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Medieval Transvestites

     People can be cruel and mean to those who do not fit into what a society considers normal.  While people claim to be liberal thinking and open minded, yet when they see something totally out of the norm of society they are totally offends. The notion of who a person is and what makes up a person varies.  In a society people are born with the idea of who they are, by the genetic makeup of when they come out of the womb.  Society then dictates that if a person is born a male, they are to behave and remain a male.  While if they are born in the female gender they are to act and behave as a female.  There appears to be no crossing of that line.  In the Medieval Society, what gender one was born into determined the schooling that one received. How one was born looked at in society and the lifestyle of the class system forced one to remain in place.  If a child was born into an upper class society as a female her life was limited to learning how to become a proper women to get a husband and do what was necessary to be become a mother. Yet, even this did not always occur.  For if, the girl was born and she had a few older sisters, because the family could not afford that many girls the child would be sent to a convent and became what the church wanted.  For the male child born a different lifestyle, life was comparable to that of the female.  If the child was the first-born male of his family, he was given every right and responsibility for the family, and he was allowed to attend school to learn how to be prosperous. If the male child was second or third male child, their life could be focused on the need to for political life, or spiritual life in a monastery. 

In the medieval society, there was never a focus on what if the child wanted sexually.  If the child wished to masquerade as the opposite sex, it was not considered an option.  Transvestite, as they are called, are people who think they are the opposite gender that they are biologically.  During the time of Middle Ages, the Transvestite was seen as outcast and the forbidden people.  They were looked down on and in most cases shunned from there family.  While the majority looked down upon transvestite, the transsexual did have a part of the society.  The contribution of the transsexual can by examined by considering their roles in society, and ways in which they were furthered in their own pursuits.

            The notion of men wearing women’s clothing and women wearing men’s apparel is nothing new, even for the society of the people in the Middle Ages.  Transvestite living in Europe were good people, Christian for the most part, who went to church and listened to what the local parish had to say.  There was a passage in The Bible that people who wanted to dress up as the opposite sex may have heard, or they may have heard it and never thought it applied to them.  In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, there is a passage that states, “The Women shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.[1]”  This clearly states that if a man wears a women’s garment, or clothing, that he is under the abomination of their God.  It also holds the same meaning for the women who dress as men. This statement is repeated by the church in the canons of the Council of Gangra (ca. 341), the decrees of Burchard of Worms (1025/1026) and the influential Decretum of Gratian (twelfth century).  Even in medieval and early-modern Europe, city ordinances were passed about cloth sometime mention male guise specifically in which women were forbidden to wear men’s clothing.[2]  There is reference however, that the notation made in Deuteronomy were in direct reference to a religious rival of Judaism where during the religious ceremonies, members engage in cross dressing, and that the passage was included to prevent the Jewish people from interacting with them. [3] No matter what the reason for the inclusion of this verse in the scriptural prohibition held a great influence on Christian attitude when it came to transvestite and it is one of the reasons why people who followed this passage looked down upon these people who dressed up in the garments of the opposite sex. 

The notation of there being cross dresser in the Middle Ages is not a new concept, neither is it a new idea that there were people running around in other garments during this time.  The idea of transvestite comes from the twelfth century literary writer Magnus Hirschfeld who coined the term “transvestite” in his study Die Transvestiten that focused on transvestite as a sexual variation not always related to sexual orientation.  This means that people who affiliate themselves with being a cross dresser are not necessarily doing so because they are gay or lesbian, but could being a straight person who wants a sexual deterrent in their life.  In the English language, the word “transvest” had existed with the meaning, “to clothe in other garment.[4]”  Even before the Middle Ages the 4th Century Saint Jerome describe why a person, namely a women may try to become the opposite sex.  He stated, “Long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul.  But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called man.[5]”  This does not imply they did dress as a man, but for a woman to become man ment she was more fully connect to the church.

  In the Middle Ages, there were women such as Jeanne d’Arc and the legend of Pope Joan, who dressed up as men and held positions of authority. [6]  It is interesting to note that medieval society held two opinions on transvestite.  There is a tolerance of the females who dressed as man like Pope Joan, while at the same time there is intolerance for the males who would dress, even to the point that they were held in lower status among the society. [7]  In fact, for many female saints attainted their holiness through transvestite.  The women accomplished this by living as a hermits or monks and remaining undetected until at death.

There is a notion that the males in the society did have a role in the society.  In the Mirror of Knighthood by Diego Ortunez de Calahorra the hero of the story puts on the clothes of a lady to trick a tyrant that has demanded to sleep with a young noble wife.  At that moment, the hero, Rosicleer, becomes so beautiful as no gentlewoman thereabouts considered him to be their equal and praised him for his grace and honor.  In this account, we have here a story of a young man willing to trick and spoil another man to fulfill his selfish desires.  It is also an example of how the literary works can be showing the lives of a transvestite.[8]

There is a famous legend deal with a transvestite in the medieval period that causes the greatest anguish for the Catholic Church, while at the same time succeed in living as the opposite sex.  This is the legend of Pope Joan, who ruled under the name John Anglicus, is a legendary account of Joan, and how she became a Pope for a period in the Catholic Church.  Joan of course was born to her parents in England and in her father had her taught by Mainz to read and right.  She eventually meets a monk and falls in love with him.  In order to be closer to the Monk, Ulfilias she disguises herself as a fellow Monk and the two spend the next years writing back and forth.  Eventually Joan’s lover dies and she is sent to Rome were her reputation as a monk spreads and she rises rapidly through the church, becoming a cardinal as after the death of Pope Leo in the 850’s she ascends to the Papacy under the name Pope John VIII.  Sadly, this story of a transvestite making it ends on a harrowing note when she meets a Benedictine monk who looks like her old lover, become pregnant enters into labor and dies shortly thereafter[9].  The remarkable part for Pope Joan is that during this whole time except for her two lovers, none of the other men around her think or believe she is a woman, and all accept her for the man she portrays to them.  In this she is allowing herself to fulfill a desire that may have not been there from the in the initial beginnings of her life.

Now what does this tell us about the account of Pope Joan?  The first item it tells is that people had a fear that a women could come to rise in the Catholic Church.  This account is given by the people to show that a woman could dress as man, pass appearance wise as a man, and rise in an organization.  It also shows that when someone did dress in the opposite sex the transvestite had to be very careful in hiding his or her secret.  She had to hide whom she was, and hide the passions and feeling of her opposite sex.  If this is a true account of someone who did rise in the church, from my research this could have been a real person but they did not rise as far as Joan did, but that the story was heard and embellished to make it sound more humorous[10].  The other question that remains in a story such as Joan is if she was a women who rose to this much power and influence in the Catholic Church, why is there so many different disagreements in the story.  People know who the pope is, especially those in the position of leader for the church.  If Pope Joan were the person stories tell, then why not at death of her, would not have there been people writing her story down about the life of this pope?  They could have done research and maybe found her beginnings.  Alternatively, they could have looked under the papacy robes and discovered she had female part, since the sex change surgery was not developed until the twentieth century. Obviously, this is a made up story of a transvestite who rose to power, yet the purpose still could be to show how a transvestite could dress and make it in their new role in society.

The cross dressing person was also able to peruse their own interest.  The main way that the transvestite accomplished having a role in society came from working in the theater.  When acting in a play a male actor could perform the roles of both male and females.  While not all males who portrayed females were transvestites, a portion of them did secretly like to dress as the opposite sex.  Men in the theatre have historically portrayed the roles of women up until the mid 1800’s.  This has given the male a chance to experience the role of playing the opposite sex and portraying a woman.  These were in his early teens, because of the fact they had not grown a beard, or had their voice lowered from puberty. For the transvestite this can be a place to freely express themselves within the bounds of directing and to see how they would appear if they were a female.  This could also be the area that a transvestite decided because there is no hope of passing in the society, realized the only way he must fulfill his pursuit of transvestite was to become the opposite gender. [11]

In the theatre, the men who portrayed the female roles were respected among their fellow actors.  Yet, they were also often treated as a woman or near the status of a woman. The male actors were older men and had the need to dominate the younger men, or show them the ropes of acting.  They were also treated different because of them acting the role of a female.  Even for those who were not transvestites, the playing of a woman was a difficult role for the average actor.  They had to study the movement of a woman and the way she behaved.  Then they were required to embellish what they saw in order for the lead male actors to get the reviews and the audience behind them.  This at times could make the young actor and transvestite angry and upset with their role, if they were trying to express and establish themselves in the theatre society.  Although this would appear to be a difficult task for the transvestite to explore and fulfill their hopes of being a woman, there were able to succeed in their trying. [12]

When the transvestite acted on the stage they accomplished a goal that they had set for themselves.  This goal could have been as simple as showing the world they could be a woman at the same time being a man, or this could have been an attempt to be able to pass as a female in the play society.  Often if a transvestite was exceptional at the roles, they would be asked to work in another role as the lead “female,” or other feminine roles for the play.  For a male who was not a transvestite, being asked to play the female was considered offensive to their career as an actor.  Transvestites often kept their identity as a girl secret in private. Therefore, if a transvestite was asked to play the role, often the director did not know if they were offending the actor or not.  When a male transvestite was given the role of a female, it was considered an achievement and furthered help to cultivate in their minds that they were actually passing as a female in society.[13] 

The final question dealing with transvestite in acting deals with transvestite is how the female transvestite fit in.  The female transvestite did have a role in the acting, yet they had their troubles. The first came in trying to cover up their femaleness when their breast started to develop.  Often heavy clothes were placed on their chests to cover the breasts up, and they would just magically appear when the female acted.  Another trouble a female transvestite encounter is the change of pitch in the voices if trying to pass as man in acting, they would be cast into a female role and, therefore, was not able to fulfill their desire to pass as man.[14]

Is this a legitimate reason for having male and female actors change their roles in the theatre?  Well the first answer is yes, there is a need to have the males change their roles in the Middle Ages.  This is because in this era women did not play a role in the play company.  Therefore, when a female role was called for, the young man came in and played the role, whether or not if they were a transvestite.  There was also parts of play were a had the male put on woman’s clothing to hide from someone, fit in with a crowd for a time, or to act in a play in a play.  The matter of if a woman’s role dominated this era is debatable.  People have claimed that there was woman disguised as a man, but again such as the case with Pope Joan, there is no documented proof that it ever happened.  It could have occurred if a woman was determined to do it, but she could not come out and say, “Hey I did it!” because the woman would have been permanently ridiculed by the society and frowned upon[15].

The struggle for a transvestite in the Middle Ages was difficult process.  First, they had to overcome the stigmatism that other people held about woman wearing the garment of a man and the man wearing that, which belongs to a woman.  Then they had to be able to pass as in the opposite sex and make a life out of it.  There were those who succeeded in this process, while there were others who failed.  The theatre provided a manor in which men and women could express themselves in the opposite sex.  This was especially true for men, while women could live their transvestite life in a monastery and grow from there.  In both places, the transvestite found their niche in society and was able to gain the foothold they most desperately sought for and wanted.  In the end it turns out these people often got what they wanted, even if it was against societal norms.


[1] The Bible, Deuteronomy 22:5

[2] Valerie Hotchkiss, “Clothes Make the Man Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe” (Garland Publishing, INC New York, New York 1996) 11

[3] Vern Bullough, “Cross Dressing and gender Role Change Changes in the Middle Ages in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality” (Garland Publishing, INC New York, New York 2000), 224

[4] Hotchkiss, 4

[5] Vern Bullough, Transvestites in the Middle Ages The American Journal of Sociology Vol., 79 No. 6 (May, 1974), 1383

[6] Hotchkiss, 11

[7] Bullough, Cross-dressing, 225

[8] Winfried Schleiner, Male Cross-Dressing and Transvestism in Renaissance Romance Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 19, No. 4 (1988), 608

[9] Bullough, Transvestites, 1388-1389

[10] Hotchkiss, 73-78

[11] Katie Normington, Gender and Medieval Drama (Antony Rowe Ltd., Chippenham, Wiltshire 2004), 25

[12] Ibid., 17

[13] Ibid., 57

[14] Ibid, 39

[15] Ibid, 45