Transvestite Knights: Men and Women Cross-dressing in Medieval Literature

Transvestite Knights: Men and Women Cross-dressing in Medieval Literature

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Transvestite Knights: Men and Women Cross-dressing in Medieval Literature

Debbie Kerkhof,

University of Utrecht: Masters Thesis, Spring (2013)


Cross-dressing to deceive was frowned upon in medieval society, and was a topic of Church criticism by some very notable medieval thinkers and churchmen, yet it often found its way into literature. Despite the criticism behind cross-dressing in the medieval period, women masquerading as men and men dressed as women were present in reality as well as in medieval literature. There are tales of transvestite saints hiding in monasteries in order to escape persecution, and men disguising themselves as women for amusement or to get closer to women for sexual encounters. In reality, cross-dressing could be a great sin, but its inclusion in the plot of several medieval texts seems to show a disconnect between the medieval reality and the medieval imagination.

Transvestite characters could be lauded and gain honour in their cross- dressing, yet in reality these characters would have been shunned and deemed as sinners, if moral and secular laws are taken into account. By looking at characters in French, German, and one English text from the 12th to the 15th centuries, it becomes clear that there were instances in which cross-dressing could be justified, as long as certain criteria were met. By understanding the medieval views of clothing, of sexuality, and the importance of intent, cross-dressing in medieval literature can be viewed as a positive aspect of medieval life, rather than the negative sin that Church criticism made it out to be.

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