100 - 1399: Mystics, Monks, and Plagues

The centuries spanning from 100CE to 1399 are witness to major transformations in Christianity. The early churches go from enduring periodic bouts of persecution to enjoying legitimization in 313, when Constantine declares Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire; in 380, the Emperor Theodosius will go one step further by making Christianity Rome's official state religion. 

 

Mystics, monks, and nuns roam across the land or settle down into monasteries, many of which will become havens for persons assigned female at birth who wish to avoid the marriage and motherhood expected of them, as well as persons assigned male at birth who break gender norms.

 

Even so, Christianized feudal Europe became more and more dangerous for gender variant people, along with all others whose existence challenged the patriarchies that were replacing ancient matrilineal societies (1). Even while raising up some gender nonconforming figures as pious models for Christians to follow, the Church was establishing a campaign against trans people that would rage through the coming centuries.   

We cannot know how the following figures would identify today -- which ones are transgender or genderqueer or cisgender by our reckoning, which are gay or bi or ace or straight, and so on. But nevertheless the lives of these figures can resonate in one way or another with Christians today who are trans, nonbinary, or otherwise gender diverse.

"MANLY" WOMEN...

At least a few women who were martyred in early Christian history were associated -- by others or in their own words -- with maleness. While we should recognize misogyny in the apparent need to associate courage and strength with manhood, these Saints nevertheless fall into the "gender variance" with which this site is interested. Two such Saints both lived during the 200s CE: Perpetua and Barbara. 

Perpetua's association with gender nonconformity comes from the dream that she reports having in The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas; she dreams of being transformed into a man to fight, gladiator-style, in the Roman ampitheatre and triumphs over her burly male opponent.

When she wakes from this dream, Perpetua is led from prison and executed in the arena, alongside the Saint who is paired with her, Felicitas. Both Saints were heralded as "neither male nor female" due to the "manliness of their souls" by some early Christians (2). Be that as it may, this couple is beloved among sapphic Christians today; see their article on Qspirit

Saint Barbara, meanwhile, was dragged to a mountaintop and killed by her father after refusing to recant her faith and get married. On his way down from the mountain, her father was struck by lightning. Thus in the Santería religion of the Americas, Barbara has been syncretized with Shango, the Yoruba god of lightning, and is therefore considered gender variant herself (3)

< [Image Description: to the left is St. Barbara, a young white woman with a crown and red dress, holding a chalice in one hand and a sword in the other. In the background, lighting strikes a tower. To the right, an image of the African-diasporic god Shango, who is Black and wears a red mantle; he holds up a bundle of lightning in one hand and an ax in the other.]

[Image description: a statue of the crucified Wilgefortis, a white person in a dress with light brown hair and a beard]

...AND BEARDED WOMEN (/AFAB PERSONS)

 

Various accounts of persons assigned female at birth miraculously growing beards exist from this time period. The one with the greatest following is St. Wilgefortis, whose legend places her in medieval Portugal. Wilgefortis' name means "strong virgin" and indeed, she refused to marry even unto death. When her father arranged a marriage with a pagan king, Wilgefortis prayed to Jesus for help; she then grew a beard that caused her suitor to leave her at the altar. Furious, her father had her crucified. For more on this Saint, see QSpirit's article

St. Paula Barbada also grew a beard after praying to Jesus for protection, this time from a man attempting to assault her; some sources claim her genitalia were also transformed. A Roman noble from the 500s CE named St. Galla wished to become a hermit after her husband's death; in her solitude, she grew a beard (4).

St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was an Italian nun who experienced visions from the age of 6 onward and was known for her healing power. Some doubted these experiences, including St. Raymund of Capua -- until "Raymund saw a vision of Catherine’s face transforming into that of a bearded man. Catherine, Raymund believed, had achieved a mystical union with Christ, as a result of which she had become mystically transgendered” (5).

Intersex women (cis or trans), trans women, trans men, and nonbinary persons of our own day who choose to have beards may identify with these Saints, whose beards were called "monstrous" and "unnatural" and considered to be "blemishes" or marks of "disfigurement" by the Saints' enemies. The Saints themselves, however, gave thanks for their facial hair, seeing their beards as a blessing from God. (6)

AFAB MONKS

Along with sprouting beards, a good number of persons assigned female at birth donned monks' robes. Some of these Christians did so in order to hide from pursuers. Others chose to become monks (rather than nuns) for reasons that remain obscured; I believe that at least some of them would have identified as transgender in our own time. Thus I use "they" pronouns in this section, in order to avoid "he" or "she." 

St. Eugenia of Alexandria (183-258CE) entered an abbey upon converting to Christianity. Their gender identity remained a secret until a woman tried to seduce them and, failing, accused Eugenia of making sexual advances towards her; Eugenia then revealed their anatomy to clear their own name (7)

Pelagius is the name taken on by another convert to Christianity in the 300s. They left their life as "beautiful dancer and courtesan of Antioch" to become "wise brother Pelagius, monk and eunuch" in Jerusalem. It was only after this revered monk's death that their fellows discovered the secret of their anatomy. Pelagius' mourners were said to chant, "Glory be to thee, Lord Jesus, for thou hast many hidden treasures on earth, female as well as male" (8).

Marius (who lived either in the 400s or 700s), was evicted from their monastery when a woman accused them of fathering her child. In exile, Marius raised this child without ever disclosing their assigned gender; like Pelagius, only after death did anyone discover Marius' secret (9)

Other AFAB persons who became monks for various reasons include Saint Euphrosyne (400s CE); Saint Anastasia the Patrician (500s CE); and Saint Apollinaris (400s CE) (10). And who knows how many more there were who were never discovered, or "outted"!

[Image Description: Marius in black monk's robes, hood up and face upturned, holding a sleeping infant.] 

GENDERFLUID CAPES

 

Monasteries proved to be havens for many gender variant AFAB persons, but what about persons assigned male at birth? 

The Carmina Burana is a collection of over two hundred Latin and German songs, many of which are irreverent parodies of religious songs and services. These songs hail from the 1000s through the 1200s, when they were gathered by a Benedictine monastery in Munich, Germany. At least two of the songs included in this collection "concern gender metamorphosis": De vestium transformatione and Nullus ita parcus est.

 

Both songs "describe how, by way of the monks' refusal to throw away worn-out fabrics, garments once worn by nuns or simply considered feminine are transformed into masculine garments. For instance, a cape, perceived then as a feminine item of clothing, is transformed into a mantle, a masculine garment. The lyrics suggest that the old garments or pieces of fabric carry magical powers that effect a kind of gender transformation in the monks. L. Barkan (1986) translates the first lyric as follows:

'So in the style of Proteus clothing is transformed... As the princes of the church change their sex in outward appearance, so secretly they patch up torn garments. ...God makes a cape out of a mantle, and therefore it can be guilty of both sides of love'" (11)

 

Perhaps this irreverent lyric hinted at the truth of gender variance among monks, who could sometimes express passionate love for one another and get away with feminine descriptors for each other, as the following accounts will explore. 

[Image description: an illumination from a fragment of the Carmina Burana in which four figures are drinking from large vessels.] 

[ Image description: painting of the three poor women meeting Francis and his doctor companion by Sassetta; it is traditionally titled “The Marriage of Saint Francis with Lady Poverty." In this Renaissance-style piece, Francis in his brown robes and bald head to the left reaches his right hand, bearing the stigmata, towards the three women on the right. These three women all have blonde hair, look downwards, and wear a long dress -- one is red, one brown, and one white. Cherry describes the painting further and argues that it does not depict a marriage or the three virtues but rather the Trinity in this article.]

[ Image description: detail of another piece by Sassetta, this one featuring the three women hovering above Francis, who has a golden halo with rays emitting from it and who gazes upward at the woman in red directly above him. The woman in white is to his right (viewer's left) and holds what might be flowers on a long stem; the woman in brown is to his left and has her hands clasped as if in prayer.] 

[Image description: a painting of Francis standing over a kneeling Clare of Assisi, who wears a red dress, with her arms are crossed over her chest in an expression of surrender or receiving blessing while Francis cuts her long blonde hair. Clare of Assisi is another woman who followed Francis and defied gender norms in doing so, as shown in her cut hair and her refusal to marry.] 

[Image description: painting of St. Francis of Assisi's deathbed by Josep Benlliure. Francis' followers are gathered around, including the widow Brother Jacoba near his feet. Francis' hands and feet bear the stigmata.]

MOTHER FRANCIS, A FEMALE TRINITY, AND BROTHER JACOBA

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of the most beloved of Catholic Saints, but many do not know about his and his monastery's queerness. Francis had his friars refer to him and to one another as "Mother" (12). He also claimed the title of "Lady Poverty" for himself after it was given to him by the Holy Trinity itself/Themselves, as recounted by Francis' contemporary Thomas of Celano

"Three poor women appeared by the road as Saint Francis was passing. They were so similar in stature, age, and face that you would think they were a three-part piece of matter, modeled by one form. As Saint Francis approached, they reverently bowed their heads, and hailed him with a new greeting, saying: 'Welcome, Lady Poverty!'"

(While historians have traditionally assumed that these three women represented Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, Franciscan Kevin Elphick compellingly argues that the language used for them, in emphasizing their uniformity of substance, proves that they are meant to be the Trinity. Elphick explains how a later writer, St. Bonaventure, had to engage in "confusing, metaphorical gymnastics" in order to avoid acknowledging a female Trinity (13). For what patriarch wants to imagine his God could ever be female?)

In the form of these three women, the Triune God recognizes and affirms Francis' gender variance. They do not rebuke Francis' use of feminine language but rather encourage it by gifting him with yet another feminine title. And They do so while appearing as female in all Three Persons! Perhaps by appearing thus God hopes to suggest to Francis, "Your fluidity is beautiful. I too hold femininity and masculinity within Me -- and everything beyond and in between." How powerful for those of us who worry that God might frown upon us taking on a new name! We can see that God not only approved of Mother Francis but assisted him in his nonconformity.

 

The name "Lady Poverty" truly gets to the heart of who Francis is: one who revels in femininity because his society calls it "weak" and God calls the "weak" strong (1 Cor 1); and one who chooses poverty over wealth because in doing so he joins the most vulnerable in his world, including Christ Herself. As Cherry puts it, "The genderbending name honors his commitment to upend social hierarchies and embrace poverty as a spiritual path." 

Elphick likewise emphasizes how Francis embraces social reversal in his personal life -- transitioning from the wealth into which he was born to poverty, and from the masculinity he was assigned towards femininity -- as a way of looking towards the "great reversal of the Gospels." In other words, because scripture looks towards the day when the "lowly" -- including poor people and women -- will be lifted up (1 Samuel 2, Luke 1) and there will no longer be "male and female" (Galatians 3:28), Francis emulates that movement in his own life.

 

Trans and nonbinary persons do the same thing when we live into our true genders: we transition from cisgender privileges into the vulnerability of being trans. While this movement is derided by our society as foolishness -- who would "choose" danger over safety, oppression over privilege? -- we can delight in the knowledge that we live into the truth of God's Kin(g)dom, where rigid and impermeable binaries are no more (Gal 3:28) and where the "wisdom of the world" proves foolish (1 Cor 1:20, 27).

In the name Lady Poverty, it is clear that God in the form of these three poor women truly sees Francis and honors all that he is. It is a breathtaking thing to be seen and known in so intimate a way, and Francis is overcome by it: 

"At once the saint was filled with unspeakable joy, for he had in himself nothing that he would so gladly have people hail as what these women had chosen." 

 

I imagine I would have felt that same "unspeakable joy" if God had appeared to me back when I was still going by my birthname and hailed me as Avery, the name I would eventually choose for myself. That ringing rightness as I heard the name that fits me spoken by my Beloved God in greeting would have resounded through my spirit!

 

Francis has "in himself nothing" that he desires more for other people to "hail" him by -- i.e., for them to recognize and call out even upon their first encounter with him. His femininity and his chosen path of poverty are for Francis his two most cherished traits; God sees that and affirms it. Likewise, many trans persons "have in ourselves" nothing that we would so gladly have people hail us by than our chosen names and pronouns. 

Thus Mother Francis, Lady Poverty, experienced an affirmation of his gender nonconforming self-descriptors. This section will end with an example of how he used his play with language to welcome a woman into his all-male order. 

When a wealthy widow wanted to enter Francis' cloister, which forbade women's entrance, Francis used nonconforming language as a tool for bypassing the "all-male" rule, declaring her to be "Brother Jacoba": 

“Blessed be God, who has guided the Lady Jacoba, our brother, to us. Open the door and bring her in, for our Brother Jacoba does not have to observe the decree against women.”

For Francis, the feminine and masculine are malleable, and language has the power to shape reality: men like him can be Ladies; women like Jacoba can be Brothers. Thus Francis' monastery become a haven for persons assigned male and female at birth to live together and play around with traditional uses of gendered language. 

For more on St. Francis' gender nonconformity as well as on his same-sex lover, see his general article on QSpirit along with the article specifically on his encounter with the all-female Trinity; I am indebted to Kittredge Cherry's work in those two articles as well as Kevin Elphick's article. 

BERNARD'S RAINBOW

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090-1153) was a French abbot who had two great loves: an Irish archbishop named Malachy of Armagh and Jesus Christ. 

Scholars have noted the "erotic quality" to Bernard's devotion to Jesus, whom he often refers to as "the husband." One line of his poetry reads, "I do not want your blessing, it is you I want," and many of his poems borrow the passionate imagery of the biblical Song of Solomon. Bernard identifies himself with the female character of Song of Solomon, the Shulamite; and he "abandons himself in soul to the spiritual caresses of the divine lover" (14)

Through the centuries after his death, the belief that "passing under the rainbow of Saint Bernard" could cause one to "change sex" spread from France all the way to Eastern Europe. In Rumania, the legend went that a rainbow stands "with each end in a river, and anyone creeping into its end on hands and knees and drinking the water it touches will instantly change sex" (15). To me, this widespread legend shows that there were people back then who wanted to "change sex" -- I love to imagine such a person seeking out the end of a rainbow in order to become the gender they wanted to be. 

Form more on St. Bernard and his lover Malachy, see this article on QSpirit

[Image description: a painting of Bernard and Christ by Francisco Ribalta. Bernard is kneeling beside the seated Christ, who looks down lovingly on Bernard's upturned face.]

THE ANDROGYNOUS CHRIST

The above section on St. Francis noted that he had a vision of the Trinity as all-female; the concept of the divine feminine is one that has existed in Christianity since its earliest days. Indeed, Christian mystics up through the Middle Ages regarded Christ as an androgynous figure, embodying both masculine and feminine traits.

 

The early Christian community of Syria in particular embraced androgynous images of God, mixing masculine and feminine language when envisioning the Trinity. See this blog post for examples of Syrian prayers; an excerpt from Ode 8 of the Syrian Odes of Solomon is below, with Christ speaking: 

 

"Love me with affection, ye who love! For I do not turn away my face from them that are mine;
For I know them and before they came into being I took knowledge of them, and on their faces I set my seal: I fashioned their members:
my own breasts I prepared for them, that they might drink my holy milk and live thereby."

Saint Anselm's prayer from c. 1070 is another example of Jesus (as well as St. Paul) depicted as a Mother figure; see this webpage for an excerpt from that prayer. ​

Moreover, from antiquity onward, the wound in Jesus' side has been analogous to the vulva and vagina. The theology and liturgy of the Orthodox Christian Church takes this image further, envisioning Christ giving birth through this vaginal wound to the Church, much as Eve was brought forth from the side of Adam (16)

Christians who felt they could explore Jesus's / the Trinity's gender may have felt liberated to do the same with their own gender identities and expressions. I like to imagine a young mystic learning about the androgynous Christ and thinking "That's like me! Jesus was like me! I'm okay!"

[ Image description: an illumination from a medieval manuscript that features the cross, nails, spear, and other items from the Crucifixion arranged around the wound of Christ, depicted as a pink elliptical shape with a darker hole in its center -- clearly vaginal imagery. ]

A BABY AND A POPE

All of the above accounts have shown how gender nonconformity was often allowed and even celebrated among Christians from 100CE through 1399. However, there were also periods during this timespan when gender variance was condemned by the Church; let's look at one more example of it being permitted, along with an example of its condemnation. 

 

Saint Abban was an Irish Catholic abbot of the 400s who was renowned as a "diviner, healer, and magician" (that's right, because of syncretism, Irish miracle workers were often called magicians!) (17). This abbot was acquainted with an older couple who had been trying for decades to have a child, and finally had a baby girl. While we don't know the wife's feelings, I suppose the husband had never heard the phrase "don't look a gift horse in the mouth," because he was sad that he still would have no male heir. Enter Abban, who miraculously transformed the baby into a male. In Omnigender, Virginia Mollenkott notes that this "transsexual miracle proved no bar to [Abban's] canonization" (18)

While Abban's assistance in transforming a child's sex did not earn him the disapproval of the Catholic Church, a pope who gave birth to a child in the 800s was met with such dismay that the Church has denied her very existence.

 

The historicity of "Pope Joan," papal name John VIII, is debated. If this person existed, Joan only ruled as pope for a few years before dying in childbirth or shortly thereafter. Mollenkott asserts that "the church’s insistence that s/he never existed is symbolic of the religious erasure of transgender experience" (19).​

< [Image description: an illuminated manuscript featuring Pope Joan with the papal tiara; a friar looks in on Joan through a window.]

THE GENDERING OF HAIR

The Church periodically tried to crack down on its men's hairstyles up through the Middle Ages. The apostle Paul himself may be the first to impose rules on early Christians' hair: "Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering" (1 Cor 11:14-15). Despite the fact that hairstyles' gendering is culturally contextual, Paul associated his views on hair with what is "natural."

Not long after Paul, Bishop Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-220) bemoaned what he considered the "excessive attention to hair grooming" among some Roman men: "Oh, these...immoral androgynes and their coifing sessions!" (20).

 

Once the Church attained political power as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 300s, it periodically employed that power to issue sumptuary laws that "condemned the wearing of certain hairstyles, especially those which have been linked to transgenderism, same-sex passion, and luxury or decadence(21). For instance, in the 1000s there were various demands to stop “all males from entering churches” if their hair was in one of the forbidden fashions. Daring to disobey came with the threat of damnation, for if one could not enter the church one could not receive communion or a proper Christian burial. 

[Image description: an illumination of two monks; one is seated and getting his hair cut, or "tonsured," by the one who stands behind him.]

[Image description: a painting of St. Catherine of Siena by Alessandro Franchi; she is cutting her long hair while someone looks on.] 

Nevertheless, many people seem to have disobeyed: the Church had to reiterate its edict in 1096, in 1102, and in 1103 because "so many men, including members of the clergy, refused to submit" (22).

 

See this webpage for more on which hairstyles were forbidden for Christian men over the years. 

 

...But why was hair such a threat to the Church, anyway?

 

Persons assigned female at birth could sometimes get away with cutting their hair in a masculine style; persons assigned male at birth could not get away with a feminine style. Sexism and queerphobia are at play in this double standard: the Church could sometimes allow for a woman "masculinizing" herself, as we saw in above examples like that of St. Perpetua, because it viewed maleness as superior. A woman cutting her hair was a sign of her commitment to virginity and asceticism. What the Church could not abide was a man "feminizing" himself. 

Those of us who choose to wear our hair in ways that clash with society's expectations for our assigned gender can look back to the brave persons who defied Church edicts in the Middle Ages for encouragement.   

GENDER TRANSGRESSORS: SACRED OR SCAPEGOAT?

 

So what does all this mean about the treatment of transgender and gender variant persons in Christianity from 100CE through 1399? It seems to have depended on context -- what any given "gender variant" person was trying to do and what sort of political and social environment they found themselves in.

 

A person assigned female at birth could be praised for taking on qualities deemed masculine, if the way they did so fit into misogynistic values: Perpetua's "manliness," her vision of literally transforming into a man, was praised because of course a woman should aspire to the strength and courage that only men can achieve (please note my sarcastic tone). A woman who grew a beard or disguised herself as a monk to avoid marriage was also lauded, since virginity was so highly regarded. There was space in Catholic tradition for such persons -- so long as they didn't forget themselves, didn't try to rise too high in the hierarchy, as Pope Joan did. And, of course, the fact that Pope Joan had a child proved that she was not "undercover" as a man in order to maintain her virginity; there could be no saving her reputation after a stunt like that.

For Leslie Feinberg, the Church's decision either to vilify or to canonize a gender nonconforming person all came down to which decision best served the Church's campaign against pre-feudal religions that threatened its own economic and social power:

"I think the Church fathers may have canonized a constellation of female-to-male trans saints because they were forced to compete with the old religion still popularly embraced by the peasants. The Church hierarchy must have had a tough time trying to convert peasants from their joyous, pro-sexual, cross-gendered religious rites to the gloom and doom of medieval Catholicism. I believe the clerics tried to co-opt popular images of transgender, but with a twist -- these female-to-male saints were remarkably pious. Trans images that drew the devotion of peasants to the religion of the owning class would have been valuable in recruitment" (23)

Whatever reasons the Church had for accepting some gender variant AFAB Saints, persons assigned male at birth seem to have had even less leeway when it came to expressing themselves in gender nonconforming ways; I know of no canonized transfeminine Saints. Even so, the transformed capes of the Carmina Burana hint that maybe, sometimes, they had a little wiggle room. In terms of language they used to describe themselves, persons assigned male at birth could refer to themselves as mothers, and as lovers taking the "passive" and therefore "feminine" role, so long as that language was couched in images of an androgynous God or Christ as bridegroom. Moreover, the Catholic Church actually allowed laypeople assigned male at birth to perform the female roles in their pageants and liturgical dramas (24), giving transfeminine persons one place in the public sphere where they could dress in women's clothing without condemnation.

We cannot know everything that took place in the seclusion of monasteries and just how many of them provided a sanctuary for people who might nowadays identify as trans. We do know that there were points in Christian history when persons who failed to conform to gender norms were scapegoated and persecuted; times of epidemic were particularly dangerous for the gender variant. In the 500s, Emperor Justinian  accused  "effeminate males" of being the cause of earthquakes and plagues; Bernard of Cluny in the 1100s would follow suit, writing: “Even churches are awash in this filthy plague… / … hermaphrodites are now very much in fashion!” This homophobia would continue beyond the Middle Ages, as in 1497 Venice when Jimeoto da Lucca preached,

 

You close the churches for fear of the plague…This could be avoided if you would eliminate the causes that lead to the plague, which are the horrible sins that are committed [here, including]…the societies of sodomy. Overcome this and you will overcome the plague(25).

Such queerphobia continues into our own day, where "the homosexuals" are blamed for everything from hurricanes to forest fires. I pray that there will always be monastery-like havens where the gender nonconforming can thrive, where we can gather to combat hatred and celebrate our diversity. 

SOURCES

(1) Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg, pp. 68-71

(2) Queer Myth, p. 265

(3) ibid., p. 82

(4) Omnigender, p. 115

(5) Queer Myth, p. 107

(6) Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500-1100, by Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg

(7) Omnigender, p. 115

(8) Queer Myth, p. 264

(9) Omnigender, p. 114

(10) Queer Myth, p. 65

(11) ibid., p. 103

(12) https://qspirit.net/francis-assisi-queer/

(13) "Three Poor Women Appeared" by Kevin Elphick, O.F.S., p. 16

(14) Queer Myth, p. 88

(15) ibid., p. 278

(16) ibid.p. 190

(17) ibid.p. 39

(18) Omnigender, p. 114

(19) ibid., p. 117

(20) Queer Myth, p. 167

(21) ibid., p. 168

(22) ibid.

(23) Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg, p. 70

(24) ibid.

(25) Queer Myth, p. 267 

[Image description: the below photo is of the Haghpat Monastery in Armenia, founded c. 1000.]

Trans Christianity: A Timeline of Gender Diversity in Christian History is a website created by Avery Smith, a nonbinary Catholic-Presbyterian graduate of Louisville Seminary who runs queerlychristian.tumblr.com. 

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Site first published: January 31, 2019. Site last updated: July 2019