Genderqueer people in the Middle Ages

One aspect of the diversity of medieval life we did not address in Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition concerns genderqueer people. This article is intended to correct that omission, in more detail than the core rulebook would have allowed.

The terminology we use for genderqueer people today is recent. The term transexual was coined in 1949, and transgender in 1963. Medieval Europeans lacked words to describe such experiences. For this reason, I’m using the term ‘genderqueer’ to encompass all aspects of transgender, genderfluid, cross-dressing and non-binary experiences; while the term genderqueer is also often used to denote sexual orientation, I will write a separate article on that. I intend no offence.

First, let’s be clear – genderqueer people have existed throughout human history. We’ve some evidence indicating ancient Akkadia may have recognised what would now call trans men, the salzikrum – the translation is debatable; it may mean ‘vowed woman’ (priestesses?) or ‘man-woman’ [1] . The Code of Hammurabi (sections 178 and 184) indicates they could inherit from their fathers, something other daughters could not. Depending on the translation you accept, this offers the possibility trans men were treated similarly to biological sons by the Akkadians.

Modern studies suggest around 0.3% to 0.6% of people identify as transgender [2]. We’ve no reason to doubt this is consistent through history – but also no direct evidence to support. We do know several cultures have recognised genderqueer people in past and present – Native American two-spirits, Indian hijra, and kathoey in the Phillipines.

But what about the medieval period? For a reasonable set of examples, I’ll have to break out of C&S’s core period (1000-1500AD), and look at the broader Middle Ages (c. 500-1500AD).

Cross dressing is the most visible form of genderqueer activity in the Middle Ages. There are several medieval tales of women disguising themselves as men. Often these are for very specific purposes – usually to take part in war or other forms of fighting. Agnes Hotot, in the 14th century, donned her father’s armour to take his place in a grudge joust, only revealing her sex when she had beaten her opponent. Fannu bint Omar disguised herself as a man during the siege of Marrakech in 1147. Other women, such as Isabel of Conches, donned armour, probably designed for men, without disguising their sex.

Of more interest to us are the women who passed as men for long periods.

“Brother Marinos is a woman.”

Going to his cell, they found him dead, and informed the superior, saying, “Brother Marinos has died.” … But as they were preparing to wash him, they discovered that he was a woman, and shrieking, they all began to cry in a loud voice, “Lord, have mercy.”
The superior, hearing their cries, asked them, “What troubles you so?” And they said, “Brother Marinos is a woman.”

The Life and Conduct of the Blessed Mary, Who Changed Her Name to Marinos [3]

The story of St Mary (or Brother Marinos) was widely circulated in the Middle Ages. The original Life, written in Greek, is undated, but is thought to have been written in Syria some time between the mid-6th and mid-7th centuries. It was later translated into several languages, including Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian and Arabic. The oldest surviving manuscript copies date from the 10th century.

According to the Life, Mary’s father Eugenios decided for foresake the secular world and join a monastery. Mary, his only child, cut her hair short, donned a monk’s habit, and joined him under the name Marinos. Marinos became well respected in the monastery, until he was accused of fathering a child on an innkeeper’s daughter. He accepted the accusation, and was cast out of the monastery, remaining at its gates for three years until the innkeeper brought the child to be raised by him and his former brothers pleaded with the abbot to let him return to the monastery. His sex being revealed after death, the monks realised he had been punished unjustly, but had accepted his punishment without complaint. Mary is revered as a saint, her commemoration being February 12, according to the Synaxarion of Constantinople. [4]

Nor was Marinos the only woman to live in a monastery as a man. “Transvestite nuns” seems to have been a popular genre of hagiography (saints’ lives) in Byzantium, with more than a dozen such lives published, including St Anastasia Patrika, who become an anchorite under the name Anastasios, St Matrona of Perge, whose life as the monk Bablyas ended when her pierced ears were noticed, and St Euphrosyne of Alexandria, who became the novice Smaragdos. [5]

We can’t say whether or not these disguised monks identified as men. All we can say is that they attempted to live as men, often for very long periods, which is very different from those women who disguised themselves temporarily. We must consider the possibility that some of them, at least, were what we would now consider to be transgender.

An intriguing archaeological discovery announced in December 2019 lends credence to these tales of disguised monks. Archaeologists discovered the remains of several women beneath the Byzantine chapel of St Athanasios at the monastery of Pantocrator, in an all-male monastic promontory at Mount Athos, which comprises around 2,500 monks in 20 monasteries. Since the community was founded in the 10th century, women were banned from setting foot on the promontory. The bones are still awaiting radiocarbon dating and an academic explanation.

Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc)

“That this woman is apostate, for the hair which God gave her for a veil she has had untimely cut off, and also, with the same design has rejected woman’s dress and imitated the costume of men.”

Article III of the doctrinal judgement on the Words and Deeds of Jeanne, commonly called The Maid [6]

Dr Gabrielle Bychowski, in a Public Medievalist blog post entitled Were There Transgender People in the Middle Ages?, offers up the interesting idea that Joan of Arc may have been transgender (in modern terms), noting that although she identified as a maid, her words during her trial were very carefully chosen and cautious.

Noting that identifying Joan as transgender is especially controversial as her deeds are often held up as examples of what medieval women could do, Bychowski adds:

It is enough to say for now that Joan may not have had much liberty to speak candidly about gender and identity. The whole focus on the trial was trying to catch Joan making an unorthodox or heretical claim. Whether or not you accept that Joan of Arc might have been trans, it is clear that transphobia was central to Joan’s trial. The argument being made by the English court was, essentially, that a person cannot and should not be transgender. Joan refused to confirm all the English’s transphobic biases. Joan was ultimately killed on these grounds. This suggests that whether or not modern historians call Joan of Arc transgender, it seems as though the medieval court considered Joan transgender enough to die for it.

Eleanor Rykener – trans woman?

While we’ve so far looked at women presenting as men, the case of Eleanor Rykener may be a rare example of a medieval trans woman.

In 1395, in London, Eleanor Rykener was tried under her birth name of John Rykener on a charge of immorality. Eleanor’s gender was key to the case, which focused on whether sodomy had been committed. [7] I’ll note here that the 13th and 14th centuries were times of growing intolerance towards gay people.

Rykener was arrested in women’s clothing by city officials. One John Britby, a Yorkshireman arrested with her, told the examining officials he had “accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her.” Rykener agreed, and the pair were discovered in flagrante delicto, arrested and taken to prison.

Rykener said in her testimony that she had first been introduced to prostiution by one Anna, whore to Sir Thomas Blount, who taught her to service men “in the manner of a woman”. She was first dressed as a woman by one Elizabeth Bronderer, who introduced both her daughter Alice and Rykener to men. In Rykener’s case, Broderer ensured she met men in the dark.

Was Rykener a trans woman? It’s possible, even likely. In addition to her sex work, she also worked as an embroideress, so seems to have presented as a woman outside prostitution. But she also confessed to having sex with man while presenting as a man.

No verdict was recorded in the court case, which Bychowski notes was written up in Latin, avoiding the need for deciding a male or female pronoun for Rykener, which would have been required had it been recorded in English or French. Bychowski clearly believes this was a deliberate decision by the court to avoid settling the matter of Rykener’s gender. [8]

The Sound of Silence

King Evan and Queen Eufome with Silence, c.1275

The Old French poetical romance Silence exists only in one manuscript, dating from the 13th or 14th century, which was discovered in a chest in 1911. It was written by one Heldris of Cornuälle, an otherwise unknown poet.

The poem is Arthurian, and details the life of the titular Silence, daughter of Cador, Earl of Cornwall, who is raised as a boy to circumvent a law forbidding female inheritance. Silence does not initially realise he is a biological girl, and agrees to continue presenting as male when he does discover it at age 12, following a debate between Nature, Nurture and Reason – Reason convinces him he is better off as a man, though Silence himself remains conflicted.

As a man, Silence wins renown as both a knight, a military commander, and a jongleur. He rejects the advances of the adulterous Queen Eufome, whose regular lover is a man diasguised as a nun. The queen later persuades her husband to order Silence to capture the magician Merlin, who can only be trapped by “trick of woman”. Silence succeeds in the task, and Merlin reveals his biological sex. The queen and her cross-dressed lover are revealed and executed, and the king marries Silence, now presenting as a woman named Silentia.

Silence is unusual in medieval literature for its discussion of nature versus nurture, and its differentiation between biological sex and gender. Medieval French literature lecturer Sharon Kinoshita notes:

As Silence grows up, her successes in the forest and on the battlefield demonstrate that some of the “natural” differences between boys and girls derive from a conventional opposition between masculine and feminine practices. Privileging gender over sex does not prevent the text from treating masculinity as naturally superior to femininity. [9]

Nevertheless, despite Silence deciding it’s better to present as male, she is eventually revealed as female. Medieval society is patriarchal, even if women did run businesses and manage their own estates. Silence’s story is not a feminist overthrow of the patriarchy.

The narrative that unfolds invites two contrary conclusions. The first casts Silence as an oppositional text, focusing on how it renegotiates boundaries between sex and gender. The second, in contrast, emphasizes the way the text recontains the subversion it unleashes. Silence does not challenge socially constructed definitions of gender; she exploits them. In the end, Nature proves right and Nurture wrong, thanks to Merlin’s (un)timely intervention: biological “truth” will out… Silence’s stint as a jongleur – an interlude between her childhood exploits and her arrival at King Evan’s court – confirms Michele Perret’s observation that while men in medieval romance cross-dress to gain sexual access to women, women cross-dress to obtain male privileges like inheritance and travel. [10]

Pope Joan

Most historians believe the legend of Pope Joan is just that: a legend. Nevertheless, it was a legend widely believed in the Middle Ages that Johannes Anglicus, pope from 855-857, was a woman disguised as a man, her biological sex revealed when she gave birth.

Pope John VII, aka Pope Joan, from the Nuremburg Chronicle of 1493

According to the legend, Joan disguised herself as a man and took clerical orders. Through her talent and determination she became a secretary to the Curia, then a cardinal, then Pope. She was exposed after giving birth to a child and either stoned to death or stripped of her offices and confined, doing penance for many years; in this alternative legend her son became the Bishop of Ostia.

The legend of a female pope is first mentioned by the Dominican friar Jean de Mailly in the early 13th century, with the un-named pope in question said to have ruled in 1099, presumably following Pope Urban II, famous for preaching the First Crusade, who died on July 29, 1099. In fact, Urban II’s successor was Pashal II, who was elected on August 13, 1099.

The next mention of a female pope is by another Dominican friar, Stephen of Bourbon, and the fullest development of the legend is by Martin of Opava, who names her as John Angelicus, pope in the 9th century, and said she had taken to wearing men’s clothing in Athens as a girl, taken orders and ultmately became pope.

Despite a lack of historical evidence, the legend of a female pope gripped medieval imagination. Illustrations and woodcuts showed supposed incidents from Pope Joan’s life, and the idea of a Papess became a feature of tarot playing cards – it wasn’t until the Rider-Waite deck of 1910 that this card became known as the High Priestess.

The Papess, from the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck of 1451

Conclusion

The evidence for transgender people in medieval Europe is sparse and unclear. The lives of our genderqueer candidates were recorded by cisgender people. There were no linguistic terms to describe their experiences in a way we would consider clear.

As Bychowski notes in her conclusion:

For much of the public, the short answer to whether or not transgender people existed in the Middle Ages is sufficient to affirm or annoy their preexisting biases towards transgender people today. For those who deny that transgender is anything more than a post-modern lifestyle, any answer beyond “no” might be dismissed as a bias of a supposed “transgender agenda.” For those who affirm transgender as an essential part of human diversity, the answer “yes” is taken as obvious. [10]

While the evidence for transgender people in the Middle Ages cannot be considered conclusive nor compelling, it is clear that some people did step out of the roles expected of their biological sex by presenting as the opposite gender. It is their reasons for doing so that are unclear.

Medieval thought was dominated by theological considerations. The Bible presents sex as binary, and forbade cross-dressing.

The woman 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.
Deuteronomy:22:5 (King James Version)

Despite this, both men and women did so, and Le Roman de Silence indicates that at least one poet demonstrated fledgling efforts to understand the difference between sex and gender.

The evidence allows the possibility of transgender people in the Middle Ages, even if theology did not.

Footnotes

[1] Rivkah Schärf Kluger, The Archetypal Significance of Gilgamesh: A Modern Ancient Hero (Daimon Verlag, 2015)

[2] Amnesty International report, The State Decides Who I Am: Lack of Legal Gender Rercongition for Transgender People in Europe (2014). (PDF)

[3] The Life and Conduct of the Blessed Mary is translated and published in Alice-Mary Talbot’s Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation (Dumbarton Oaks, 1996)

[4] Ibid, p 1-2

[5] Ibid, p2

[6] Pierre Champion, The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc (Gothan House, 1932), full text at Internet History Books

[7] The Questioning of John Rykener, a Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395, at the Internet History Sourcebook

[8] Gabrielle Bychowski, Were There Transgender People in the Middle Ages? The Public Medievalist.

[9] Sharon Kinoshita, Heldris de Cornuälle’s Roman de Silence and the Feudal Politics of Lineage, PMLA (The Journal of the Modern Language Association of America), Vol. 110, Issue 3 (May 1995), p 402

[10] Ibid, p402

[11] Gabrielle Bychowski, Were There Transgender People in the Middle Ages? The Public Medievalist.

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