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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #38 – Bullough 1996 “Cross Dressing and Gender Role Change in the Middle Ages”

Full citation: 

Bullough, Vern. 1996. “Cross Dressing and Gender Role Change in the Middle Ages” in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage Garland Publishing, New York. ISBN 0-8153-3662-4

Publication summary: 

The 1996 collection Handbook of Medieval Sexuality should be viewed in light of its chronology in the emerging field of the history of historic gender and sexuality studies. There are weaknesses both in the starting assumptions of some authors and in the available groundwork.

Bullough, Vern. 1996. “Cross Dressing and Gender Role Change in the Middle Ages”

I almost feel like last Friday's entry was a cheat, since it boiled down to "all the articles in Bullough & Brundage that don't really have any lesbian-like content." And since I've been doing a run on cross-dressing topics in the last several entries, there won't be a lot of new material in this one. Someday, when I set up these entries on a permanent site, I'll have all the cross-references linked properly. In my fantasies, I'll also have a set of encyclopedia-like entries with the specific historic sources, motifs, and individuals summarized, so that they can be linked to. (My original concept for the project was more along those lines.)

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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.

Cross-dressing as part of religious ritual in pre-Christian times is noted, as well as the influence of those practices on Jewish and Christian attitudes towards cross-dressing. And as a starting basis for the differential attitudes towards male and female cross-dressing, there is a discussion of how beliefs about gender inequities resulted in framing men cross-dressing as “lowering” and therefore being suspect (e.g., for easier access to women’s spaces) while women cross-dressing were seen as “elevating” themselves. There is significant discussion and review of medieval theories of sex difference and resulting misogynistic attitudes.

The motif of cross-dressing saints is noted, with many of the same examples seen in Anson 1974, Bullough 1974, Hotchkiss 1996, as well as reference to the 4th century Coucil of Gangra condemnation of the practice of women disguising themselves as men to join monastic communities. The similiar 12th c. story of Saint Hildegund is mentioned, as well as the legend of Pope Joan, as well as the non-disguise cross-dressing of Joan of Arc. (See the entry for Hotchkiss 1996 for details.) Other examples listed here that are covered in other entries include Le Roman de Silence (see Roche-Mahdi 1999),

Examples not already covered in other entries include:

A mid-16th c. Spanish woman Elena (Eleno) de Desopedes who has a long complicated story in which she passed as a man for an extended period (including passing physical examination) and married a woman before eventually being unmasked.

The character of the amazon Bradamante in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso who is taken for a man by a princess who falls in love with her (to be saved by a convenient twin brother), and similar romantic confusion due to cross-dressing amazons in Spenser’s Faerie Queen (specifically the character of Britomart). The author notes “numerous other examples” citing Sir Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia and studies such as Melveena McKendrick’s Women and Society in Spanish Drama of the Golden Age and Dekker and van de Pol’s The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (which will be covered extensively in its own entry).

The remainder of the article covers men cross-dressing, especially in theatrical-type contexts.

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