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Monday, December 16, 2013

The Difficult Lives of Transvestite Saints

I’ve just finished reading a book that I know will be atop everyone’s reading lists: The Cross-Dressing Female Saints in Wynkyn de Worde’s 1495 Edition of the Vitas Patrum: A Study and Edition of the Lives of Saints Pelage, Maryne, Eufrosyne, Eugene and Mary of Egypt[i].  I think that the title should be just a bit longer, but that’s just me… (At 182 characters, the title itself is too long to tweet.)

This obscure book by Sandra Lowerre is a careful examination of another ancient book – the Vitas Patrum (“Lives of the Fathers”) published by Wynkyn de Worde in England in 1495.  More specifically, Lowerre examines the way that the lives of a few cross-dressing female saints are depicted in this book intended to serve as a devotional tool for pious Christians in the late 15th century. 

Even though it is the “Lives of the Fathers,” the stories of a few women (seven) were included in this devotional study – and among those venerable female saints were a number of cross-dressers held up as examples of Christian piety and righteousness.

Careful, though.  These women are not champions of contemporary Feminism or Transvestite / Transgender issues[ii].  Their concerns and motivations would seem very out of place in our world today. Indeed, at heart their transvestitism was not motivated by sexual or gender issues – but (at least in the presentation of the Vitas Patrum) by spiritual desires that, in order to be fulfilled, necessitated the denial of their sex/gender.

The fact that church leaders (all of them men) viewed women as dangerous to the salvation of men[iii] and generally inferior to men[iv] meant that for a woman to pursue of life of religious devotion – she had to deny and denigrate her womanhood.  Their cross dressing was not done as an expression of their true identities, but as a denial of their personal identity in order to conform to the misogynistic ideals valued at the time. 

It’s a sort of paradox that these women are praised.  It was forbidden by church law for any individual to wear the clothing of the opposite sex (based on the Deuteronomic proscription – A woman shall not wear man's clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman's clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.[v]) And the Synod of Gangra, held in AD 340, specifically forbade women to dress as men in order to gain entrance into male only religious communities.[vi]  But here they are, singled out for their cross-dressing and the story of their lives recorded for all of history to admire.

But – do not fear – all is restored at the end of each of these “lives;” their cross-dressing is revealed and their womanhood realized.  All is restored to the natural order.  These women, the reader is told, have achieved, by a miracle of God, a level of holiness and perfection usually only found in men.  But their womanhood must be revealed in order for the miracle to be noticed.[vii]

This is an interesting book – but difficult.  Be prepared to mentally translate from ‘ye olde English’ as you read.

“Saint Ierome recounteth that in the countrey of Palestyn, in whyche is the cyte of Iherusalem, was somtyme a right prudent man of notable lyf in dedes and worde named Zozymas.  And we fynde that there was another in lyke wyse soo named, whyche was an herytyke, of whome at thys tyme we shalle make noo mencyon, but oonly we shalle speke of hym that we haue first named.  He walked thurgh alle Palestyne in vysytyng deuoutly alle the holy places and monasteryes that were there.”[viii]

[i] Lowerre, Sandra The Cross-Dressing Female Saints in Wynkyn de Worde’s 1495 Edition of the Vitas Patrum: A Study and Edition of the Lives of Saints Pelage, Maryne, Eufrosyne, Eugene and Mary of Egypt Peter Lang Publishers, Frankfurt Germany, 2005.
[ii]Pages xi-xii
[iii] Page lxxxix
[iv] Page xc
[v] Deuteronomy 22: 5
[vi] Page lxxx
[vii] Page cxii
[viii] Page 11

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