During the Medieval period in Europe, people had very interesting ideas about sexual difference that proliferated under the guise of truth, and these ideas affected the popular imagination. Quite literally a common belief at the time was that women had inverted penises, penises that were holed up inside, not having had the chance to pop out. Women then were seen as not only symbolically, but physically incomplete males (Bullough and Bullough 46). Some folklore stories went so far as to claim that "women who spread their legs very far would have their organs fall out and become men" (49). Whereas the vagina would become the penis, the ovaries would become the testicles (49). Men took a step in the opposite direction when they became eunuchs and their "male complexion changed to a female one" (49). This change was interpreted as a step down, whereas the change of a female to a male not only meant greater prosperity for the individual female, who would legally and socially become male, but also could be a great boon for a family in need of a male heir.

However, while a man may castrate himself and/or symbolically effeminate himself, there are no records of a man's penis being sucked back inside to become a vagina. It simply wasn't "natural" for a man to "de-evolve" by becoming a woman. Rather, inertia was said to push towards perfection, and males were considered perfect, or at least more perfect than females. Therefore, for women to achieve perfection, they would have to become more like men.

Accordingly, legends were told of women who dresssed like men not only for protection (as a disguise to hide their supposedly weak and helpless female forms), but to become closer to God. Rather than live as women, who, as descendants of Eve, "naturally" were further from God's love than men, these women "lived and worshipped as men for all their adult lives and... [ their ] true sex was neither known nor suspect until they were being prepared for burial" (51). And for their efforts, some of these women even attained sainthood.

The Cross-dressed Female Saints

Saint Margarita, or Pelagius, which was her name as a male, was either a reformed prostitute or a virgin who didn't want to marry. (There are two versions of the story.) In either case, the disguise enabled her to escape from her past. In the second version, she joined a monastery. Apparently, her disguise was so flawless that a woman even accused her of fathering an illegitimate child. After her death, when her true sex was discovered, she was exonerated and became a saint (Bullough and Bullough 52).

St. Marina's father dressed her as a boy, called Marinus. She, too, joined a monastery and was expelled when someone accused her of fathering an illegitimate child. Rather than expose herself as a woman, she accepted the blame and reared the child. Like Margarita, Marina's innocence was proclaimed at her death (Bullough and Bullough 51-52).

Two more cross-dressed female saints are St. Hildegund and St. Athanasia. St. Hildegund had also been disguised by her father at an early age. The difference between Hildegund and Marina is that Hildegund is a historical figure whose story has been embellished. Hildegund's story is filled with adventure, involving swash buckling and several death sentences. However, as with the other cross-dressed female saints, no one knew of her true identity until she died in a monastery (Bullough and Bullough 54). St. Athanasia did not cross-dress until after her children died. Her story involves her husband rather than her father. She and her husband were separated, and both joined monasteries. Years later they met and became close friends as monks, living chaste lives together in the monastery, neither knowing the other's true identity (54). Athanasia's story shows how in Medieval times a higher value was placed on platonic love than erotic love. As a male, Athanasia's "base," womanly instincts were eradicated, and she and her husband could live truly blessed lives free from the taint of sexual intercourse.

The Bearded Female Saints

Perhaps even more implausible (at least to us) are the stories of the bearded female saints. The most famous of these saints was Wilgefortis, also known as Uncumber. Unwilling to comply with a marriage arranged by her pagan father, she prayed to God to save her from her fate. In answer to her prayers, God sent her a "long, drooping mustache and silky curling beard" (Bullough and Bullough 55). Her father was outraged but vowed that the wedding would continue. Wilgefortis wore a veil, which she purposefully let slip. The groom refused her, and her father had her crucified as punishment for her disobedience. In England, she was known as Uncumber, the patron saint of women who wanted to rid themselves of their husbands (54-55).

Other bearded female saints include St. Galla, a widow who refused to remarry, and St. Paula, a virgin fleeing an unwanted suitor. Galla's story acted as a warning to disobedient women. Her physicians warned her that if she did not marry, she would grow a beard, and low and behold, she did. Afterwards, she joined a group of religious women and spent her life helping the needy (Bullough and Bullough 55). The effects of her chastisement are clear. Although as a bearded lady she could no longer marry a man, she could take the other acceptable route for women-- to join a religious organization and live with other women, although, one can't help but wonder how well a bearded lady could fit in with "normal" women. As her name suggests, St. Paula's story is of a more pious nature. She asked Jesus to disfigure her so that her suitor would not recognize her. Here, the beard acted as a shield to protect Paula from a man. This incident emphasizes "the protective nature of the masculine role" (55) and the vulnerability of the female one, during the Medieval period.

Pope Joan and Joan of Arc

Finally, one must consider the stories of Pope Joan and Joan of Arc. According to legend, Pope Joan was a monk who worked her way up to the highest position in the Catholic Church. Her disguise allowed her to become more powerful than any woman in her day could ever have hoped to dream, and accordingly, her story ended negatively (perhaps as a warning to other women who might dare to reach the same heights). She fell in love with a monk and succumbed to temptation. She then became pregnant and managed to hide it until she gave birth in the midst of a papal procession. This incident, of course, led to her downfall (56). Similarly, Joan of Arc's story had a tragic end. She may have led the French to victory, but doing so was outside the realm of acceptable female behavior. In addition, her cross-dressing was one of the major reasons for her execution (57). Historical rather than legendary, her story is all the more powerful, reminding us that what one may revere in legend, one may despise in reality.

However, Joan of Arc's story is different in that her cross-dressing was not a disguise and was therefore not used to protect her femininity. Rather, she used the accoutrements of masculinity (the pants, the sword, the helmet, etc.) to take an active role in the world of men (Bullough and Bullough 57). To add to this effrontery, she claimed that God was telling her to do so, when all men "knew" that God supported patriarchy and despised cross-dressing. These acts were therefore acts of heresy and were punished as such.

The rules of cross-dressing in Medieval times did not allow for such a bold woman. Rather, the women who strove for masculine ideals without trying to "meet a man on his own terms" (Bullough and Bullough 57) were the ones who were celebrated, at least in legends. Even their disguises emphasized their subordinate positions-- only women would turn to the clothing of the opposite sex for protection. There were no transvestite male saints, and it was commonly believed that a man would only dress as or imitate a woman in order to "insinuate himself into the confidence of women for sexual puposes or as part of a witchcraft ceremony" (60). The only exceptions to this rule occurred during plays or revelry, when the man "was clearly recognized as being a man [ as at a festival ] or when the man performed a social function that ... women were not allowed to do [ as on the stage ]" (Bullough and Bullough 62). Therefore, both the stage and the festival were licensed venues for male cross-dressing during the Middle Ages.


Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough. Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.