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
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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.