Thursday, February 04, 2010

David Cressy, Gender Trouble and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England

David Cressy, Gender Trouble and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England, The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 438-465.

A celebrated article in Shakespeare Quarterly opens with the question, “how many people cross-dressed in Renaissance England?” Jean Howard, who posed this intriguing question, suggests that disruption of the semiotics of dress, gender, and identity during the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods points to “a sex-gender system under pressure” and a patriarchal culture disturbed by profound anxieties and contradictions. Even if the answer to her question turns out to be “very few,” the discourse surrounding the practice reveals an area of critical and problematic unease. (438)

Cross-dressing, I argue, was not so transgressive as critics and scholars have suggested, nor was it necessarily symptomatic of a sex-gender system in distress. Much of my emphasis will be on cross-dressed men, partly because they have received less attention than women, but also because the cross-disciplinary reading of this material seems most disjunctive. (439)

Linda Woodbridge has identified not simply isolated and ambiguous cases of women “masking in men’s weeds” but a full-blown “female transvestite movement” in early modern England. (440)

Observations of this sort abound in Renaissance literary studies but are rarely made by historians. Partly, I suspect, this has to do with disciplinary rhetorical conventions. But it also reflects different ways of reading texts, different ways of discussing evidence, and different ways of thinking about gender. (442)

Contemporary moralists knew exactly what was wrong and fumed at unnatural and outlandish violations of costume. If it was unsettling, in an age of ambitious self-fashioning, that people used clothing to mis-represent their social status, it was downright disturbing if they misrepresented their gender by dress. It was unconscionable that the sign should missignify, the costume deceive. Worst of all was the unnatural impiety involved, in violation of the law of God, since outward apparel intimated inward characteristics and the wearer of cross-sexed clothing trod the slope to monstrous degeneration. Was it not written in Deuteronomy that transvestism was an abomination unto the Lord? (442)

Since it comes from the archives it belongs to a genre traditionally labeled as “evidence” but, given our awareness of the fictionality of court reporting, it may be better to call it a “story.” Shaped by the requirements of the law and the practices of the clerks, the church court records preserves many people’s stories where recollection and obfuscation blend to create a partial narrative. Like most such stories, the one that follows serve for more than entertainment of delight since it opens a window onto complex cultures of the past. What makes a story significant, rather than merely interesting, is the landscape it illuminates, the contours it reveals, and the opportunity it presents to examine opaque attitudes, conduct and speech. (446)

On December 7, 1633, Francis Fletcher, midwife, the wife of Edward Fletcher of Tew Magna, Oxfordshire, appeared before the archdeacon’s court to answer some serious charges. … Francis Fletcher admitted that/ she doth practice midwifery… being further interrogated whether Thomas Salmon her servant did come to the labor of the said Rymel’s wife, or presently after she the aid Rymel’s wife was delivered, disguised in woman’s apparel, she confesseth he did come into her chamber some six hours after she had been delivered so disguised, but by virtue of her oath she sayeth at his first coming she knew him not, … she made him to depart the room… (447)

By permitting her cross-dressed manservant to sit with the newly delivered mother and her gossips, the midwife Fletcher was accessory to grave misbehavior, for Thomas Salmon’s offence lay in his presence as well as his gender-bending disguise. (448)

Elizabeth Fletcher… daughter-in-law to the midwife… ‘saying that she must go to Rymel’s house to be merry with the other women there, Thomas Salmon her father’s servant then replied that there would be good cheer, desired that he might go along with her’ … ‘and afterward, at the request of the said Thomas, she helped to dress him in woman’s apparel and consented to let him go to the said Rymel’s house, intending only merriment thereby.” Whether she meant merriment for herself, or amusement for Thomas Salmon, or laughs all round, is not immediately clear’ … Having heard from the midwife, the court let her go without punishment. She, as much as the other women of Tew, was a victim in this affair. Her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Fletcher, was ordered “to make acknowledgment of this her fault… (448-450)

…why did he continue to wear the borrowed garments for two hours after his sex had been discovered? … There is nothing in the record that explicitly relates Thomas Salmon’s offense to the virulent prohibition on apparel-switching set forth in Deuteronomy and nothing that makes overt connection to the complaints about cross-dressing that had reverberated for more than fifty years. Yet, if recent literary scholarship is to be believed, cross-dressing was high on the cultural agenda of early modern England, gender identity was subject to intense and troubled scrutiny, and reformers were quick to denounce violations of gendered apparel. The case of the Great Tew cross-dresser provides a point of leverage for examining several of these suggestions. (451)

From the 1570s to the 1620s, during the reigns of a manly queen and a queenish king, England is said to have been challenged by disorderly people presenting themselves in public in a gender-confusing manner. Late Elizabethan and Jacobean England emerges, especially in some gay and feminist literary history, as a golden age of cross-dressing. (451)

It is still something of a novelty for social historians to engage with creative literature, particularly in light of Peter Laslett’s strictures on looking “the wrong way through the telescope”. [Peter Laslett, “The Wrong Way through the Telescope: A Note on Literary Evidence in Sociology and Historical Sociology,” British Journal of Sociology 27 (1976): 319-42)]But the printed output of English Renaissance drama provides a huge trove of text, almost entirely neglected by historians, that calls for cautious investigation. (452)

Rather than being effeminized, the cross-dressed man is more often rendered as proactive, virile, and effective. … More than two dozen plays from the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage feature a man disguised as a woman who becomes the perpetrator rather than victim of practical jokes, outwits an opponent through ludicrous mistaken wooing, or achieves sexual success through the comic infiltration of female society. (453)

Theatrical cross-dressing is not portrayed as threatening, effeminizing, and certainly not an abomination unto the lord. But how should it be otherwise, since plays were not the voices but the targets of reformist propaganda? (458)

Yet even in comedy the cross-dressed male may be a source of unease, and his behavior leads to dramatic complications. Though not himself humiliated or ridiculed, the butt of his deception is cruelly abused. And that may be the core of Thomas Salmon’s offense, too, not the risk of emasculation he took on himself but the potential harm he did to others. (458)

Men sometimes burlesqued in female clothing during carnicals and pageants. … The charivari or skimmington used cross-dressing to ridicule and to discipline disorderly neighbors. Men dressed as women sometimes during enclosure riots or other public disorders, linking social protest to traditions of festive inversion, to taunt the authorities or to evade identification. They might occasionally don an item of female dress, or have one put on them, while carousing or drunk, like Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Prisoners sometimes dressed as women in order to escape. Some men may have disguised themselves as women in order to infiltrate a forbidden place or to make a rendezvous with a lover. (459)

Women, in certain limited social settings, adopted items of masculine attire to shock, to allure, and to stretch the limits of permissible fashion. Prostitutes sometimes wore mannish gear to attract and arouse their customers. Women, too, may have dressed as men, or put on mannish costume, for pleasure, fun, or idle amusement. With more serious purpose they occasionally disguised themselves as men in order to travel, to serve in the army or navy, to meet or accompany a lover, or to avoid sexual attentions. (459)

A smaller range of cases involved men who were cited for wearing women’s garb. In practice the church was less concerned that they had violated the sanctions of Deuteronomy than that their behavior provoked disorder. … The evidence points not to homoerotic ambivalence and subversive androgyny but to problems of social discipline. (462)

The evidence suggests that cross-dressing in practice was neither the subversive abomination nor the eroticized transgression that some scholars have claimed. Neither the records of ecclesiastical justice nor the London comedies reveal, in my reading, a sex-gender system in crisis. Indeed, one could argue that the system was robust enough to play with, with a measure of festive tolerance and allowance for good clean fun. / Other scholars may read the sources differently and make more of the case of Thomas Salmon, but it would be misleading to claim him as grist for any particular mill. The danger, in these matters, lies in projecting present preoccupations onto the past and in bringing our opinions to the evidence rather than deriving them from it. There may well be politicized erotic energies at work here, but not all of them belong to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (465)


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