Mercedes Allen

Transgender History: The Rise of Hatred (the Middle Ages)

Filed By Mercedes Allen | February 19, 2008 8:10 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Catholic church, Dionysus, Joan of Arc, LGBT history, Middle Ages, Polynesia, St. Joan of Arc, transgender

Transgender History: A 6 Part Series

Don't miss the other five parts of this series.

The advent of class divisions, the acquisition of wealth and power, and the ownership of property fed a movement toward patriarchal governing that ultimately became threatened by the existence of female and transgender spiritual leaders. While patriarchal societies were gradually able to synthesize and later entrench the notion that females should be subservient, gender-variant persons posed a more puzzling quandary, because of their uniqueness. It was for this reason that patriarchal religions, which reached their epitome with the Roman Catholic Church, felt that they had to stamp out transgender people (and also gay / lesbian people, who were often thought of as mixed-gender of a sort in early societies) and demonize their legacy.

This helped to facilitate the development of patrilineal inheritance, keeping the reins of power in hands that grew ever more elite. The status of women was degraded, and by so doing, leadership also typically portrayed any sign of gender variance as "less than male." Dual-spirited gods and goddesses, thought at one time to be doubly powerful, were turned into contemptible, "weak" entities.

For the "Greater Good"

In 186 B.C., when Rome banned the bacchanalia (a pleasure-centered festival to Dionysus), an oppressive campaign followed in the Greek territories, keyed on preventing the lower working classes from seeking their own happiness and betterment, and pushing them to focus on the enrichment of owners, employers and country, and / or to become willing to go to war for patriarchal society. The system became an efficient, self-propagating machine, later evolving into one in which war drove the economy and power trumped reason.

Gender-transgressive and same-sex amoury existence, although greatly reduced, still existed to an extent in Roman culture, but was tolerated only tentatively -- and only if it came from the ruling class or coincided with the agendas of the leaders and generals. Around 60 AD, Emperor Nero reportedly had a young slave boy, Sporus, castrated (eunuching, in early times, was believed to be the primary mechanism of gender change -- "eunuchs" ranged in form from males whose testicles had been removed to those also given a total penectomy), and took him as a wife in a legal public ceremony (Sporus was from then on clothed as an Empress, and accompanied Nero as such).

Birth of the "Homosexual Menace" Campaigns

When factional battles would break out, homosexual and transgender tendencies or loves were often used to justify the destruction of enemies. In 218 A.D., Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus) became emperor of Rome, and was later assassinated, mutilated and dragged through the streets (222 A.D.) before being thrown into the Tiber River. Justification for the overthrow was found in Elagabalus' penchant for wearing womens' clothing and makeup, in his reportedly prostituting himself, in his offering a large sum of money to any physician who can give him female genitalia (never claimed), and from declaring one of his male lovers to be his husband.

When Constantine I arrived in 342 A.D., his fusion of religions (the Roman Catholic church was a synthesis of early Christianity with Mithraism and worship of the sun god, Sol), and fusion of religion with the state strengthened anti-trans sentiment as it bolstered slavery (which had by then become the lot of most gender non-conformists and adherents to older traditions) and set the stage for feudal witch-hunts. These later evolved into the Crusades and the Inquisition, in which any evidence of early matriarchal and transgender-venerating paganism was stamped out. Repressive laws which aimed to crush gender variance and same-sex love evolved into part of the Corpus juris civilis, the Roman body of law upon which many legal systems were later based, including those of England and America.

This occurred because it was necessary to the land-owners (chief of which was the Roman Catholic Church) to break the spirit of the serfs toiling on their behalf, thus pre-empting uprisings. Communal bonds had to be erased, and the idea of communalism had to be demonized. Pagan tradition was reinvented as "witchcraft," and quashed with impunity.

Transgender Saints and Joan of Arc

But in true subversive fashion, what couldn't be completely suppressed was absorbed and reinvented to conform with the new ruling ideal. Early cross-dressing heroes idolized by the peasantry were canonized, with the church reshaping the reasoning behind the admiration of those historical figures, thus co-opting them. Saints Pelagia, Margarita, Marinus (Marina), Athanasia (Alexandria), Eugenia, Appollinaria, Euphrosyne, Matrona, Theodora, Anastasia, Papula and Joseph (Hildegund) were canonized transfolk who were female-bodied but lived as male, along with bearded women Galla, Paula and Wilgefortis (Uncumber). Pope Joan (John Anglicus) appears likely to have been a legend, but this legend was likely cultivated for the same purpose. There are no known male-to-female equivalents of transfolk elevated to sainthood, so it is quite likely that MTFs suffered a zero-tolerance agenda.

396px-Joan_of_arc_miniature_graded.jpgIn 1429, at the age of 17, Joan of Arc dressed in male clothing, gathered several peasant followers and presented herself at the court of Prince Charles, declaring that her mission and dress were compelled upon her by God, said mission to be to drive out the English from France. The heir to the French throne put her in charge of an army of 10,000 peasants. Ultimately, the drive would be victorious, but she would be abducted by English sympathizers (who called her "homasse," or "man-woman") and turned her over to the Inquisition in England.

Although the French king had the opportunity to pay her ransom, he felt threatened by the emotional sway she had over the peasantry, and left her to her fate. Eventually, the Inquisition decided that there was not enough evidence to have her convicted of witchcraft, but she was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 for wearing men's clothing, which the Church referred to as "idolatry." The steadfastness with which she refused to recant and revert to female clothing, and the fierce loyalty from the peasantry over what her cross-gender expression symbolized to them paints a dramatic picture of old tradition resisting stubbornly under the boot of the now-entrenched patriarchal authority.

Into Hiding

Little by little, gender transgression became more limited, at first to peasant festivals, and then one by one, those festivals were outlawed. Halloween, or All Hallow's Eve, which was rooted in early matrilineal Celtic society (drawn from celebrations surrounding Samhain), is the most recognizable event still surviving today. The Celtic Winter Solstice (Christianized as the "Feast of Fools") did not fare as well, because it developed into a trans-inspired mocking of the Church.

Yet even the Church itself appeared to assimilate some transgender motifs into its trappings, such as the floor-length gowns, jeweled trappings for hierarchy and such (having a son join the priesthood, after all, used to be referred to sending him "into skirts"). It may also have been that trans priestesses had somehow inspired the practice of recruiting Castrati for Church choirs, even though Roman Catholic rule had technically forbid the castration of youths.

While much of this change relates to medieval Europe and rule that spread at times to Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa, similar transformations happened in some other cultures, or were later imposed on those cultures by patriarchal conquerors or their influence. Native Two-Spirit tradition would persist until the arrival of the white man in North and Central America, and the genocide and cultural subversion that followed. Trans traditions did still persist somewhat in other parts of the world though, such as Japanese Noh dramas, which find their root in the harvest folk dance, dengaku. And in a few untouched places, notably among the Polynesian Islands (parts of Samoa, Tonga and Tahiti), communal and trans-affirming traditions would survive to this day.

Transgender History: A 6 Part Series

Don't miss the other five parts of this series.

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Thanks so much for doing this series, Mercedes. I'm learning a lot!

very cool, mercedes! wonderful material! would it be possible to list your resources? thank you, again!

Great series of posts, but I agree with jerindc that some references would be useful as the wandering of dates worries me.

I know very little about the history of pre-modern gender variance, but I do know that Constantine was 5 years dead in 342. That in and of itself is a minor and easy correction which has no effect on your main narrative, but suggests that your pre-modern historiography might be old. Given that the renaissance in pre-modern cultural history is recent, it would be nice to get a sense of what that research has contributed.

Mercedes, most of the "crossdressing" ftm saints you mention are legendary. That's rather obvious if you look at the common theme underlying their martyrdom: they dress as men to escape a man's sexual advances or a forced marriage, then spend their lives in piety in a monastery disguised as monks and their true sex is only revealed after death. That's a leitmotif- a good hint that it's mostly legend, with but a sprinkling of truth.

And you take the myth entirely out of context when you claim they were gender benders. The point of “dressing as men” was to do away with gender, which was perceived the same as sexuality (and still is in the same parts of the world to date) in order to combat the sin of lustful temptation. Not to express ones true gender which is the point of modern transitioning foks.

If anything, this is an example of how the early Christian church, just like the modern ones, considered sexuality, in particular female sexuality, a shame and anything that suppressed and subverted it a virtue. You notice too that there are no legends of male saints crossdressing into womanhood. Hint: the early Christians hated poofs just as much as the modern ones; which is where the modern one’s hate came from.

As about Joan of Arc's choice of dress, I think you may be succumbing to the same temptation that you say drove the English to burn her to the stake: to seriously believe that women with pants doing men's jobs are men. But I think it is clear what it was that threatened the English in Joan and her taking up arms and leading a massive popular uprising. Her “cross-gender” behaviour was a pretext, an attempt to defame her- they could hardly accuse her of her other strange quirks, like talking to a god that wasn’t there!

I still can’t see how you can use the myths of the people who have hated us the most and caused us most of our problems to try to put our experiences “into perspective” (at least I think that’s what you’re doing.)

Thanks for doing this!
I'm realy grateful for having a post on Transgender history to read.
I can look forward to the rest of it.
I'm realy glad you are doing this.
When you are finished, you should add this all to Wikipedia.
That would be great!
Thanks again,
Sara M.

Rachel Thompson | February 29, 2008 5:35 PM

I'm a post op trans-women and sympathizer. Much of what you’ve written is true. My scholarly hobby over the last 30 years has been comparative religions, anthropology, history and related human sciences therefore I’m compelled to point out that I found a number of historical and anthropomorphic mistakes in this offering. Some missteps are related to oversimplifications, others unhistorical accounts are referenced as fact and other statements of fact are out of context. I would caution readers to not accept this at face value and do further study. However good an overview, some details are misrepresented. It’s better for our community to speak as much truth as we can muster.
Rachel Thompson