Skip to content Skip to navigation

transvestite saints

This tag identifies the specific hagiographical motif of women taking on male disguise in order to enter monastic life, especially stories set in the early Christian period when female monastic institutions were not prevalent.

LHMP entry

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.

This book looked interesting at a quick glance, and was reasonably priced. I picked it up for the chapter entitled "Textile Concerns: Holy Transvestites and the Dangers of Cross-Dressing." The substance is a lot less useful for my purposes, though not necessarily as an absolute judgment. It appears to be intended as a textbook for "general survey" type history courses. The sort taken by people who aren't history majors, but are taking it as an elective.

This article looks at the fascination with cross-dressing women in popular culture in 16-17th century England. “Cross-dressing” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean serious gender disguise, but includes ritualized cross-dressing in the contexts of celebrations, as well as partial cross-dressing where the use of specific male-coded garments was viewed as transgressive.

Vern L. Bullough wrote a number of articles in the 1970s through 1990s on topics relating to crossdressing and “transvestism” in the middle ages. They are all thoroughly outdated, especially with respect to contextualizing gender presentation as it relates to gender identity and sexual orientation. I’m going to summarize the article using more current terminology (that would not have been available to Bullough at the time this was written).

This is an examination of gender and sexuality in a “transvestite saint” legend from France. Saint Euphrosine wanted to remain a virgin and so ran away from home. To help avoid being tracked down by her father, rather than entering a convent, she disguised herself as a man and claimed to be a eunuch to enter a monastery. Sight of her inflames the lusts of the monks such that the head of the monastery requires her to live secluded to prevent sexual temptation.

Preface

This book looks at how Catalina de Erauso’s story has been “constructed, interpreted, marketed and consumed” in the 17-20th centuries. Velasco identifies Catalina as a “transgenderist” (that is, someone who engages in transgender performance without necessarily having transgender identity) and uses she/her pronouns as the book is examining how Catalina’s image was used (the image of a woman performing masculinity) rather than interpreting what Catalina’s own understanding might have been.

Because monasticism is assumed to preclude sex, historians often work to desexualize passionate language used by medieval monastic writers, for example, in the context of writing about friendship. Language and actions that could be interpreted erotically are depicted as purely conventional, for example, possible interpretations of kissing on the mouth.

Around 1408 the Limbourg brothers (who created some of the most fabulous illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century) created a Book of Hours for the Duc de Berry. In the section covering the life of Saint Jerome, it includes a depiction of a “practical joke” where Jerome was tricked into putting on a woman’s dress without realizing it. The illustration shows Jerome being mocked for wearing women’s clothes, highlighting the incongruity by the visual contrast of the dress with Jerome’s prominent beard.

Chapter 1 (Introduction)

A discussion of terminology, some of the cross-cultural problems of defining the topic of the book, and a statement of intent.

Chapter 2 (In the Beginning: 40,000-1200 BCE)

This is a study of one of the “transvestite saint” legends (for which generally see Anson 1974 et al.). The general context of these stories is the misogynistic and gender-segregated context of early Christianity, in which women who wanted to pursue a religious life might choose to pass as men both for logistical reasons (in order to be able to join a male-only monastic community) and for spiritual reasons (following Biblical language that suggests that women need to become “male” in order to achieve heaven.

Pages

Subscribe to transvestite saints