In the century after 1450, thirteen women incurred the ire of London’s governors by cross-dressing as men. New research shows that in the eyes of the judicial system this was considered both an erotic and alien practice
Early, Erotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London
By Judith M. Bennett and Shannon McSheffrey
In: History Workshop
First published online: February 10, 2014
In the century after 1450, thirteen women incurred the ire of London’s governors by cross-dressing as men. This is a small number of women, spread over many years, from a long time ago, and their experiences are a far cry from female cross-dressers today, whether drag kings, stone butches, trans men-in-the-making, or opera singers in trouser roles. Yet these thirteen women challenge us to rethink female cross-dressing, both in the middle ages and today. We can easily recognize what these women did so long ago; they cut their hair short; they wore men’s hats; they donned men’s clothing. But why they did these things is a different matter, and so, too, is how their behaviour was understood by those, who saw them.
Cross-dressing by premodern women is often viewed as practical and instrumental (for example, women dressed as men to get jobs or to travel), while modern women’s donning of male garb is usually interpreted as expressing contemporary queer identities.
This article introduces a more flexible view of female cross-dressing in the distant past, using the cases of thirteen women cited for such activities in London records between 1450 and 1553. These cases are placed within both the broad context of European practice before the eighteenth century and the specific context of cross-dressing women in premodern London itself.
The article argues, first, that cross-dressing by women is not a recent phenomenon, but instead has a scattered but fairly continuous history that stretches back centuries.
Second, the article shows that female cross-dressing could be as playful and erotic as male cross-dressing; most of the eroticism of female transgressive dress was, however, linked to prostitution and male erotic desires.
Third, it explores how London authorities sought to distance themselves from the perceived vice of female cross-dressing by characterizing the practice as foreign – alien – to their City and its culture. The appendix includes a full listing of all known cases of cross-dressing in London before 1603.
Judith M. Bennett teaches women’s history and medieval history at the University of Southern California. She is the author of several books and numerous articles about working women and singlewomen in late medieval England.
Shannon McSheffrey is a historian of medieval and Tudor England teaching at Concordia University in Montreal. She has written a number of scholarly articles and books on issues related to gender, sexuality, religion, and law in fifteenth and sixteenth-century England.
Scene with fighting women from the “Illuminated Fightbook”. The Royal Armouries, Manuscript 1:33