dressing was inconceivable is not clear.

Cross-dressing examples in literature, on the other hand, are not uncommon in both directions. Both types have relevance to female homoeroticism. It is a common trope that when men disguise themselves as women (whether for intrigue, as a love strategem, or for escape from danger), they are perceived as having an extreme feminine beauty that is sufficient to cause women to believe themselves in love with a woman (as well as attracting male sexual attention).

Examples in literature of cross-dressed women highlight episodes of gender consciousness and the contradiction of gender essentialism. The women may perform in a hyper-masculine way, as with Oronce and La Belle Sauvage in the romance Amadis of Gaul. These women typically attract the sexual interest of other women, portraying an ideal of youthful beauty that was compatible with androgyny. The women who fall in love with these cross-dressed women are explicitly attracted to feminine-coded aspects of male beauty: delicacy, pale complexions, grace, and courtesy. Despite this, when face with the reality that they have been attracted to a woman, there is an embarrassed relief at having stopped short of taking action.

As a coda to the article, the author notes a later treatise purporting to be a medical study of hermaphrodites, but in fact taking exactly the prurient male-gaze approach that the earlier medical writers disclaimed. Here lesbian activity and the sexually confusing potential of cross-dressing is served up as titillation, as in a story of two women who, after losing their male lovers, have entered a sexual relationship with each other and are so firm in their preference for women that a man who wants sexual access to one of them must not only cross-dress as a woman but must pretend to mimic them in using a dildo in order to cover for the use of his own penis.

Time period: 

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