The Man in a Dress: Defining Womanhood in Law and Reality

If you have been following American political news over the past few days, you cannot have escaped noticing the recent firestorm which flared up over the appearance of Sandra Fluke at a congressional hearing on religious freedoms, health insurance provision, and sexual health. Although the debate between Fluke and her detractors has many facets, both sides come back again and again to the concept of women’s health, and womanly behaviour.

The debate over these concepts has a long history.

Until the 1960s and ’70s, many historians simply did not consider womanhood, or gender more broadly, to be a topic for historical study. Most assumed that gender, like one’s physical sex, was a binary matter determined at birth–you were either a man or a woman, and that fact was as true in the 2nd century as it was in the 12th or the 20th. As social history became more and more popular, however, scholars began to write histories not only about women, but about womanhood–and masculinity–as social attitudes with their own context and evolution. What many discovered was that gender and gender roles were often just as complex in the Middle Ages as they are now.

Adam and Eve, 15th c. manuscript illumination (Image Source)

Take the evidence for the law codes, for example. As documents laying out how society ought to work, according to the authors, law codes provide a wealth of information about how mediaeval authors perceived the fabric of society. In the Welsh codes, for example, one’s gender, male or female, determined one’s status, one’s eligibility to inherit, proper upbringing, and ability to own property and make contracts. The only time that the law codes stipulated that men and women be treated equally dealt with a time of life–pre-natal–when it was impossible to ascertain gender. Ideally, then, the gender difference in Welsh society was absolute.

When historian Nancy Partner began to consider the question of gender in the Frankish context (Frankia was an early mediaeval kingdom covering much of modern France and western Germany), however, found a fascinating passage that turns all assumptions based upon the law codes into questions. The following, from the text The History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours, illustrates the complications of gender:

“Then we Bishops appeared and took our seats on the tribunal of the cathedral. Clotild was called before us. She showered abuse on her Abbess and made a number of accusations against her. She maintained that the Abbess kept a man in the nunnery, dressed in woman’s clothing and looking like a woman, although in effect there was no doubt that he was a man. His job was to sleep with the Abbess whenever she wanted it. “Why! There’s the fellow!” cried Clotild, pointing with her finger. Thereupon a man stepped forward, dressed in woman’s clothing as I have told you. Everyone stared at him. He said that he was impotent and that it was the reason why he dressed himself up in this way…” 

Clearly, those involved in the proceedings (a court called to put down a rebellion in the nunnery), were at a loss to understand precisely who (or what) had come before them. Historians, too, cannot say with certainty whether the man above was entirely unique, or whether there was a rich texture of uncertainty surrounding gender that the law codes simply do not communicate.

What does come very strongly out of the passage above, however, is the conviction that any persistent assertions about the simplicity of social attitudes in the Middle Ages, or gender more broadly, are doomed to failure.

Partner, Nancy F., ‘No Sex, No Gender,’ Speculum vol. 68.2 (1993), p.419.


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