Man, woman or monster : some themes of female masculinity and transvestism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Man, woman or monster : some themes of female masculinity and transvestism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

By Laila Abdalla

PhD Dissertation, McGill, 1996

St. Mary of Alexandria, died 508, accompanied her father to a monastery and adopted a monk's habit as a disguise.

Abstract: This dissertation discusses medieval and Renaissance clerical and cultural constructions of femininity and female masculinity, and it analyses the complex relationship between such conceptions and the literary representation of the transvestite woman. Medieval theology legitimated female masculinity as transcendence of temporal sexuality. A woman who contained her affective femininity and replaced it with rational and ascetic behaviour was frequently lauded for having become male in all but body. In the middle of the first millennium, hagiographic legends abounded in which women appear to have embodied the patristic equation between spiritual rationality and masculinity. This dissertation proposes a radically different interpretation: the saint exchanges a sexualised form of femininity–ironically imposed upon her by a male society–for a non sexual but nevertheless feminine self valuation.

Early modern culture perceived transvestism in a multiform manner. It signifies monstrosity in the polemical pamphlet, serves to indicate an estimable apex of humanity in Shakespearean comedy, and represents women in roles that range from monstrous disrupter to adept uniter in the works of such other playwrights as Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton. While the pamphlet’s social commentary argues that masculinity rendered a woman monstrously unfeminine, the literature finds ways of interrogating definitions of the sex-gender system in a world which was constantly and fundamentally mutating. The drama employs elements such as inversion, monstrosity and transgressions of class to negotiate a society in flux.

In the seventh century AD a woman by the name of Athanasia donned male attire as a means of protecting herself on a pilgrimage. Ultimately the disguise served as a ruse that enabled her to join her husband in an all-male monastery in Egypt. Although she deceived her spouse and the other monks about her gender~ Athanasia was lauded for her asceticism and canonised as a saint. In 1569 Johan Godman “with the consent, procurement, and agrements of her … husband [was] disguised and appareled in all things like a souldier and in a souldiers garments with wepons accordinglie, and so went abroade and shewed her self in divers parts of this City [ie. London] as lackey”. For her deceit she and her husband John were “lawfullie convicted and attainted” by their own confessions as weil as by accounts of hostile witnesses and ordered to “be sett upon the pillorye in Chepeside having papers affixed to the same pillory declaring there saide offence and so there to remayne till 11 of the clock and then to be conveyed to Bridewell and there to he whipped naked to the girdlestead [waist] and then there to he safelie kepte till my Lord Mayors further pleasure shal be knowne.” In The Merchant of Venice (1596-97) Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as clerics in order to travel to Venice to rescue their husbands’ friend Antonio from certain death. In spite of gulling almost everybody, Duke, court officials, and husbands, Portia and Nerissa are fully vindicated by the playwright.

Click here to read this thesis from McGill University

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email