Trans Literature
Transgender Histories & Genres of Embodiment
Medieval and Post-Medieval

by M.W. Bychowski



This project examines transgender in the middle ages. I begin from the principle of sex pioneered by seminal transgender theorist Sandy Stone that sees gender not as fixed categories but creative genres. Following this premise, transgender is not a monolithic ahistorical genus but a collection of genres of embodiment including the modern transvestite and transsexual alongside medieval hermaphrodites and eunuchs. As the term suggests, these trans genres of the body are products of culturally and historically specific literary genres. Different narratives arise to reflect and organize different understands of gender transitions and non-binary ontologies. In these chapters, I trace four key trans genres of embodiment and literature that are genealogically critical to the creation and development of modern understandings of transgender.

Chapter 1
Exempla of Transsexuals: Christus Medicus in the Canterbury Tales

In this chapter, I study how medieval exempla structured how castrati came to be understood as embodied facta of religious and medical dicta. Fragment VI of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contains two such exempla, the Physician’s Tale and the Pardoner’s Tale. The former, a public medical exemplum uses cutting edges to turn Virginia into an embodiment of virginity, a contained form of gender and sexuality. The latter, beginning in his portrait and prologue, offer a religious exemplum on the Pardoner offers himself and his relics as cut and fragmented flesh that reclaim dicta other than those socially assigned to them. In the final section of this chapter, I trace how this genre of embodiment continues to inform the construction of modern transsexuals as eunuchs in born again Christianity through the 1990’s documentary, the Transformation.

Chapter 2
Confessions of Dysphoria: Corporate Sin in the Confessio Amantis

In this chapter, I study how medieval public and private confessions authorized how dysphoria is understood in the Middle Ages as the embodiment of corporate sins. In particular, I focus on the framing discourses on division and sin, pride and sloth in John Gower’s Tale of Narcissus and the Tale of Iphis and Ianthe in the Confessio Amantis. In the former, Gower transforms Narcissus from a model of personal vanity into a youth suffering from social alienation because of his trans gender identity. In the latter, Gower shifts Iphis from a trans man who verbally wishes to transition his body into a youth who is unable to exert agency over his gender assignment. In the final section, I study the final words of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn to analyze how confession has evolved over the centuries into physiatrist diagnoses and online trans suicide notes.

Chapter 3
Hagiographies of Transvestites: Imago Dei in the Life of Saint Marinos

In this chapter, I study how medieval hagiography produce transvestites as embodiments of the Imago Dei and Imitatio Christi. I examine the Vita of St. Marinos, one of the oldest trans saint lives (a saint assigned female at birth but assumes a male identity later in life), for how hagiographers reframe isolated trans youth as images set apart in God’s Creation, their transitions functioned as extreme cases of Christian Baptism and the Resurrection. Then, I read selections from the Book of Margery Kempe to demonstrate how the protagonist frames herself through ministries and white robes as embodying the Imago and Imitatio of a trans saint. In the last section, I trace the genealogy into its modern form in the trans biography of Dylan Scholinski, where the trans man reclaims the time spent isolated against his will as a girl in a mental hospital for his gender dysphoria.

Chapter 4
Pilgrimages of Intersex: Loca Santa in the Travels of John Mandeville

In this chapter, I study how demarcated holy places (Loca Sancta) and shared public space work in pilgrimage narratives to orient and disable trans and intersex lives. I focus on John Mandeville’s description of the history and geography of the Isle of Amazons as a trans people transitioning away from patriarchal models of gender yet retain ties to the patriarchal world, as evidenced by the land bridge connecting the Isle and continent. I contrast this with the Isle of Hermaphrodites’ alternative model of gender that poses such a threat to patriarchal power that they are imagined as wholly divided from the continent. Next, through Eli Clare’s modern pilgrimage in Exile and Pride, I conclude how the transgender travel narratives warn readers that even as we move toward integration we must remember those who remain in the margins, placed back among the monsters.


In conclusion, I look at the educational practices and theories of teaching transgender theory and literature.


1 comment:

  1. My thesis was on a related topic, the passing man in late ancient hagiography and early medieval religious literature, focusing on the extraordinary virtue of a female bodied man and the clinically intersexed representations of the grail hero and grail knight. I hadn't heard of your blog before, and am delighted to find it!

    Best wishes to you,