Jacqueline Murray is professor emerita of history at the University of Guelph.
The universal push and pull between the generations has reached a new extreme with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s invoking of the notwithstanding clause to prevent children from choosing their own names and pronouns while at school, without parental consent.
Such draconian measures are frequently linked to fears that the mere presence or acceptance of gender-diverse or transgender people is the first step to “grooming” children or directing them to adopt the same path, although there is no evidence that a person of any age would capriciously join this marginalized minority.
There is a widespread but erroneous belief that non-binary people are new, somehow emerging from a modern, sexually lenient society. But there is much evidence from the European Middle Ages that gives us insight into the lives of trans and non-binary people in the past, demonstrating that there is a long history for what seems to be a new phenomenon.
Around 1188, Engelhard of Langheim recorded a miracle story about a monk named Joseph who died at the monastery of Schönau in Germany. When the brothers were preparing his body for burial, they discovered that Joseph had the body of a woman. Engelhard reports that Joseph had been given the female birth name of Hildegund but, as a child, had dressed in male clothing in order to avoid being raped. This was a common narrative device in the Middle Ages, so it was easy for Engelhard to reach this conclusion when filling in the gaps of knowledge about Joseph’s early years.
At some point, Hildegund changed their name to Joseph and lived as a man, in a male monastic community, all their adult life. At death, upon discovery of their biological sex, the transgendered Joseph was widely considered to be a saint. This is not a story about trickery or disguise but of how, with God’s miraculous help, one person was able to live out their trans identity.
There are in fact many stories of miraculously transgendered and transsexual medieval saints. For example, in the early third century, as she was preparing to be martyred by gladiators, St. Perpetua reported: “My clothes were stripped off, and suddenly I was a man.” Thus, with the help of miracles, saints were able to surmount the rigid binaries of male and female, man and woman.
Certainly, not all trans or gender-diverse medieval people were embraced so enthusiastically, but nor were they all condemned outright. Rather, non-binary people were somewhat perplexing because they did not fit into society’s rigid stereotypes of male and female. Even when brought before the courts, they could be treated gently by confused authorities.
This appears to have been the case for Eleanor (also known as John) Rykener, who was arrested in London in 1394 for having sex with a man. Their testimony before the court reveals the complexity of trans identities and how they were linked to an individual’s sense of self. In their testimony before the court, still wearing the women’s clothing in which they had been arrested and “calling herself Eleanor,” as the transcript states, Rykener confessed to having sex with men while wearing women’s clothing but also admitted to having sex with women while wearing men’s clothing. This gender ambiguity seems to have confused the court: was the crime between two men, as in sodomy? Or was it prostitution – sex between a man and a woman for money? There is no record of what the court decided, or even if Rykener was charged with any crime. Their trans identity blurred the clearly defined boundaries between genders in medieval society, and seems to have confounded the authorities.
Joseph and Eleanor are but two cases from the Middle Ages that help us to understand the history of non-binary and trans people. There are others, many of them familiar. For example, the detailed transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial reveal the prosecution’s near obsession with the fact she wore male clothing, though she did not disguise her biological sex. Before her final court appearance, she resumed wearing male clothing, an act of defiance that led to her being found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake. As one witness later observed, “People said that the sole cause of her condemnation was that she had resumed male clothes.” In other words, Joan embraced the outward sign of her chosen, if ambiguous, gender identity.
Non-binary, queer, or trans identities are not new, but rather have a deep history. Trans people in the Middle Ages used their preferred or chosen names, just as trans children and youths would like to do today.
Parents and politicians need to recognize that they cannot legislate away diverse gender identities any more than the church and courts could in the Middle Ages.