Even a casual acquaintance with the theater of the Middle Ages should reveal, however, that it was the site of intense cultural and ideological negotiations involving the testing and contesting of conventional social roles and cultural categories such as race, class, and gender. To say this is to suggest that the supposed massive deployment of a stable two-gender system is something of a modern fiction and that the gendering of subjects in the Middle Ages was surely a process as complex as scholars argue it became in the early modern period. It is also to suggest that racial and class categories were less fixed and determinate in the Middle Ages than is often thought to be the case and that the status and racial positioning of subjects was also a complex cultural process. In this essay, we examine two significant instances of crossdressing in medieval theater where the figure of the transvestite is used to explore the gender and class content of social roles: Marian miracle plays from mid-fourteenth century France and Robin Hood plays from fifteenth and sixteenth century England. In our discussion we will argue that the use of a crossdressing main character results in queer moments which cannot be entirely undone by the ultimate return of culturally sanctioned sexual and status arrangements, and further, that the queerness of those moments was certainly not lost upon the plays' medieval audiences, even if the reading of these dramas as "queer" is, of necessity, a modern one. These transgender and transstatus representations, which transgress sexual and social taboos while also triggering complicated patterns of desire, cannot, we also argue, be reduced to one simple meaning, but rather perform a variety of cultural work.
Marjorie Garber, in her recent book Vested Interests, has argued that the problem with much of the scholarship on the many different cultural manifestations of transvestism, inside the theater and out, is that it looks through and not at the transvestite and the effects of transvestism. And yet, it is perhaps not so surprising that the transvestite should disappear in criticism when this is what inevitably happens in real as well as fictive transvestism, inseparable as it is from the facile knowledge (if only self-knowledge) that transvestism is a representation which always carries with it the possibility of an unveiling. But precisely because it is a representation, the transvestite is an inherently theatrical figure which allows us to problematize the dynamics of desire and representation and to formulate a series of questions: Where is the locus of the desire occasioned by the transvestite? In the representation or the performance? In the (imagined or actual) unveiling? In what is unveiled? And finally, to borrow a formulation from Valerie Traub's important essay on crossdressing in the Renaissance theater, "Desire and the Difference It Makes," does the beholder of the image want or want to be that image?
There is, of course, no one set of answers, simply because there are too many variables, not the least of which would be the specific historical situation of the transvestite and its beholders. The transvestite reveals itself to be an evasive and polyvalent figure, refreshingly resistant to capture and possession by even the most persistent critics. Although so much scholarship confines crossdressing to one meaning, thereby drastically limiting the kinds of cultural work it accomplishes, for example Lisa Jardine's claim that the Renaissance theater is of necessity homoerotic and can be understood simply as men gazing at men and thus excluding women, we contend that theatrical representations of characters who dress across gender, class, and racial boundaries are culturally complex acts that function on many different levels. Like Garber, we take the transvestite to be a potential figure of category crisis that not only blurs boundaries between male and female but also undermines the whole attempt to construct stable binary categories of oppositional difference, a figure onto which irresolvable crises of boundary definition (man-woman, Orient-Occident, gay-straight) can at specific historical and cultural junctures be displaced and (not quite) contained.
In 1468 a noblewoman of the town of Metz commissioned a play of Saint Catherine of Siena, which was staged at her expense in the courtyard of the Dominican monastery. A glazier's daughter of about eighteen played the role of Saint Catherine so well that a local nobleman fell in love with her and married her. Somewhat later, in 1485, the theater was once again to serve as a vehicle for the social ascension of a youth. A certain Lyonard from Aix-la-Chapelle, a handsome young barber's apprentice who "looked like a very beautiful girl" played the title role in the Vie et Passion de madame saincte Barbe with such success that, according to the Chronique de Metz by Philippe de Vigneulles, "there was no lord in the town, clerical or lay, who did not desire to have [him] to raise and educate." A rich widow wanted to make him her heir, but she lost out to a canon of the cathedral who "held him in such great love that he was delivered to him." Lyonard eventually was sent to study in Paris and ended up first a regent and schoolmaster, and finally a canon like his protector. Lyonard met with less success the following year as Saint Catherine du mont Sina‹ because his voice had changed somewhat ("le mystere de Sainte Catherine ne fut pas si agreable au peuple parce que ledit Lyonard avoit desja un peu mue sa voix"). Further details about Lyonard are provided by Philippe de Vigneulles, who states in his journal that "at that time I looked so much like this boy that I was mistaken for him seventeen times, and for this reason, this boy loved me very much and always wanted me to be one of his 'demoiselles' in this play."
Equally suggestive for tracing the elusive path of the transvestite -- this time as it moves across socioeconomic boundaries -- are documents recording the transvestism of Henry VIII. Edward Hall describes how Henry VIII in 1509, the first year of his reign, along with "...therless of Essex, Wilshire, and other noble menne, to the numbre of twelue, came sodainly in a mornyng, into the Quenes Chambre, all appareled in shorte cotes, of Kintishe Kendal, with hodes on their heddes, and hosen of thesame, euery one of theim, his bowe and arrowes, and a sworde and a bucklar, like out lawes, or Rokyn [sic] Hodes men, wherof the Quene, the Ladies, and al other, there were abashed, as well for the straunge sight, as also for their sodain commyng, and after certayn daunces, and pastime made, thei departed." Peter Stallybrass sees this assault on the Queen's chamber as an elaborate display of aristocratic sexual license, which it certainly seems to be, but that offers only a partial explanation. Sexual desire is coupled in Henry's act of crossdressing with transgression of status lines in a way that suggests not only the appeal of inversionary symbolism, here made available through the wearing of Robin Hood costumes, but also a strong desire to appropriate otherness.
Although these extraordinary documents provide just a glimpse into the complex relations that could obtain between performance and its social context in the late Middle Ages, they convey very clearly the importance of drama and impersonation as vehicles for the channeling of intense social and erotic desires. For it is surely a highly charged erotic dynamic in which these people participated, and obviously they did so for their own pleasure and benefit as well as for the pleasure of others. In the case of the boy actress Lyonard, sought after by a powerful canon and surrounded by a company of attractive youths, apparently of his own choosing, the dynamic is clearly one of homosocial, if not homoerotic, desire. Furthermore, the information the Philippe de Vigneulles gives about Lyonard's brilliant but short career on the stage makes it apparent that his success was largely due to his skill at creating a convincing illusion. What the people of Metz desired was the impersonation of a beautiful girl by an actor whom they knew to be a beautiful boy -- that is, the transvestite was the object of their desire. In the case of Henry VIII, an equally powerful erotics of homosocial desire is at work in which Henry displays an intense urge to so thoroughly, even if only fleetingly, become another man that he disguises himself in the garb of the object of his longing. Bursting into the Queen's chamber dressed like Robin Hood, Henry moves from being a spectator to becoming a performer, manifesting his desire not just to have the image but to be it. These examples reveal the beholder both wanting and wanting to be the transvestite.
In addition to such historical documents, there are dramatic texts which provide provocative insights into the phenomenon of crossdressing on the medieval stage. The Miracles de Nostre Dame par personnages, a collection of forty confraternity plays from fourteenth-century Paris, includes two plays in which female characters dress across gender boundaries: the Miracle de Theodore and the Miracle de la fille d'un roy. In our discussion today, we will focus on the latter play, an adaptation of Yde et Olive, a thirteenth-century continuation of the epic poem Huon de Bordeaux.
In the play, the main character, Ysabel, assumes masculine gender to avoid an incestuous marriage with her father, who wants his daughter to assume the place of her mother, who died in giving birth to her. The theme of potential father-daughter incest is also the subject of another, earlier play in the same collection, which is based on the Manekine romance, but whereas the female protagonist of the Manekine cuts off her hand to thwart her father's intentions, Ysabel disfigures herself by disguising herself as a knight. In both plays, the result of the threatened incest is to propel the main character into a picaresque-style series of adventures. In the Miracle de la fille d'un roy, Ysabel and her suivante, also crossdressed, make their way to the court of the Byzantine emperor with the help of the Archangel Gabriel, himself disguised as a guide-interpreter who speaks impeccable Latin. There Ysabel distinguishes herself by her prowess, defeating the emperor's enemies in knightly combat. To compensate his champion, the emperor obliges him to accept his daughter in marriage. On their wedding night, Ysabel reveals the truth to the emperor's daughter, who unhesitatingly promises to respect the secret and to honor her -- indeed, to cherish her -- as her husband. She says:
There is no need to speak further of this. Put yourself at ease, Because everything you have told me here I promise you carefully to conceal, And I will show you such honor As a woman must show her husband In all matters, I swear this upon my soul, Now will I ever hold you less dear. (De ce no convient plus parler. Or vous mettez hors de soussi, Car tout ce que m'avez dit cy Je vous promet bien celeray, Et tel honneur vous porteray Con doit faire a son mari femme En touz cas, ce vous jur par m'ame, Ne ne vous aray ja mains chier.) (2612-2619)It is worth adding that in the play's source things happen rather differently. Yde feigns a pain on the wedding night, after which the newlyweds share a conjugal bed for two weeks, only hugging and kissing, before Yde breaks the news to the daughter, who is rather more taken aback than in the play. But to return to the play, all is well until an eavesdropping monk betrays the two to the emperor, who, wanting ocular confirmation of the accusation, informs the couple that they will have to take a ceremonial bath in front of him in his orchard. God then sends Saint Michael to their rescue, instructing him to take on the form of a white stag. Thus disguised, Michael runs through the orchard when Ysabel and the daughter are on the point of disrobing, and the bath is abandoned for the hunt. During the hunt, Michael, still in animal drag, tells Ysabel that she can disrobe without fear: the emperor and all others will see that she has a man's body. When the bath finally takes place, Ysabel in effect miraculously appears to have the body of a man in every respect. Soon thereafter, though, she reveals the truth to the emperor in order to save the monk from execution. As in the Theodore play, the main character's body is the object of an unveiling, but, in a perverse variation on this motif, the true sex is hidden. What this does of course is to resolve the split between Ysabel's sex and her assumed gender, but it also underscores the fact that sex and gender are, in fact, distinct categories. The play then ends with a series of substitutions which allow for the return of the norm. The emperor declares that he himself will wed Ysabel, his erstwhile son-in-law, and that his daughter will wed Ysabel's father, whose arrival at court conveniently coincides with the climatic scene of revelation. The return of the father is doubly crucial in that it allows the redistribution of the improperly married women into culturally sanctioned conjugal arrangements. It also allows Ysabel's "spouse" to replace Ysabel as a replacement for the dead mother, thus closing the breach opened at the beginning of the play by the threat of incest. The return of the father also reminds us that, between an incestuous marriage and a same-sex relationship of ambiguous sexual content, the former would seem to pose the graver threat to social stability, although both are of course unacceptable departures from the norm. But even though the marriage between Ysabel and the emperor's daughter does not result in a sexual relationship, it is a same-sex union, nonetheless, one that, in the source anyway, is not devoid of sexual content. And in the play, the aplomb with which the daughter accepts the union with her "husband" and her promise to cherish "him" as her spouse are strikingly suggestive of what were, after all, severely condemned forms of sexuality, as the emperor's outrage makes clear. As for the transsexual motif, it has been considerably attenuated in the dramatic version of the legend, for in the source the heroine is transformed definitively into a man. But this attenuation does not diminish the dramatic impact of the bath scene, in which a transsexual transformation, albeit an illusory and temporary one, occurs. In fact, this illusory transsexuality drives home all the more strongly an aspect of gender that both plays present: it is "put on" or assumed and does not necessarily coincide with biological sex. Indeed, even the body is shown to be just an envelope which may or may not coincide with a subject's gender, as with Ysabel in the bath scene.
It is especially significant that this probing of the gender content of apparently stable social categories should take place in the theater, where gender is, of course, always an aspect of performance. All of the roles in the miracle plays were, in all likelihood, performed by men. While medieval spectators were certainly able to bracket what they knew to be the sex of boys playing the girls' parts, a drama like the Miracle de la fille d'un roy plays so perversely with gender that it is the artificiality and arbitrariness of gender categories themselves, both in and outside of the theater, which are thrust to the fore. This exploring of the gender content of social categories goes beyond the representation of a female knight and a girl who accepts a female husband. For one must imagine the following situation: a male actor plays a female character who crossdresses as a man and then is revealed to be. . . male. Through a technique of mise en abime, gender is revealed to be a cultural construction, a representation, and ultimately, a performance. One also sees a masterful manipulation of the artifices of the theater, a brilliant and self-conscious demonstration of the power of theater to fashion objects which become the site of intense desire.
A more elaborate version of these events appears in the ballad "Sir Guy of Gisborne," which bears so close a relationship to the 1475 play that some critics have taken it as the source of the dramatic fragment. In this ballad, Robin Hood dreams he is beaten and bound by two yeomen; when he awakes he takes Little John to search for them. They encounter Sir Guy disguised as a yeoman and quarrel over who should fight him; when Robin Hood wins, he stays to do battle with Sir Guy. Little John, in turn, goes off to join his companions at Barnsdale where he is captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham and bound to a tree. Meanwhile, Robin Hood, having beaten Sir Guy at archery , discovers that Sir Guy is not the yeoman he appears to be, draws his sword and begins to fight. Sir Guy wounds Robin Hood but is quickly killed. Robin Hood then puts on Sir Guy's yeoman disguise before going to Barnsdale where he finds the Sheriff and claims as his reward for having killed "Robin Hood" the right to do as he wants with Little John. The Sheriff agrees and Robin Hood frees Little John. Realizing at last that he has been deceived, the Sheriff tries to flee but is killed by Robin Hood's arrow.
This ballad suggests how crossdressing can be provocatively and productively linked with transgression of socioeconomic hierarchies while also producing homoerotic desire. In the play-text, Robin Hood effectively changes places with the knight he has killed by putting on the dead man's clothes, and pretending he has killed Robin Hood. This transgression of status hierarchies is rewarded with the release of his captured men and the vanquishing of the sheriff. In the ballad, the disguising is doubled, first with Sir Guy pretending to be a yeoman and then with Robin Hood pretending to be Sir Guy disguised as a yeoman. Tellingly, Robin is described as putting on Sir Guy's "capull hyde"--literally stepping into Sir Guy's skin, penetrating his body and hence becoming him. What is most striking about the crossdressing in the ballad, however, is that in a complex symbolic exchange both Robin and Guy disguise themselves as the same yeoman. Here knight and outlaw at different moments inhabit the same social body, one that, properly speaking, belongs to neither of them. The crossdressing in this ballad speaks to intense desires not just to possess the body of the other--here male, rather than female--but in fact to become it.
How, we might wonder, would the young man of the parish chosen to play Robin Hood might have felt when dressed as an outlaw? Empowered? Free to behave as he pleased? Dangerous? It is worth noting that the young men who played these roles were precisely those members of the community whose economic and social freedom were often highly circumscribed and whose behavior was most often subject to scrutiny and control. Under these restrictive circumstances, the chance to play a renegade must have had considerable appeal. As for the spectators, how would they have felt seeing a young neighbor playing an outlaw, permitted, even if only temporarily, to act as he wished? Would the outlawry have been safely framed by the performance space, so that the villagers could have watched with amusement or indulgence? Or would it have raised the frightening specter of rebellious youth set free? Official reaction suggests that the latter possibility was not entirely absent from the minds of at least some spectators. The Scottish Parliament, for example, decreed in 1555 that anyone impersonating Robin Hood would be banished and anyone electing a Robin Hood would be deprived of his or her freedom for five years. This decree failed, however, to stop a crowd from electing a tailor as Robin Hood in 1561, naming him "Lord of Inobedience," and forcing open the jail to set free the prisoners; the magistrates were imprisoned until they pardoned the rioters.
Given the strong potential for real rebellion associated with playing Robin Hood, the common practice of selling livery badges to spectators, hence symbolically incorporating them into Robin Hood's band, takes on added meaning. Stubbes' Anatomy of Abuses describes the use of these livery badges distributed by Robin Hood and his men in exchange for donations: "They have also certain papers, wherein is painted some babblery or other imagery work, and these they call "my Lord of Misrule's badges." These they give to everyone that will give money for them." People would then "wear their badges and cognizances in their hats or caps openly." Stubbes goes on to describe how anyone who refuses to purchase a livery badge is "mocked and flouted at not a little."
This symbolic incorporation of spectators into Robin Hood's band explicitly pits conformity against subversion. On the one hand, selling badges was quintessentially conformist and represented an important source of money for the parish church, which relied on such revenues for repairs and other expenses. For this reason, parish officials encouraged the selling of the badges, thereby stamping the act of incorporation into Robin Hood's band with their seal of approval. On the other hand, encouraging large numbers of people to imagine themselves as members of an outlaw's band could hardly have avoided suggestions of subversion of authority. Part of the subversion would have involved erasure of status markers that went along with symbolic incorporation into Robin Hood's band.
Although crossdressing could be tamed by confining it to spaces of licensed misrule, such as the theater, licensed misrule always threatened to spill over into the world beyond the play space. Such was the case with Kett's rebellion of 1549 which began when crowds gathered for the Wymondham Game in midsummer started to pull down enclosures made by the gentry; 16,000 commoners under the leadership of Robert Kett marched on Norwich and took the city. Like Robin Hood, Kett held parliament beneath a ceremonial oak tree and his followers carried green boughs to recognize each other. The defiance authorized by the status-based crossdressing of the Robin Hood games and plays must have been part of what inspired protesters like the Derbyshire rebels who in 1497 donned Robin Hood clothing and "in manere of insurrection wente into the wodes," widening the quasi-ritualized trespass and theft that was part of the convention of stealing poles and boughs for their games from the lands of the wealthy. Similarly, the quasi-legal banding together as Robin Hood's men by buying livery badges at summer games might have spurred behavior such as that of one Piers Venables of Derbyshire, a criminal who helped rescue a prisoner being taken to Tutbury Castle, and who was described as having with him a band of men "of his clothinge" like Robin Hood. Our point here is not only that licensed misrule could prove hard to contain, but also that dress which transgresses status hierarchies could provide a conduit for questioning -- and in some cases attempting to rearrange -- the construction of class as well as gender boundaries.
The Miracles and the Robin Hood plays fashion figures which become the site of intense but conflicted desires, as objects but also as fantasized subjects. In our argument we have stressed the functional and recuperative aspect of this dynamic, but, in the very process of recuperation, the object of desire -- the transvestite, the travestied Jew, the transgressive outlaw -- is in fact lost. This necessary loss, inscribed, as it were, within the striving for a cultural coherence and plenitude, is the symbolic function of the transvestite, the function which allows the culture to construct its mystified categories.
There is also, however, a desire -- albeit an ambivalent and conflicted desire -- in both the Marian and Robin Hood plays to probe the content, including the sexual and economic content, of such social categories as spouse, sheriff, merchant, outlaw, monk or knight. There is a questioning of what it means to be the subject occupying one of these positions and a frank acknowledgment that one's participation's in different dynamics -- for instance, the social and the sexual -- may well be out of sync. It is not assumed that it is an easy matter to fill any of the roles which are represented in these plays, which draws attention to the performative aspects of subjectivity and to the way in which social roles are precisely that -- roles to be played. Furthermore, the theatrical representation of extreme or deviant forms of subjectivity cannot be said to entail a condemnation of subjectivity itself or to express anxieties about subjectivity, as many scholars have claimed is what happens on the Renaissance stage. Indeed, such a representation can be read as giving a certain recognition, if not legitimacy, to conflicted, resistant, or antagonistic manifestations of subjectivity.
These interpretations are by no means mutually exclusive. Both the collective and subjective, the normative and the transgressive, must be explored to approach a balanced understanding of the meaning of these plays for their audience. But what are we to make of the queer moments that these plays represent? What are we to make of plays like the Miracle de la fille d'un roy and the Miracle de Theodore in which the redeployment of a supposedly massive patriarchal two-gender system, and a divinely sanctioned one at that, cannot quite efface the glimpse of a same-sex union which is apparently perceived by both partners as less problematic than the other options available to them? And what are we to make of performances like the Robin Hood plays in which the outlaw's return to normative gender and class roles cannot entirely erase the possibility of real rebellion?
One response is to see crossdressing as an instance of liminality, a boundary-crossing that is inherently dangerous. Those who have a permanent status "in between" -- neither male nor female, ruler nor ruled -- often engender negative reactions for their threatening lack of conformity to social norms; they disturb the natural order of things causing chaos, disorderliness and filth. The theater, then, would seem to represent one ritualistic way of hemming in the danger of crossdressing, confining it to a specially licensed area where it can do little harm. But the ritualistic frame could prove more porous than not, if only because of the position of spectators who enter the space of the theater to engage briefly in the dangerous play being enacted there, but who then return to the world beyond. In the case of late medieval performance, where the "theater" is often a guildhall, a city street, or a village green, that border would have been all the more porous.
What happens when, in the end, the audience and performers return to "normal" gender and status categories that rule outside the world of theater? Recuperative gestures dominate the performances we have been discussing here. In the Miracle de la fille d'un roy, the return of the father at the end of the play works to reposition the women in their "proper" social and sexual places. The final double wedding clears up the ambiguities and evades the disruption posed by Ysabel's crossdressing. In the Miracle de Th‚odore, the recuperation is effected by Th‚odore's return the monastery and is intensified, after her death, when her husband then takes her place there, completing the move back to normalcy. In both cases, crossdressing proves only a temporarily expedient gesture, and the disguise is thrown off in the end as the status quo is reaffirmed. In "Sir Guy of Gisborne," one act of crossdressing is rewarded while another is punished: Robin's Hood's disguise gives him the freedom to overthrow repressive authorities like Sir Guy and the sheriff, but Sir Guy's disguise as a yeoman, which cannot be valorized as a creative act of socioeconomic subversion results in his death. Although the crossdressing in the Robin Hood plays might appear to be less subject to recuperative processes than are the Miracles, nevertheless, the crossdressing is licensed only momentarily and only within strictly limited spaces that always aim at imposing order.
What these recuperations suggest is that crossdressing always has the potential for being transgressive, but the nature and degree of transgression is determined and perhaps controlled by the immediate framing. This perhaps explains why the drag queens in Paris Is Burning have been viewed as more threatening than Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, or Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. In these latter films, the transvestism is clearly framed as a momentarily assumed disguise necessitated by pressing circumstances. In Paris Is Burning, however, the line separating "reality" from the drag routine has broken down: some of the drag queens have undergone sex-change operations; others are clearly "men" living as "women."
Nevertheless, representations, even when framed in ways that limit their transgressiveness, leave behind a residue. As Stephen Greenblatt has noted, crossdressing in Shakespeare's plays offer us the chance to ask "what if?" Like Greenblatt, we can ask: what if "Theodore" had given in a second time to unwanted attentions? What if Ysabel and the emperor's daughter had not been discovered and denounced? What if Robin Hood had stayed in the guise of Sir Guy, infiltrating the upper reaches of the social order in the knight's garb? And, to ask one further question, why should we assume that medieval spectators could not ask: "What if?" Certainly, their answers to these questions might have been vastly different from ours, but that does not mean they could not ask the question and, in the asking, perceive queer, discordant variations of the dominant tune.