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14th c

LHMP entry

[Note: I originally picked this up thinking that it would cover literary female cross-dressing knights as well as male ones. Although the article is entirely about men cross-dressing as women, it helps to round out the picture of how medieval people viewed clothing as a gender signifier and some of the asymmetries of cross-gender behavior.]

Putter looks at the phenomenon of (male) cross-dressing knights, both in historical records and in chivalric romances and considers how the topic contributes to our understanding of gender and sex categories in the middle ages.

This article takes up the theme of women conceiving under difficult and or impossible conditions, e.g., virgins giving birth, and how the children of these conceptions are marked out as special. This theme appears in the context of multiple cultural traditions, e.g., Ruth and Naomi in the bible, and the mothers of Bhagirtha, who was explicitly engendered by sexual activity between two women with the help of the God of Love.

I don’t usually include primary texts in this project, in part because there’s more value in reading the interpretations of historians (of which I am only an amateur) and in part because the selection and excerpting of relevant sections is itself an interpretation process, which I am hesitant to perform. But in this case the relevant excerpt is short enough to include in its entirety. So I’ve included both the original Latin (for fun) and Martin’s translation.

This case is drawn from a legal document that is almost unique in medieval England in providing a description of male same-sex activity in a context of male cross-dressing. The legal focus emphasizes the importance of gender, and not sexual behavior or sexual “identity” in the context of medieval law.


As with most general works on same-sex sexuality (and especially ones authored by men) this book is overwhelmingly focused on male sexuality. There is also the tendency usual in this context to suggest that texts, situations, and commentaries that don’t specifically include women can be extrapolated to them.

Chapter 1: Sex and the Middle Ages

This chapter focuses on the image of “turning” away from right behaviors and objects and toward wrong actions and objects. In both text and image, there is a concept of wrong behavior being “turning in circles” and therefore being unable to follow/enter the desired path or gate. Vocabulary related to this include: deviation, conversion, translation, orientation.

Another story appearing in the “moralized Ovid” manuscripts is that of Orpheus. Orpheus is relevant to the topic of the book via a version of the story in which, after losing Eurydice, he turns away from women to love boys. [As a brief summary for those not familiar with Orpheus: after his girlfriend Eurydice dies, he goes down to the underworld to plead for her return and his singing is so sweet and powerful that Hades agrees, provided he leads her out of the underworld without looking back at her.

Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).

In Paris, ca. 1200, there was an increased focus on anti-sodomy literature. One writer considered it equivalent to murder because both “interfere with the multiplication of men.” Sodomy also relates to gender categories because non-procreative sex blurs distinctions and suggest androgyny. Androgynous people, according to this position, must pick a binary identity based on the nature of who they find arousing within an imposed heterosexual framework. The focus in this anti-sodomy literature is not generally on gender ambiguity, but specifically on preserving “active” male sexuality.


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