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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #33 – Bullough 1974 “Transvestites in the Middle Ages”

Full citation: 

Bullough, Vern L. 1974. “Transvestites in the Middle Ages” in American Journal of Sociology 79/6: 1381-1394

Posting live from the Golden Crown Literary Society Conference! (Good thing I have all my blog posts pre-written for the rest of the week.)

This article feels rather dated to the current reader, but one must consider the era in which it was written. Academic approaches to crossdressing were barely digging out from under a psycho-pathological model to address a sociological approach to gender roles and gender presentation. Boswell’s groundbreaking (if flawed) work on male homosexuality in the middle ages would not be published for another six years, and if anyone gave thought to lesbian history it was assumed that one could extrapolate from the male experience. But Bullough is a significant scholar in the field and helped build the foundation on which later work was done, so I felt it was important to include.

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This article looks at gender-status issues in the context of medieval crossdressing motifs (both literary and historical). It begins with a consideration of crossdressing as psychopathology with an essentialist approach (keep in mind this was written in 1974!) then shifts to looking at the role of culture in reactions to crossdressing, especially differences between the reactions to crossdressing men and women. He takes the corpus of transvestite saints’ lives as a starting point and shows how the motif of women crossdressing as men to pursue a religious life interacts with beliefs about the greater rationality and spirituality of men, such that women must “become men” to embody those aspects. In contrast, stories about men passing as women to enter female religious establishments concern the potential for sexual impropriety. The article reviews several variants of the transvestite saint motifs (which I won’t repeat, having given them in Anson 1974). Bullough also covers the motif of bearded female saints, which doesn’t really fit in with my interests in the crossdressing motif. He concludes the discussion of crossdressing women with the fictional case of Pope Joan and the historic one of Joan of Arc.

The legend of Pope Joan runs fairly similarly to those of crossdressing saints -- a woman devoted to learning passes as a man in order to enter a monastery to accompany a man she loves. She gains fame as a scholar and after the death of her companion rises in the church hierarchy to become a cardinal and is then elected pope. However, rather than the pregnancy motif involving a false accusation, it is a lesson on female weakness: she takes a lover and becomes pregnant, with the birth of the child disclosing her secret.

One of the more dangerous charges made against Joan of Arc was the impropriety of her crossdressing. Clearly it was never for the purpose of passing as a man, and Joan’s own testimony was that she did it for convenience during military activities and from personal preference. Although the political conflicts she was involved in would have been sufficient to condemn her, the trial focused strongly on gender-transgression.

The article concludes with a consideration of male crossdressing, particularly in theatrical contexts of carnivals.

Event / person: 

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