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Transgender, transsexual and intersex identities have had an ambivalent relation with images of sexed bodies. While visual representation of these bodies might verge on creepy, insensitive spectacularisation, it also marks the existence of these non-cisnormative individuals throughout history, thus scoring out a genealogy of queer ancestors. While trans identity is a modern concept, trans lives are historically attested.

A criminal offence, cross-dressing was still used in the middle ages for different reasons such as safety, accessing gendersegregated positions, espionage, deception or theatre. While not everybody who cross-dressed might have identified as genderqueer, trans* narratives follow the pattern of crossdressing, living as one’s assumed gender, and outing in death.

St Thodora/Athanasius clothes-swapping Legenda sanctorum (Germany, 1362) Bayerisches Stadtbibliothek, Cgm 6 f.84v

Without these narratives, historic trans lives cannot be visible for the historian. The number of trans people in the past is most likely higher than our records, since some medieval individuals lived in their true gender stealthily, never outed. They might have been inspired by stories of saints’ lives, such as that of St Marinos, a 6thC monk.

St Marinos led by his father Legende Doree (France, 1348) Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Francais 241, f.139v

Even though these saintly figures are celebrated in medieval feast days and hagiography under their dead names (the names assigned to them at birth and then reimposed on their bodies in death, rather than the names assumed by them during their life), visual sources sometimes depict their bodies appropriately gendered.

St Pelagia as tonsured monk Golden legend (Spain, c.1350) Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Espagnol 44, f.218v

A common trope in the transgender saintly narrative is that of assumed biological congruence with their new bodies. St Margaret-Pelagia and St Eugene are accused of impregnating a woman, and they assume fatherhood of the resulting child for years before revealing (or having it revealed after death) its biological impossibility.

St. Margaret-Pelagia accused of impregnating woman LÊgende dorÊe (France, 1450s) Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Français 245 f.132r

In a historically traditional heteronormative understanding of sexuality, transgender narratives sometimes appear linked to samesex desire. Medieval romance reveals several transgender and transsexual characters that cross gender lines in order to court, have sex with or marry people of the gender assigned to them at birth.

‘Celle qui se fuit homme pour avoir une pucelle’ Metamorphoses (France, c.1325) Bibliotheque Arsenal, MS 5069 f131r

Gender non-conforming bodies were subjected to thorough sex policing in medieval visual culture. Bodies that we would now categorise as intersex, or suffering from hormonal imbalance, were depicted with secondary sex characteristics of their assumed gender clearly visible, in addition to corrective ‘sex appropriate’ characteristics.

‘The naked bearded woman of Limerick’ Topographia Hiberniae (England, c.1223) British Library, Royal 13 B VIII f.19

Medieval visuals concentrated not only on secondary but also, just like contemporary cisgender media obsessed with modern trans people’s genitals, on primary sex markers. Un-necessary spectacularisation of these gender non-conforming bodies can be observed in this zodiac-book image of a long-haired Andromeda forced to flash the viewer.

Andromeda Heidelberger Schicksalsbuch (Germany, c1491) Heidelberg University Library, Cod. Pal. germ. 832, f.86r

The imaginary visualising of gender non-conforming bodies by cisgender intellectuals and artists was sometimes truly offensive. The typological figure of the androgyne is depicted here as a monstrous body, literally half woman and half man. The androgynes are often found as inhabitants of mythical edges of the world, invalidating trans lived experience.

Androgyne Liber Chronicarum (Germany, 1493) University of Cambridge, Inc.0.A.7.2[888], f.12r

If you want to know more:

Pocket Miscellanies #5: Sodom McSheffey (2014) Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London, History Workshop Journal Anson (1974) Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism, Viator Bychowski (2017) Transgender Histories and Genres of Embodiment Metzler (2010) Hermaphroditism in the Western Middle Ages

St Eugene baring his chest Frontal of church of St Eugene (Catalonia, 1290) Paris, Musee des Arts Decoratifs


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Pocket Miscellanies, no6 Transgender  

The sixth volume of the zine Pocket Miscellany, exploring the representations of transgender and intersex bodies in late European medieval v...

Pocket Miscellanies, no6 Transgender  

The sixth volume of the zine Pocket Miscellany, exploring the representations of transgender and intersex bodies in late European medieval v...

Profile for mxcoman