Women going around dressed as men, wearing men’s hats, and even having their hair cut short, was not an acceptable practice in medieval society. However, in late medieval London there were at least 13 cases of women accused of doing just that. A recent article explores these cases and offers insights into ideas about gender, sex and prostitution that was taking place in this city.
‘Early, Exotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London’, is jointly written by Judith Bennett and Shannon McSheffrey, two of the leading scholars in the field of medieval social history. They focus on 13 cases of female cross-dressing between 1454 and 1537 that are found in various legal records including the city’s courts.
For example, on July 6, 1454 “Margaret Cotton, widow of Peter Cotton and living in Lime Street, had been arrested at 11 pm the previous night, dressed in a man’s gown.” Meanwhile, in July 1519 four women – Margery Brett, Margery Smyth, Margery Tyler and Elizabeth Thomson – who had been arrested for being common harlots, were also accused of having “cut their hare like unto mennys hedes to thentent (the intent) to goo in mennes clothing at tymes whan their lewde pleasure is, to the greate displeasure of god and abhomynacion to the worlde.”
Many of the cases of cross-dressing women involve prostitutes, including several that are identified as having come to London from the European continent. Bennett and McSheffrey believe that in these cases the female prostitutes were dressing as men to attract male clientele. They write “for some clients, the disguise of cross-gender dressing was its chief appeal, and it entertained and titillated much as it does today, for example, the edgy costumes of such performers as Lady Gaga and Janelle Monae. For other clients, the cross-gender part of the disguise might have particularly resonated, offering them the fantasy of sex with men within the relatively more secure reality of paid sex with a woman.”
While London court records may have noted the wearing of male attire in these cases, it seems that the prostitutes did not receive extra punishment for these transgressions. The Liber Albus from 1419 explained that those convicted of being harlots were to be paraded around London “sometimes carrying signs (such as ‘H’ for harlot) or wore headgear (usually a striped hood) that betokened their offence, and they were accompanied by minstrels and sometimes also the raucous ringing of basins and pans.” After this public humiliation the women would be banned from the city, with the threat of imprisonment if they returned.
Not all the cases of cross-dressing women in medieval London involved prostitutes, although in most cases there was at least an element of sexual misconduct. For example, in 1537 Agnes Hopton and John Salmon, a minstrel and married man, were found guilty of having an affair, and the court noted that she was kept “apparaylled yn a mannys rayment”, perhaps in a way to conceal their relationship. Both were exiled from the city for a year.
One of the more unusual cases of female cross-dressing took place in 1534, when Alice Wolfe, who had been imprisoned at Tower of London for her part in the murder of two Italian merchants, tried to escape with the help of her jailer, John Bawde. They had managed to get out of the Tower but were caught nearby, when watchmen saw “a oman (woman) aparyled lyck a man.”
The article, ‘Early, Exotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London’, can be found in the Spring 2014 issue of History Workshop Journal (Volume 77 Number 1). Click here to access the article from Oxford Journals. Shannon McSheffrey teaches at Concordia University, and has recently established the Consistory: Testimony in the Late Medieval London Consistory Court project. Click here to visit her website. Judith Bennett teaches at the University of Southern California – click here to visit her faculty webpage.