Divine Trans*cendence

CONTENT WARNING: Potential misgendering of historical subjects, brief mention of sexual assault.

In his study of the Rykener case, Isaac Bershady takes special care in describing its religious context. In the late 14th Century, anxiety surrounding sodomy and related gender transgression was reaching a fever pitch. In the ideological upheaval caused by such groups as the Lollards (who would publish their manifesto in the same year as the trial) every big name in Christianity was calling someone else a sodomite.[1] Scholarship like Bershady’s article is vital to our understanding of the London Eleanor found herself in. However, without sounding too much like I’m claiming Lollards threw the first brick at Stonewall, this week I’ve wanted to explore the ways in which gender nonconformity did not always stand in contrast to religious fervour. In what ways could Eleanor Rykener – poor, female, and a sodomite – understand herself in the context of the divine?

Language of gender transition was often utilised by medieval mystics when describing the divine, and their relation to it, in what Jessica Boon calls “mystical transgendering.” Through this, the divine was situated beyond fixed, mortal categories; transcending human experience.[2] This makes the transgender narrative intimately related to the linguistic forms of those closest to God. This has been well accounted for in scholarship, albeit rarely with a formal nod to transgender studies and existence. Francis of Assisi, for example, used gender-crossing language in his pursuit of a more meek and simple clergy and Church. After his death, nuns would talk of Clare of Assisi’s vision of Francis taking her in his arms, and breastfeeding her.[3] In this, it becomes clear that biological essentialism does little in explaining the medieval mindset, in which the world was defined by change, and even bodily form was neither “totalizing nor permanent.”[4] A key trope in hagiography that exemplifies this is the cross-dressing of young, female, soon-to-be-martyrs. We have at least eleven older martyr saints, who managed the heroic feat of masculinity in the earliest centuries of the Christian faith.[5] Shunning the intrinsic weaknesses of their flesh, they shirk their marital duties to pagan fiances, go from long curls to tonsure, and galavant off to the nearest cave or monastery. Renouncing their feminine names and identities, they become holy men of notable asceticism and nobility. There’s something quite 90’s girl power about it all, if you turn a blind eye to the purity ball-esque pledges to Christ. Then there is, of course, Joan of Arc, whose use of masculine clothing was deeply bound up in the charges of heresy bought against her.[6] In the words of Bychowski – “Joan of Arc was certainly considered more than trans enough by medieval standards to die for it.”[7]

An interesting case study is that of Saint Eugenia. Following the typical pattern of these eleven virgin saints, they escape a pagan family and future and is accepted into a male monastic community. Rising high in their order, they are eventually brought low by the claim of rape bought against them by a spurned noble woman. In a soap-worthy turn of events, the Prefect presiding over the trial that follows in none other than the saint’s father. In one last, defiant claim of innocence, the saint tears off their clothing to reveal his breasts.[8] Robert Mills has discussed this moment in ‘Visibly Trans?: Picturing Saint Eugenia in Medieval Art,’ illustrating the ways in which, “with the act of exposure and revelation, Eugenia’s gender is rendered mobile, even undecidable.”[9] With most artistic representations of the saint emphasising their femininity, much in the same way as portrayals of Joan of Arc, there seems to be an awareness of the transgressive potential of this as a moment of transition.[10] The study of these stories are made richer by an acceptance of the trans, regardless of how viciously these narratives try and drag these saintly monks back to femininity. To quote Stephen Davis: “The bipolar view of human gender—while tacitly endorsed—is ultimately destabilized.”[11]

There is a dislocation here, however, between the safe distance of religious literature and spiritual gender transition, and the lived experience of the medieval gender non-conforming. To quote Judith Bennett and Shannon McSheffrey, “Medieval benevolence toward female crossdressers was clearer in fiction than action.”[12] Especially in the later Middle Ages, gender-crossing was inextricably linked to prostitution. Paradoxically, gender transgression could mean at once both divine humility, and promiscuity. We must only look to Joan of Arc to see this in action, whose original crimes (before they were stripped down to twelve articles) included accusations of prostitution and unmarital sex.[13] In addition, the claims of other soldiers to never have felt any desire for her also illustrates this – ‘though she was a young girl, beautiful and shapely […] and I was strong, young, and vigorous, never […] was my body moved to any carnal desire for her, nor were any of her soldiers or squires.”[14] In these testimonies, it is clear that the soldiers expected themselves to be driven to desire by the cross-dressed feminine body, but this process was halted due to Joan’s divinity.[15] This contradiction between saintly and heretical cross-dressing would, I think, have been a particularly pressing issue to Eleanor Rykener. As should be apparent by now, these religious narratives never involve the same martyring, virginal transition of AMAB characters. There is no room for the heroic adoption of feminine clothing and identity. There seems to be more space to aspire to masculinity – clearer, safer boundaries by which St Eugene can be St Eugene (as long as he dies with long hair). Francis of Assisi can preach feminine meekness and care, and do a spot of breastfeeding, but he can’t live as a woman and achieve divinity in the quite the same way as our eleven virgin saints. He can’t reach that wary, brilliant, holy liminal of a Eugenia who is almost, but almost not – not always, St Eugene.

The marginal, exceptional, and divine nature of these saints is certainly realised and expressed through their gendered performance. And yet, I can’t help but think that they not only “offer an image of God’s sacred otherness, an alternative way of life that resists a damaging world,” but also an alternative to femininity.[16] In their sanctity, they become marginally, tangentially masculine; and this, above transness, can be aspired to. This goes some way in explaining the lack of AMAB saints, an ascetic and holy femininity coming second to the heights of sanctity that can be achieved in the masculine. And yet I don’t think that an acceptance of the medieval past as one that prioritised and encouraged masculine traits, and the study of the ways in which the medieval imaginary exalted and relied on narratives of the divine transgender, are mutually exclusive. These stories are both transgender narratives, and histories, because of the influence they would have exerted over real trans people. Much like a ‘queer touch through time,’ here is a touch through fiction. These saints, who tiptoed back and forth along the binary division, would have shaped the worlds of the gender nonconforming, providing a framework on which they could place their bodies, and sense of self. Unlike Eleanor, these Roman martyrs were well-worn histories long before the 1990’s, and their transness is found in the impact their stories have on the gender non-conforming – modern and medieval – rather than the facts of their everyday lives. These eleven virgin saints would have provided a tool by which to talk, think, and treasure the idea of an unfixed gender.


[1] Isaac Bershady, ‘Sexual Deviancy and Deviant Sexuality in Medieval England,’ Primary Source 5:1 (2014), 14-6.
[2] Jessica A. Boon, ‘At the Limits of (Trans)Gender: Jesus, Mary, and the Angels in the Visionary Sermons of Juana de la Cruz (1481 – 1534)’ Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 48:2 (2018), 270-1. 
[3] Clare of Assisi: Early Documents ed. Regis J. Armstrong (New City Press: New York, 2006), 161.  
[4] Boon, ‘At the Limits,’ 270.
[5] Stephen J. Davis, ‘Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex: Intertextuality and Gender in Early Christian Legends of Holy Women Disguised as Men,’ Journal of Early Christian Studies 10:1 (2002), 4.
[6] Susan Schibanoff, ‘True Lies: Transvestism and Idolatry in the Trial of Joan of Arc’, in Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, eds. Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood (London: Routledge, 1996), 31.
[7] Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski, ‘The Patron Saint of Dysphoria: Joan of Arc as Transgender,’ Transliterature: Things Transform (2018) <http://www.thingstransform.com/2019/05/the-patron-saint-of-dysphoria-joan-of.html&gt; [accessed 17 June 2019].
[8] Whatley E. Gordon, ‘More than a Female Joseph: The Sources of the Late-Fifth-Century Passio Sanctae Eugeniae,’ in Saints and Scholars: New Perspectives on Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture in Honour of Hugh Magennis, ed. Stuart McWilliams (Boydell & Brewer: New York, 2012) 87–111.
[9] Robert Mills, ‘Visibly Trans?: Picturing Saint Eugenia in Medieval Art,’ TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 5:4 (2018), 543.
[10] Ibid., 545.
[11] Davis, ‘Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex,’ 32.
[12] Judith Bennett and Shannon McSheffrey, ‘Early, Exotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London’, History Workshop Journal 77 (2014), 6.
[13] Schibanoff, ‘True Lies,’ 34.
[14] Regine Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc: The Evidence at the Trial for Her Rehabilitation, trans. J.M. Cohen (London, 1955), 134; quoted in Schibanoff, ‘True Lies,’ 51.
[15] Bennett and McSheffrey, ‘Early, Exotic and Alien,’ 7.
[16] Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski, ‘Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski, ‘The Patron Saint of Dysphoria: Joan of Arc as Transgender,’ Transliterature: Things Transform (2018),’ Transliterature: Things Transform (2018) < http://www.thingstransform.com/2016/08/transgender-saints-imago-dei-of-st.html&gt; [accessed 17 June 2019].

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