In the context of doing a podcast on the usefulness of singlewomen studies, I plunged into this collection that I picked up at Kalamazoo this year. (Thereby also fulfilling my pledge to try to prioritize new book acquisitions.) There are several really fascinating articles for my purpose, especially one on singlewomen in the profession of moneylender. I’ve started off by scheduling these at the usual one-per-week rate, though I'm not counting this introduction as fulfilling the requirement so I'll be posting the first actual paper on Wednesday. As several of the later articles are of very little relevance to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, at some point I’ll dump the remaining items one-a-day around the rest of the blog schedule to finish them off. But in the mean time, I need some breathing space for my two-week trip to Ireland in August (for Worldcon) plus recovery time while I line up more blog material. Oh, and August is also when I’m doing the editorial revisions for Floodtide. Another reason to set up a series of blogs where I can just hit the button and publish. [Edited to add: I wrote up all the entries for this collection a week ago before I started the Floodtide revisions when I anticipated a longer process. As it happens, we finished two go-rounds of editorial feedback this past weekend and it's all done. Yay!]
Amtower, Laurel and Dorothea Kehler. 2003. “Introduction” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6
A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.
As usual, the introduction to this collection includes laying out the basic concepts of the topic, a review of the existing literature, and then summaries of the papers that discuss how they relate to each other.
Among the social categories for women, “singlewomen” is a complex that includes widows and pre-married women as well as never-married women. It can include well-born “spinsters” and economically independent businesswomen, as well as wage earners (including domestic and agricultural laborers). Existing research includes some in-depth statistical surveys of singlewomen across time and space, but studies have rarely included literary studies and typically begin their focus in the 16th century.
This collection discusses methods for recovering the lives of singlewomen from a broader cultural perspective. Good previous publications in the field include Bennett & Froide (Singlewomen in the European Past), Lewis et al. (Young Medieval Women), Hufton (The Prospect Before Her). All share a focus that women can’t be reduced to a single category or experience. A given woman’s life can represent multiple experiences.
This collection focuses mainly on representation of singlewomen, especially literary representation. It notes how the division of singlewomen into sub-classes masks their pervasive presence in society. There is a discussion of different sub-classes within the category. Each era has a normative model of women’s lives, and those who don’t fit are stereotyped and argued away as non-typical. These essays discuss those various contexts and how they sustain or contradict the model of patriarchal restrictions on women’s options.
The collection is divided into “Celebrating Chastity”, “Repudiating Marriage”, “Imaginary Widowhood”, and “Sexuality and Re-virgination.” One focus of the papers is on the potential agency of singlewomen. How was singlehood understood as an available and even positive choice? The remainder of the introduction is a summary and contextualization of the contents.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 36d - Swinging Singles and Lesbian Opportunities - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/07/27 - listen here)
Why Study Singlewomen?
When imagining the lives of lesbian characters in pre-modern western history, one false idea that regularly comes up is that women had no viable alternatives to marriage--not without becoming complete social outcasts. Both authors and readers of historical fiction often have a misunderstanding that women living autonomous lives outside of marriage are unhistorical or anomalous. That not being married to a man was view as inherently suspect unless one had a special exemption such as a religious vocation.
This misconception has obvious consequences for imagining the historic spaces in which lesbian characters might exist. It means they are imagined as being socially transgressive in refusing or avoiding marriage to a man. That their lives and domestic arrangements will be scrutinized. That they will be considered an anomaly within their societies. If imagining one woman living a life independent of men is made difficult by this error, imagining two--who also find their lives entwined--is thought to strain credulity.
And--to be sure--many women in history who engaged in same-sex relationships did so within the context of a heterosexual marriage. And there's a place in historical fiction to tell those stories as well. But the truth is that singlewomen--women who had not married, or declined to marry, or had been married but now lived single lives as widows--were extremely common in pre-modern Europe.
While the proportions varied depending on time and place, on class, occupation, and family situation, demographic studies of specific communities in medieval Europe show that anywhere between a fifth to a half of the adult women in a community might be unmarried at any given time. In the 17th and 18th centuries, studies show that anywhere between 10 to 20% of women in their 40s and 50s had never married. (And at that age, were unlikely ever to do so.)
Of course, not all those single or never-married women were in that position because they weren't sexually interested in men. Likely women with same-sex interests made up only a small percentage of singlewomen. But any situation that applies to one woman in five can't be considered unusual or remarkable. It might be treated as falling outside the ideal model of womanhood, but it couldn't be viewed as inherently suspicious in the context of sexuality.
And that's why the study of singlewomen is highly relevant to the writing of lesbian historical fiction. Because if you want to write female characters who are not married to men and yet are ordinary and unremarkable members of society, you have a vast scope of models to choose from. That's what we're going to talk about today.
The show notes are going to include several excellent books that address this topic, but a great introduction and one-stop-shop is the collection edited by Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide titled Singlewomen in the European Past: 1250-1800. Check out the blog entries for its articles in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Today's episode will primarily look at western European cultures of the middle ages through the 19th century, but the questions that are raised can be applied to other cultures.
The influence of culture
The first thing to keep in mind is that different cultures have different patterns of family life and marriage. Pre-modern Europe wasn't a monolith. One of the large-scale patterns that affects the expectations for a woman's life is divided very roughly into a southern European pattern and a northern European pattern.
Characteristics of the southern pattern--not absolute rules, but trends--include older men marrying younger women, often women in their mid to late teens. Women were expected to be sexually inexperienced at marriage. Women generally did not live or work outside the family household before marriage. Marriages were typically arranged by the parents and seen as a contract between families rather than between individuals. And there was a very low rate of never-married women, in part due to a high rate of unmarried women joining religious orders.
But the northern pattern is a polar opposite in many ways. Marriages tended to be between spouses of the same age and were usually delayed until both had a chance to earn money towards setting up a household. For women, this often included working outside the home, whether in domestic service, in apprenticeships, or in agricultural labor. The average age at first marriage tended to be in the mid to later 20s. Spouses typically had more input into their choice of marriage partner and more ability to refuse marriage. And it was typical for spouses to have engaged in sexual activity before marriage, even though it was officially disapproved. Rates of never-married women (among those women of marriageable age) could be anywhere between 10 to 30%, and even higher in some specific communities. And after the Reformation, the largely-Protestant cultures of northern Europe no longer had convents as a way of absorbing "surplus" singlewomen.
These cultural patterns mean that if you want your fictional characters to be unmarried, their general geographic location is going to affect how typical or atypical that state is, and whether personal choice is likely to be a factor, as opposed to sheer luck. It's going to affect what their options are for life circumstances and how their family and community will view their unmarried state.
The influence of class
Within a given culture, social class also affected life expectations. As a general rule of thumb, the daughters of the aristocracy or the land-owning elite tended to marry younger if they did marry, and with less choice of partner. But they were also, overall, more likely to remain single. The reasons were varied, including lack of approved partners, the expectation for a large dowry without the ability to contribute to their own economic resources, but also to some extent a greater acceptance of unmarried women as valuable within the family economy. At the other end of the social scale, different factors were more important for marriage rates and ages
The influence of location
One major influence was whether you lived in a rural agricultural community or an urban community. With the rise of urban centers, men and women had different migration patterns that affected marriage options. Women who migrated from the countryside to work in towns, either as domestic workers or in crafts, typically married later than their rural sisters. But they also married later than the women who were born in those towns. One can imagine several contributing reasons. If your goal in moving to a town is to build up a nest egg toward establishing a household, you aren't going to plunge into a marriage that would cut that path short. And women who were already established members of the community, with family connections, probably had a leg up on marriage opportunities. But urban centers often had a relative shortage of men due to being tapped for military service and foreign opportunities. Conversely, in rural areas, age at marriage tended to be a bit younger.
The influence of demographics
Migration is one factor that can affect marriage rates, due to changing the distribution of the sexes across the landscape. But there are other more drastic events that can reduce women's rate of marriage. War almost always has a higher mortality for men than for women. As the scope and intensity of warfare increased in the early modern period, the results could affect sex ratios for an entire generation. The English Civil War in the 17th century, the Napoleonic wars around the turn of the 19th century, the American Civil War in the later 19th century -- all of them left in their wake a period of severe gender imbalance in which many women never had the opportunity to marry. And in among them, no doubt, were a fair sprinkling of women who were relieved about that.
With the beginning of the colonial era, larger numbers of men than women emigrated from Europe, contributing to a relative surplus of women back home. In North America, the western expansion always began with more men than women setting out for parts unknown.
Even disease affected marriage rates. Studies of plague mortality in early modern England indicate that men were more likely to fall ill and even still more likely to die from the plague than women. It's hard to estimate the gender ratios affected by the Black Death in the 14th century, but in its wake, with the overall labor force reduced, women found themselves with more opportunities to work outside the domestic sphere, and their greater economic independence resulted in lower marriage rates and more women choosing not to marry at all.
So what are some specific strategies for creating plausible female characters in history who opt out of the heterosexual marriage economy with no fuss, no muss, and no need to live extraordinary lives?
For one, give her money. Let her inherit income-producing property, or be given a an inheritance by a relative. Probably her family would expect her to use it as a dowry, but maybe the "right man" just never happens to come along. No reason for her to pine away in the mean time. The details will depend on the local land-owning laws, but in many many contexts, certain women were perfectly able to inherit real estate. And as long as she didn't marry, she retained full control over that property and its profits.
Give her a craft, a profession. Apprentice her in a trade. There were professions that were dominated by women. Different professions at different times and places. In medieval England, have her be a brewer or baker. In medieval France, a silk-worker. In most pre-industrial societies, have her spin for a living. There's a reason why "spinster" came to mean an unmarried woman. It was a profession thoroughly dominated by women and that could be engaged in with little overhead, often in informal cooperatives.
As discussed in one of the articles I'll be blogging about shortly, once legal restrictions on moneylending were lifted, it became a popular side business for single women. With the same nest egg that could get you a good marriage, you could bring in interest equivalent to what you'd make in wages. There are plenty of options to have your single heroine earn her living. Oh, and it really helps to have her live in a town, not out in the country.
This next one is more restrictive: set your story in a culture that followed the "northern European marriage pattern"--the pattern where women were expected to leave the parental home and perform wage labor to accumulate a nest egg for marriage. Where they generally married in their mid to late 20s. Where they expected to have veto power over a choice of spouse. And then...just have them fail to marry. For any of many possible reasons.
Alternately, have your heroines meet in a convent. It happened often enough that the convents felt the need to warn against it. Or in the times and places where it was appropriate, have them join a lay religious order like the Beguines who required women to be unmarried.
Place one of your heroines in service in a household outside the family. Maybe she fails to marry because she becomes so devoted to her mistress that she couldn't think of leaving. Maybe she makes a special friend among one of the other young women in service there. For that matter, in some eras, people complained of how domestic servants chose to have separate homes of their own and only come in to work on a daily basis. If people were complaining about it, someone was doing it.
Or from the other side, have your heroine be the daughter of an aristocratic family. They had a lower marriage rate for their daughters than almost any other class. Such women wouldn't have the option of leaving home to take up a profession, but they might spend an extended period living in another household as a companion, housekeeper, or simply from family ties, giving them an opportunity to form other relationships.
How do you identify spaces for singlewomen?
The essential thing to keep in mind is that regardless of what the "nomative" life pattern was for women in a given time and place, the actual lives of women varied across a continuum. And unless your heroines are standing on a streetcorner proclaiming their sexuality, no one is going to be able to tell the difference between a heterosexual singlewoman and a singlewoman whose friendships with women cross the line into romance. So in any context where you can find straight women living happy, productive, and unremarked lives without the benefit of marriage, it's just as plausible to insert a lesbian character living that same life without the need to create a hateful and oppressive social environment.
Look for the women who failed to marry, who chose not to marry, or who simply somehow forgot to marry, and you'll find the spaces in which your fictional lesbians can thrive.
Useful books on singlewomen studies
This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Singlewomen
I'm delighted to be able to contribute to the programming at Worldcon this year -- a privilege I try never to take for granted. I'll be joining panel discussions on podcasting, online fannish community, and Regency fantasy, as well as doing a reading and being available for autographs.
I'll be bringing a limited number of the Alpennia books, as I doubt that the book vendors there will be carrying them. So if you'll be there and know you want a copy of something, let me know in advance and I'll earmark one for you. I'll also be bringing a small number of chapbooks of "The Mazarinette and the Musketeer" to give away. (I really need to come up with my next free chapbook because these are nearly gone.)
I've also had this crazy idea for doing a bunch of micro-interviews and cobbling them together for a podcast episode. Not sure how well it will work. On the one hand, it gives me a structure for interacting with people (one of my tricks for successful conventions) but since I'll either be recording on my phone or on my little dictaphone device, I need to check how well it excludes background noise.
And above all, it you're going to be there, find me and say hi!
One of the academic mailing lists I subscribe to had the following forthcoming book announcement:
As editors of the forthcoming volume Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography (Amsterdam University Press, 2020), we are delighted to share the pre-print version of the Trans & Genderqueer Studies Terminology, Language, and Usage Guide which we have worked on over the past two years along with a number of trans and genderqueer medievalists and allies. The final version of the guide will be included as an appendix to the volume, and will also be available to download as a free PDF from the Amsterdam University Press website.
The guide is written for a target audience of medievalists who are interested in trans theory, and in employing trans/genderqueer optics in their analysis of medieval texts, but who may not yet be familiar with the nuances of this terminology and its usage.
The pre-print version of the guide can be accessed and downloaded here: bit.ly/tgqsguidejune19
Please share widely - we hope that the guide will be interesting and useful to many of you!
With all best wishes,
Blake Gutt (University of Michigan)
Alicia Spencer-Hall (Queen Mary University of London)
The "please share widely" is my basis for including their announcement here, as both the book and the guide may be of interest to LHMP readers.
Given how often I encounter ambiguities and instersections of gender and sexuality issues in topics I present in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, this sounded like a very useful resource for aligning the language I use for historic subjects and topics with current approachs in the field. I've developed my own approach, which is somewhat inconsistent. Sometimes I use the language that the contemporaries of my historic subjects used, sometimes I reflect the language used by the authors of the publications I'm summarizing, and sometimes--and especially when I'm specifically focusing on ambiguities of gender and sexuality--I'll use very technically precise language that distinguishes bodies, identities, behaviors, perceptions, and all the other layers.
Gutt & Spencer-Hall's language guide does provide a few useful approaches on that end, as I'll discuss below, but it felt like the substantial majority of the guide was focused, not on language about historic subjects, but on language for one's academic contemporaries. In other words, the current standards of linguistic politeness around contemporary gender identity. And while that is a valuable and useful set of guidelines to have gathered in one place, it isn't quite as useful as what I thought I was going to find, which was guidelines for how to talk about and refer to historic subjects that both takes into account different historic models and understandings of gender, and integrates that understanding with the standards of modern polite and respectful reference. The material that did cover discussions of historic subjects and topics was highly focused on relatively modern concerns, rather than on the medieval subjects of the book it will be included in. This perhaps makes sense in terms of trans and genderqueer studies in general, but was another point where my expectations were disappointed. So here's my very brief overview of the guide, noting the parts I found most useful and the places I felt it had weaknesses as a historian's apparatus. If you're interested in the topic, I encourage you to follow the link and read the original for yourself.
The guide begins with the premise that "linguistic violence" is done to marginalized communities by disrespectful, othering, and offensive language. This harm can be done either deliberately or through ignorance of the meanings carried by choices of terminology. All language use is inherently political. The key is to be aware of how language choice normalizes and reinforces certain perceptions while delegitimizing and erasing others.
This guide is intended as a resource for respectful and inclusive ways of discussing trans, genderqueer, and intersex topics, either with respect to specific individuals or to groups. It's not meant to be a set of fixed rules. Language changes, and communities have a variety of opinions and reactions to specific terms. Terms that were viewed as slurs in the past may be reclaimed and embraced; terms that were previously considered positive and affirming may become outdated or reframed as problematic. Rapid shifts in the current linguistic landscape create the risk that analytic writing that is considered neutral at the time it was produced may be considered distractingly inaccurate or offensive by near-future readers, but the answer is not to turn away from making the attempt.
The granularity of language may mean that different terms apply differently at various levels of specificity or particularity. Terminology may carry culture-specific meanings and be misleading or inapplicable when used to describe other cultures. Language that is descriptive in one cultural context may not fit other contexts well or at all. The authors of the guide recognize that as white Europeans, their understanding of the field will necessarily be shaped by that background.
The guide also hopes to distinguish between language that is generally appropriate for use by everyone, and language that may be potentially offensive if used by those not in the group it applies to.
This work is specifically grounded in, and aimed at, the work of medievalist scholars and their interactions with modernist theories of gender and sex. A number of foundational scholars are noted for their work in the field and for the theoretical grounding in which the guide is rooted. Certain basic vocabulary terms are presented to support common understanding of the guide. In particular, "sex" is used to refer to socially-assigned, biologically-based categories, while "gender" is used to refer to the individual's subjective sense of identity.
The majority of the guide is an alphabetic glossary of vocabulary that discusses the context in which the term has historically been used, the overt and covert meanings it carries (denotation and connotation), and discussions of alternate wordings and phrasings if a term is considered potentially problematic.
For example, the entry for "passing" (in a transgender context) discusses various layers of meaning, synonyms that may have more specific social contexts, comparison to parallel language as applied to sexual orientation, and suggestions for alternate wording that reframes the concept in terms of exterior perception rather than intent. For example, rather than saying "so-and-so passed as a man" consider "so-and-so was read as a man". [Note: This is definitely an term I'm going to work on adopting for exactly that reason--because it describes the social outcome rather than implying a particular intent.]
This is followed by a bibliography of further reading on specific vocabulary or topics.
* * *
My comments as a potential user for this guide.
This appears to be an excellent and detailed guide to language around gender identity in contemporary society. Most of the material was familiar to me, but I probably spend more effort than the average person to listen to current discourse around terminology and politeness strategies around gender. For those who feel confused about the current state of the language, it is likely to be very useful.
With regard to academic discourse, the discussions are not always clear whether the context is the historic material being presented and analyzed or whether the context is talking about the contemporary academic community. For example, in the entry for "Names" there is a detailed discussion of how to handle references to scholars who published both before and after transition, but rather less consideration of how to refer to historic subjects who are potentially readable as trans. And no advice at all on how to distinguish the handling of individual identity (i.e., the individual's own identity) in historic sources from the historic interpretation of how identities were read (i.e., how their contemporaries understood them).
Let me expand on that. One of the topics that I'd love to have more guidance on is how to discuss transgender motifs as presented in historic literature. Sometimes this can involve trying to determine how the literary character understood their gender (that is, within the story-context, how was their understanding of their own gender depicted?), but more often I'm analyzing how the historic author understood and depicted gender and transgender motifs. And that depiction is often based on ideas that are not currently considered acceptable, whether it is the idea that trans women are actually cis men engaging in deception or whether it is the idea that trans men are higher on the great chain of being than cis women. (This is touched on in the entry for "gender-critical" with regard to contemporary applications of the concepts, but that entry provides no guidance for discussing the underlying ideas in a historic context.)
This issue is touched on briefly under "assigned sex" with a caveat about being aware of whether a literary character is assigned a sex within the text or is being assigned a sex by the reader/scholar. There is, unfortunately, no real discussion or examples on how one might approach the question.
Some entries do provide very useful guidance on usage with regard to historic subjects, such as the one for the term "cross-dress(ing)" which explains why to avoid it in transgender contexts (because with regard to gender identity, the clothing isn't "cross") but discusses other contexts where it is appropriate and neutral (such as in dramatic presentations). The discussion of the term "hermaphrodite" is also detailed and useful.
In general, this seems to me to be an excellent guide to the contemporary use of language for contemporary people. But I had anticipated more consideration of how to discuss historic lives, motifs, and textual materials themselves in ways that are clear, informative, and sensitive. There was enough of a taste of that content that I don't think I was mistaken in expecting it, but not enough to feel that expectation had been fulfilled.
Several of my teasers have harped on the theme of how to take a plot-essential situation and set it up so that the readers view it as a natural consequence of the setting. In one sense, it can be manipulative, but in another sense, as an author you have a vision of how things have always been. Your task is to communicate that vision in a way that feels effortless.
Setting up those expectations needn't be focused only on the immediate plot requirements. Because everything you write needs to be consistent in some way with the underlying truths of your fictional world as a whole.
One truth of the Alpennia I've constructed is that Margerit Sovitre has established a school with the goal of educating any girl who has the ambition to learn. And especially to encourage any girl with mystical talents to develop them.
One truth of the plot of Floodtide is that there needs to be a solid and believable reason why Celeste is not a student at that school, especially given her personal contacts through Serafina.
How do I resolve these in a way that doesn't seem artificial? The answer is that I lean on other, unspoken truths.
One of those truths is that Margerit can be a bit dense about how other people's life situations differ from her own. About how to give people opportunities they're able to take advantage of. And about how throwing money around doesn't solve all the problems. Akezze regularly serves as the voice of her conscience in pointing out when Margerit has structured a benefit in ways that make it difficult for some people to use. Akezze is uniquely situated for this role but some lessons Margerit has to learn on her own. And Margerit will learn some of those lessons. (All of my charaters have their tragic flaws. I may have blogged about that at some point. Barbara's primary flaw is massive control issues and having invested her self-identity in physical competence. Jeanne had to work through some of her tragic flaws in The Mystic Marriage. Roz's tragic flaw is a tendency to run her mouth off before her brain is solidly engaged. Margerit...I guess a useful way of putting it in contemporary political jargon is that Margerit's tragic flaw is that her feminism is middle-class-white-feminism. She'll get through it but it's going to be a hard road.)
Sometimes I lean on truths that can be spoken, but only to certain people, and only when they are willing to listen.
Roz makes some guesses as to why Celeste hasn't taken up the implied invitation from the Tanfrit Academy, and Celeste is quite happy to tell her the rest of it, if only she'd ask.
* * *
“Maisetra Iulien says that they want all kinds of girls at the school. Not just the rich girls, but poor ones too, if they have the talent to learn mysteries. She says they have students from the Poor Scholars there.” The Poor Scholars hadn’t done me any good back when Father Mazzu took me there, but if they were studying at Maisetra Sovitre’s school, then it was true that anyone could. “Iulien says you should ask Maisetra Talarico about it.”
I hesitated because Celeste’s eyes flashed when I’d said “poor girls.”
“You think we’re poor? When we have a good house here? And hot food every day? And I have three dresses, not even counting my church clothes?”
“I didn’t mean poor like that,” I protested. “She just said you needn’t worry about the school fees.”
But Celeste kept on. “Do you know how we have all that? Because we work hard, Maman and me. And what would Maman do if I were off all day at Maisetra Sovitre’s school? Who would get all this sewing done? You? All by yourself? In half-days? Who would mind the shop when she takes her samples and measuring tapes off to a grand lady who’s too busy to come here? You think we could ask the baker’s girl to stand behind the counter? What would Maman do if she had to hire an assistant for the sewing I do? For wages! That’s not piece-work she can send out like we did before you came. Maman is counting on me to take over the trade and help put money away so she won’t have to keep sewing when she gets old and her fingers get knotted and her eyes get dim. School!” she scoffed. “It doesn’t matter if the lessons are free or if they cost the price of Princess Anna’s gowns. Your Maisetra Sovitre isn’t going to pay for someone to take my place here in the shop.”
I picked this book up more for general background research on women's lives and expectations, but since I'm doing a thematic run of publications on singlewomen and on social and economic contexts in which women had the possibility of living lives independent of marriage and patriarchal control, it fits in well enough to include.
Reading through the details of what daughters were inheriting, how those inheritances reflected their life expectations, and how they fit into the social and economic structure of the time, we can easily construct a number of scenarios in which a woman could establish and enjoy a stable, comfortable life, with family bonds and positive community relationships, without ever marrying a man and--here's the key element--without that state being considered unusual, scandalous, or suspicious. And given the structure of households, she would almost certainly share her life with other women: with unmarried sisters or more distant relatives, with female servants, with apprentices (or apprenticed to someone), or even with "very dear friends" who preferred not to live on their own.
You don't need to require your lesbian protagonist to reject her family. To leave her community. To be an outcast or considered "peculiar" if she lives on her own without marrying. Have her parents leave her a few income-producing tenements. Perhaps a house with a "rent" shop attached to it. Her brother and married sister expect that the property will make a good dowry some day, but if she isn't that "lucky" then at least she won't need their charity. Maybe she feels underfoot in her sibling's house and chooses to live on her own. She's learned a trade and maybe even has an apprentice or two of her own. She'll hire a few servants and be very combortable in that house. And the young widow who's set up shop in the "rent" is industrious and friendly and...lonely. There's your premise. Go write!
Staples, Kate Kelsey. 2011. Daughters of London: Inheriting Opportunity in the Late Middle Ages. Brill, Leiden. ISBN 978-9004203112
This book is a study of inheritance patterns for women as their parent's daughters (as opposed to inheriting from more distant relations or unrelated persons), based on a collection of London wills dating to 1300-1500. Within this historic context (i.e., 14-15th century London), 15% of women never married. So although Staples doesn't have a way of correlating her data against the eventual life-pattern of the beneficiaries, I read the text always keeping in mind that greater than 15% of the daughters being discussed (because married daughters were often omitted from wills due to having aready received a dowry) were potentially using that inheritance to establish themselves in a life independent of heterosexual marriage. Even in the case of inheriting daughters who eventually married, there is a usefulness to consider how they used that inheritance in the period before they did so.
The study covers 3000 wills, mentioning 1500 daughters and 1800 sons. The author notes a common assumption that daughters would inherit moveable property (household goods and furnishings, money) while sons would inherit real estate (houses, shops, lands, rental property). But this assumption is contradicted in this data set, with both daughters and sons inheriting both types of items.
There are some large-scale shifts in inheritance patterns (some of which are not reflected in the data set covered here), such as a shift in the 12-13th century towards focusing more on primogeniture (a preference for the eldest son, rather than all children sharing more equally). There were also changes aimed at putting more control of family property into the hands of male heirs, such that family wealth would be kept "within the family" and passed along as a cumulative whole, as well as a tendency for the property women brought into a marriage to come under her husband's control.
But urban patterns were often different from rural ones, and even at this earlier period could sometimes favor women's control of marital property in specific cases, even while downplaying the role of women as "economic producers" in marriage. London in particular has its own patterns, especially with regard to real estate held by burgage tenure (a type of tenure also found in other towns). While the types of land tenure prevalent in rural areas normally came with obligations for providing military service (or equivalent) and required the lord's permission to sell or divide the property, burgage tenure allowed for unrestricted sale or transfer of the property and came with no similar service requirements. These features combined to make it more likely that urban daughters could inherit real estate along with moveable property. Urban families were more likely to follow "partible" inheritance (i.e., equally to all children) rather than focusing on consolidation and transmission of undivided lands. [Note: although the author doesn't explain this specifically, one practical economic reason for this is that there were economies of scale in agricultural lands. At a certain point, inheriting an equal share of a very small amount of land requires more work than it produces value. Whereas inheriting an equal share of an income-producing piece of urban real estate still provides an income, however small.]
London wills clearly show the intent to leave both domestic and commercial real estate to daughters along with sons, and not only to married daughters. The nature of this data confines it to families who did own property. The very poor did not leave wills of this type. And wills don't necessarily mention all the children in a family, only those receiving bequests. So it isn't possible to reconstruct the complete family situation. A son or daughter who had already left the family home and established their own household at the time the will was drafted--quite likely receiving financial support to do so--may not be mentioned at all.
The set of wills studied here (based on a particular registering office) are primarily of wealthy artists and merchants. The wills are primarily drawn up by men (88%) as ownership of property within a marriage devolved on the man. The wills by women are mostly from widows. The categories of beneficiaries (and there was usually more than one) were 25% non-family friends and associates, and roughly equal percentages (ca. 20% each) for wives, daughters, and sons, with sons being slightly more often represented than the others. The remainder of much small categories include siblings and more distant relatives.
Bequests might include conditions for what happened to the property after the initial beneficiary died, such as property left to a wife with the condition that it go to the children after her death, or for "cross-inheritance" by siblings, where the survivor would receive property of a sibling who pre-deceased them. Other specific conditions might be imposed on inheritance especially, but not only, for daughters.
A detailed example: The will of Thomas Curteise (1349) made his daughter Alice his main beneficiary. She received a tenement (see explanation below) for her lifetime and a collection of brewing equipment, presumably with the expectation that she would engage in that business.
The daughters of noble, professional, and artisan families were more likely to receive real estate than the daughters of government officials or merchants, but this is only a general pattern and not an absolute rule.
Among the testators (i.e., the persons making the will), 69% of female testators are identified as widows. (The number may be higher, but these are explicitly identified as such.) Less than 5% of women are identified in the document as a wife with the husband still living who gives permission for the bequests. More than 10% of female testators mention no husband, living or dead, although this isn't absolute proof of never-married status.
Bequests sometimes included restrictions and conditions. A common one was that part of the income from a piece of real estate be used to fund religious commemorations for the soul of the testator after death. (Charity and gifts to religious institutions also made a significant proportion of bequests.) Alternately, the condition might be that the recipient perform some act regularly, like praying or burning a candle for the soul of the deceased. As a general pattern, sons were more likely than daughters to have pious requirements placed on their bequests.
Less common requirements included provision for the support of relatives, use by daughters as a marriage portion, restrictions on marriage portions regarding the timing of marriage or choice of spouse (including a couple of instructions forbidding marriage to a named individual), or the use of funds for schooling (generally sons) or apprenticeship (most often sons, but also some daughters). It's unclear what happened to a bequest earmarked for a marriage portion if the daughter never married [but I've seen mention in other publications that she would gain legal control of is at the age of majority].
Only 7% of daughters mentioned in the wills are described as married (as comparison, less than 1% of sons are described as married). [Note: as mentioned above, part of the context here is that sons and daughters who had already married at the time the will was made may have already been provided for at the time of marriage.]
Women's wills slightly favored female recipients for moveable property and tended to favor sons for real estate, while men's wills were roughly even-handed with regard to the gender of beneficiaries of real estate. But overall these differences are slight.
Looking specifically at daughters as beneficiaries, what did they receive? 78% received some amount of real estate (compared with 86% of sons receiving real estate). The types of real estate are distributed as follows:
Sometimes sons received real estate with the requirement of providing an annuity to a sister until she married or entered a convent. This served the purposes of providing for both while not dividing the property. Alternately, a son might be given real estate with the requirement that he provide a marriage portion for his sister(s). [Note: one can see the potential personal drama given that the inheriting son has control over the money flow, though the sister(s) had the option to take him to court to collect per the terms of the will.]
A daughter might receive real estate as a direct bequest ("in fee tail") or only as a secondary heir in the case that her brother(s) died without issue. Property in fee tail could be left to anyone, not only blood relatives. But there were many other variants of types of tenancy that included restrictions on who real estate could be left to. Some types specified that if the recipient died without legitimate heirs, the property could only go to another family member. [Note: historical fiction fans maybe familiar from a much later date with property left "in tail male" or "entailed on the male line" in which real estate could only go to the nearest male heir, no matter how distant. This was only one particular restriction and far from universal.]
Types of restrictions placed on inherited real estate include those designed to keep property associated with a married daughter, both during the marriage and in widowhood, or to ensure it went to her children, rather than giving her husband the right to dispose of it at will. English law in this regard differed from that of southern Europe (as a general pattern) in that never-married women enjoyed full legal control over their property rather than requiring a male relative (or other male associate) to act for them.
While inheritance of real estate was important for financial stability and independence, bequests of moveable property can also give us an image of what daughters' lives and expectations were like.
There were gendered differences in what types of movables sons and daughters inherited, but contrary to stereotype, daughters weren't limited to "domestic" goods (i.e., furnishings, kitchen equipment, etc.). English tradition held that a man should leave movable goods in three equal portions: 1/3 to the wife, 1/3 to the children, and 1/3 distributed as alms. This distribution system was adjusted if the testator lacked either a wife, children, or both.
But not all goods would be described and specified in the will, so named items provide only part of the picture. Sometimes wills describe only the proportions. "Movables" included money and annuities and similar fixed incomes. Sons and daughters received monetary inheritances in roughly equal proportions. Sometimes (as with income from real estate) there were restrictions or specifications on use, such as dowries for daughters or apprenticeship fees for sons. Daughters could also receive money earmarked for apprenticeship. One will specified that a daughter could use the money either as a dowry or for an apprenticeship. Annuities were counted as disposable "property" and were a common choice to leave to daughters who had entered convents.
Concrete goods could include household furnishings, but also crops in the field or other commercial inventory and livestock. Certain types of goods were much more likely to be left to sons: commercial goods, sailing vessels, armor, books. Goods given to daughters could indicate a specific trade she was expected to engage in, such as candlemaking or brewing. Often these were types of trades expected to supplement household activities rather than with the expectation of it being a full-time profession. The occupations indicated by these goods often straddled the division between personal consumption and commercial production, such as brewing, making clothing, and spinning.
Household goods could also serve both as useful objects and as a reserve of wealth. Silver spoons were often mentioned in bequests, along with other types of silver household goods which could be easily sold at need.
The broad overlap in types of goods given to sons and daughters weakens the "separate spheres" concept held to by many historians that see medieval lives as sharply separated according to gender. What do these bequests tell us about the assertion that women passed from the authority of fathers to the authority of husbands? For one, daughters who left their parents' households were provided with property not only for domestic life but for commercial income. At least some subset of these inheriting daughters had the option of establishing their own households without the need for marriage.
How did the presence of siblings affect what people received? Statistically, women were more likely to receive real estate if a brother was also mentioned somewhere in the will. And sons were slightly less likely to receive real estate if a sister was mentioned. [Note: no speculation is made on what would motivate this.] In a number of cases--contrary to stereotype--daughters received real estate (houses, rents, lands) while their brothers received money and household goods.
The question arises, to what extent did these daughters manage their own real estate? Across northern Europe, we have tax and census records showing unmarried women pursuing occupations and inheriting businesses. There were women's professional guilds in trades that were dominated by female workers. (Although in other cases, women might be barred from guild membership in their own right despite dominating the profession.) And when wives shared a profession with their husbands, their participation in the trade may be obscured in the records due to the husband being the legal point-of-reference for taxes.
As trades moved out of being practiced within the household environment (and into separate physical spaces) there was a tendency for them to become professionalized and male dominated. By 1600, many women had been pushed out of higher-paying trades. But in the London wills studied in this book, it's clear that daughters were expected to participate in and benefit from property-based income sources.
Even in southern Europe, we find medieval women participating in investment and property management. They may have had fewer opportunities, but the opportunities were still available. Property rental seems to have been commonly available to women as a trade throughout medieval Europe. Often the women would have significant personal freedom in managing that property, even when married, although married women might officially require a husband's permission to actually sell the property out of the family.
In many ways, daughters of urban middle-class families had more expectations and more control over their property and lives than the daughters of the landed nobility.
Even in rural areas, during exceptional times such as after the 14th century plague, daughters can be found as landholders on their own, but this changed once the population recovered. In general rural families were more likely to leave real estate to sons than daughtes.
While customs differed from town to town daughters in many urban areas could inherit property as we've seen them do in London, whether they married or not. Conversely, in some urban areas, married daughters were assumed to have already received their share of the family wealth and do not appear in wills as beneficiaries.
In London and other towns, daughters could apprentice to crafts and could trade as "femme sole" (single woman) merchants whether married or not. (If a married woman was acting as a femme sole, she would need to state this explicitly in legal contexts.) And unmarried women had even more freedom as economic actors. In an early 16th century census of Coventry, singlewomen made up 43% of the female population. Two centuries earlier, in a poll tax of 1377, singlewomen made up around 30% of the female population. (In both cases, these proportions probably included widows.) Overall, women in towns were less likely to marry than rural women. So daughters in London and other towns must have had some expectation that they would use their inheritance to establish a life that did not involve marriage.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 36c - Book Appreciation with K.J. Charles - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2019/07/20 - listen here)
[transcript goes here]
Links to KJ Charles Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
I am frustrated in my desire to love this series. I love the concept (all the sff/fantasy/gothic novels of the 19th century were true in the same universe) and I love the characters (the daughters or female creations of the men in all those novels come together in a found family and have adventures). But this is the second book in the series in which I found the plot thin and the narrative style ponderous and somewhat bloated. The characters do a lot of traveling around across Europe and having episodic encounters with the antagonists, but I found it hard to get a sense that there was an overarching storyline. And (without spoilers) I felt that Our Heroines didn't really do much in the final climax other than show up.
Goss has a fractally detailed familiarity with the literature she draws on, and with the historic and geographic settings she uses, but those details were included in the narrative at about two levels above what would have worked for me. Rather than sketching out the setting just enough for the reader to get an impression and fill the rest in, we are told in detail exactly how the rooms are furnished and what the characters are eating, and are repetitively told things about their relationships to each other that we already know. This adds to slowing down the narrative sufficiently that I wasn't sure I was going to stick with it to the end. (I did.) Often at this point in a review, I'll say something about how the writing was solid and the story just didn't hit my sweet spot, but in this case the overall concept was totally sticky with my sweet spot, but the writing kept getting in the way of enjoying it as much as I wanted to.
I was also disappointed for a very personal and completely unfair reason. Other readers had promised me that this all-female-protagonist series was getting a bit of same-sex romance in book 2 and I was totally there for it, despite there being no hint of the fact in the promotional copy. But--and I don't consider this a spoiler--the same-sex element was simply the inclusion of Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla among the literary characters who make up the supporting cast. Carmilla is canonically attracted to women and comes from exactly the sort of literature this series is based on. But I confess I was hoping that maybe we'd get a bit of queer rep among the protagonists. Who are all fascinating and indiidual characters. And who I'd love to read about in a story that had a more engaging structure.
There's a chapter where my central characters spend a day exploring the waterways of the city: the Rotein River itself, the new industrial transport channels, and the old chanulezes, which had their origins in domesticating the hydroscape of the city. Some of the chanulezes acted as a second set of roads, some as little more than drainage ditches, and some had long since been bricked over and forgotten...
It is, perhaps, a landscape that wouldn't entirely hold up to strict scrutiny, given the theoretical location of Rotenek. A landscape that requires something of a broad plain and a more fat and lazy river than the Rotein has a right to be. And--quite frankly--Rotenek is getting overdue for a significant urban renewal project that adds some broad avenues for better access, covers over the chanulezes entirely, and steps up the engineering of their flood control measures, as well as perhaps recognizing that shipping would be better moved entirely downriver to Iser. And perhaps much of that will be started in the aftermath of...ah, but that's all in the future and not our concern today.
Our characters have piled into Liv's boat and spent a day getting to better know the chanulezes and each other. And now Roz is reflecting on the experience from a tie-up on the south bank of the Rotein, from which the landscape of her life is spread out in a single view.
* * *
Looking at the Vezenaf from across the river was like layers in a pastry, with the gardens right by the water, then the great houses side by side nearly touching each other, and behind that a row of trees and bare rock slope that climbed up the other side to the upper town. The upper town wasn’t any higher than the tops of the great houses, but it was safe from anything the river might do.
Looking further downriver toward the Pont Vezzen where we’d started, the houses got smaller and even more crowded until you got to the broad street that led from the bridge up to the Plaiz. A public landing stood just above the bridge and the palace dock with stairs zigzagging up to the street, but without the gates and guards of the other one. I hadn’t noticed when we passed it before, but the brick river-wall behind it was built in broad low arches, like a bridge seen sideways. Most of them were filled in, but one just above the end of the landing was darker, like it was open.
Even the parts of the city I knew well were different from a boat. The chanulezes were easy to overlook if you didn’t travel on them all the time. Just a matter of knowing the streets where you had to go the long way to cross a bridge. I only really had to worry about that down near the Nikuleplaiz. But for Celeste it would be just the same as knowing the streets and alleyways.
Sometimes I have a run of LHMP entries on a particular topic simply by chance, sometimes I'm organizing a large number of items and grouping them by topic is simply a fun way to approach them. At the moment, I've tackled a series of articles and books revolving around cross-dressing themes for two intersecting reasons. Firstly, I'm working on developing my paper on cross-dressing narratives into an article for publication, so it makes sense to become familiar with as much background information as I can. Secondly, with that theme in mind, I picked up a number of publications on this theme at Kalamazoo this year, and I'm trying to prioritize new acquisitions on the blog.
This one marks the end of the current theme, for now. In looking at various cross-dressing/gender-disguise motifs in history, the "transvestite saints" motif stands out as somewhat distinct from other contexts and this article rather hits the nail on the head as to why. The stories mostly normalize the idea that to be female is to be lesser and imperfect. That saintliness is an inherently masculine characteristic. And moreover, that even for saintly women who are trying to leave behind their femaleness, their bodies are necessarily sexualized and disruptive. When de facto same-sex erotic desire intrudes into these tales, it isn't a comedic-tragic story of misdirected romance (as it typically is in chivalric romances and drama) but instead raises themes of predatory, sexually voracious women who then punish "men" with false accusations of seduction and rape when they are spurned. (Now there's a theme we'd all be happy to retire from the stage finally. Alas.)
It's hard to see this genre as empowering women as women to live better, more fulfilled lives. And like a number of historic cross-gender motifs, the underlying messages in this genre contribute to perceptions that cross-gender performance by AFAB people is a misogynistic rejection of female identity--a perception that is being used in devisive and hostile ways in our contemporary world. But the thing is: these pernicious motifs exist and have deep roots. They inform our cultural understandings willy nilly in the same way that pernicious fairy tale motifs do. We can subvert them and try to uproot them, but to do that we also need to acknowledge and understand them.
Lowerre, Sandra. 2004. “To Rise Beyond Their Sex: Female Cross-Dressing Saints in Caxton’s Vitas Patrum” in Thomas Honegger (ed). Riddles, Knights and Cross-dressing Saints: Essays on Medieval English Language and Literature. Peter Lang, Bern. ISBN 3-03910-392-X
This article is taken from a more extensive study and edition of Caxton's 15th century English translation of the Vitas Patrum (biographies of early saints) that Lowerre was working on. This paper looks specifically at four "transvestite" saints and one other female saint with similar themes. The author's conclusions are that rather than representing a proto-feminist sentiment, the biographies of the cross-dressing saints reflect an acceptance of the misogyny of the times.
There is an apparent conflict between Biblical and legal prohibitions in the early Christian era against cross-dressing, and the religious exhortations to women to become "manly/virtuous" for Christ. Rather than interpreting these saints' biographies via a projected modern lens, Lowerre considers how the texts reflect contemporary attitudes and authorities. Those held up a principle that only by abandoning femaleness could a woman become holy. A comparison of the earliest surviving texts of the Vitas Patrum (an 8th century Syriac manuscript) allows us to trace the development of the "ideal" as reflected in these biographies. This can be seen in particular in a comparison of the "virgin" cross-dressers and the ex-harlot saints.
The oldest Latin version of the Vitas Patrum includes 11 female figures, of which 4 have cross-dressing motifs. Caxton includes 7 of the women, including all 4 of the transvestite stories. This is evidence for the popularity of the motif. But why would a forbidden practice be so popular in literature?
Supporting evidence for the historic reality of these types of stories comes from a letter by Saint Jerome to the virgin Eustochium, warning her, "Others change their garb and assume the mien of men, being ashamed of being what they were born to be -- women. They cut off their hair and are not ashamed to look like eunuchs." A common theme in the earliest version of the transvestite saint stories is that the women present themselves as eunuchs (a more common phenomenon in that era than in later medieval times), thereby accounting for some of the physiological differences from (intact) men.
But in the stories where the transvestite saints aren't discovered to be physiologically female until after death, they are praised for their "manly" lives, not condemned for cross-dressing. [Note: perhaps because at that point they were safely dead?]
The author lays out the prevalent attitudes toward gender in the early Christian era. Women were considered to be "imperfect men". Women were associated with sexual desire, as contrasted with men's "rationality." The belief was that women could only truly serve Christ by abandoning female concerns such as family and motherhood and "becoming male." The desirability of virginity was not as the ideal form of femininity but as a rejection of femaleness to become more masculine.
In some eras, women were excluded from monastic institutions for a variety of reasons, primarily from a sense that the presence of women would distract or seduce men from holiness. This may have encouraged the continuing interest in the motif of women cross-dressing in order to live a monastic life.
This article looks specifically at the biographies of four cross-dressing saints, the "virgins" Marina, Eufrosyne, and Eugene, the former dancer/prostitute Pelagia, and as a comparison, the non-cross-dressing former prostitute Mary of Egypt.
Marina (male name: Maryn) in the Middle English version of her life was caused to be dressed as a boy by her father so that he could keep her with him when he entered a monastery. She stayed there as a monk after he died. While working as a healer, she was accused by a pregnant woman of being the father of her child. Maryn declined to protest the accusation and raised the child while under penance for the accused sin. Maryn's physiological sex was discovered after death.
In the Middle English version, Marina passively accepts her father's instructions to cross-dress and literally has no voice in the story. But in the oldest version of the legend, it is Marina who demands that her father take her along, and she is the one who suggests cross-dressing.
Eufrosyne (male name: Smaradyn) was similarly raised by a widowed father. On the eve of her marriage, she becomes enamored of the monastic life due to discussions with a visiting monk, who suggests the gender disguise as a means to that end. Because of her beauty, the abbot fears she will lead the other monks into sin and orders her to live in a separate chamber and not mingle with the others. Eufrosyne's father comes to the monastery for spiritual guidance over his daughter's disappearance and Eufrosyne (in disguise) counsels and comforts him. The two have continuing interactions without her father recognizing her until at last Eufrosyne reveals her identity to him on her deathbed. He, in turn, tells the others about it (against her wishes) and then takes her place in the monastery.
Both Marina and Eufrosyne are depicted as strongly identified with their fathers (and both lose their mothers at birth). In the oldest surviving version of the story, Eufrosyne represents herself as a eunuch but this motif doesn't appear in the Middle English version. Both Marina and Eufrosyn are kept separate from the rest of the monastic community: Marina as penance for her supposed sin, and Eufrosyne to keep the others from temptation. The implication is not that the monks recognize Eufrosyne as female, but rather that they fear the homoerotic attraction of the "eunuch" Smaradyn. The underlying theme, though, is that women's bodies represent the temptation to sin even in disguise.
While Marina and Eufrosyne both come from Christian families, Saint Eugene was the daughter of a pagan Roman governor. She was educated and beautiful, but rejected her many offers of marriage because she was attracted to the idea of a chase Christian life. She goes in search of a Christian community to join and, in order to be able to participate in the (all male) community, cuts her hair and dresses as a man. The bishop of the community has a dream that tells him her true identity, but he helps her (and her two eunuch attendants) to join the monastery.
Eugene excels so much at monastic virtues that she is named the next abbot, after protesting that she is not worthy. Like Marina, she is accused of sexual impropriety, in this case by a woman whom she healed and whose sexual advances she declined. Eugene and the other monks are brought to trial for sexual assault. The judge is Eugene's father (who doesn't recognizer her). After trying other means to convince him of her innocence, Eugene opens the front of her gown to show her breasts and tells him who she is. Impressed by her virtue, Eugene's whole family converts to Christianity (and then are martyred).
There are other transvestite saint biographies that include the motif of cross-dressing to leave a pagan family and/or escape an unwanted marraige. The oldest (Syriac) text of Eugene's story identifies Saint Thecla as a role model. (Thecla more overtly put on male clothing to "become a man for Christ".) Unlike the other transvestite saints in this group, Eugene returns to living as a woman after the revelation of her identity. She cross-dressed to access a monastic Christian life, but stopped doing so when that was no longer necessary for her goals.
Unlike Marina and Eufrosyne, Eugene was not isolated of ostracized within the monastic community. But in the context of being named abbot, she sees (and proclaims) herself as unworthy for the post and finds a way of performing humility even when she accepts. Like Marina, Eugene is skilled in healing which leads to the contact with the woman who accuses her. In both cases, the cross-dressing monastic women express scorn for the women who approach them sexually.
Pelagia/Pelagius was a dancer in Antioch. (The implication is that she was sexually promiscuous although it isn't clearly indicated that she was a prostitute.) While parading through the city in all her finery, she stops to listen to a bishop preaching. He is troubled by his admiration for her. After listening to another of his sermons, she demands that he baptize her, after which she gives all her wealth to the church. After being instructed in religion by an abbess, she goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, dressed in male clothing that the bishop gave her. She lives near Jerusalem as a (male) hermit. Much later, the bishop sends a pilgrim to speak with her, and after Pelagia's death, that pilgrim discovers her physiological sex.
In contrast to the other transvestite saints in this group, Pelagia doesn't take up a monastic life due to personal decision, but because the bishop's sermons convinced her. But why does the bishop give her male clothing, even though the story indicates there is a female monastic community she could join? (She is given into the care of an abbess for instruction.) In the oldest (Syriac) text, this is part of Pelagia's renunciation of her old life. The (male) clothes have meaning not because of their gender but because they were the bishop's own clothing. (In this version, Pelagia in her male persona is also taken for a eunuch.)
Especially in the context of the early versions where women present themselves as eunuchs, might this be a case of the transvestite saints becoming "neuter" rather than male? Unlikely, as there is no similar motif for male saints. It is masculinity, not simply lack of femininity, that is the goal. The medieval versions of the texts drop the eunuch motif, possibly because it was no longer a familiar part of the social landscape.