Early, Erotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London

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DOI: 10.1093/hwj/dbt046
Cite this publication
Cross-dressing by premodern women is often viewed as practical and instrumental (for example, women dressed as men to get jobs or to travel), while modern women’s donning of male garb is usually interpreted as expressing contemporary queer identities. This article introduces a more flexible view of female cross-dressing in the distant past, using the cases of thirteen women cited for such activities in London records between 1450 and 1553. These cases are placed within both the broad context of European practice before the eighteenth century and the specific context of cross-dressing women in premodern London itself. The article argues, first, that cross-dressing by women is not a recent phenomenon, but instead has a scattered but fairly continuous history that stretches back centuries. Second, the article shows that female cross-dressing could be as playful and erotic as male cross-dressing; most of the eroticism of female transgressive dress was, however, linked to prostitution and male erotic desires. Third, it explores how London authorities sought to distance themselves from the perceived vice of female cross-dressing by characterizing the practice as foreign to their City and its culture. The appendix includes a full listing of all known cases of cross-dressing in London before 1603.
Early, Erotic and Alien: Women Dressed
as Men in Late Medieval London
by Judith M. Bennett and
Shannon McSheffrey
In the century after 1450, thirteen women incurred the ire of London’s
governors by cross-dressing as men. This is a small number of women,
spread over many years, from a long time ago, and their experiences are a
far cry from female cross-dressers today, whether drag kings, stone butches,
trans men-in-the-making, or opera singers in trouser roles. Yet these thirteen
women challenge us to rethink female cross-dressing, both in the middle ages
and today. We can easily recognize what these women did so long ago: they
cut their hair short; they wore men’s hats; they donned men’s clothing. But
why they did these things is a different matter, and so, too, is how their
behaviour was understood by those who saw them.
The appendix places these thirteen late medieval cross-dressers (cases 3–9
and 11–16) within a longer chronology of all known instances of cross-
dressing in London before 1603. Most of our late medieval cases derive
from legal records: City courts (7), the Bishop of London’s Commissary
Court (4), Chancery (1) and the Lisle letters (1). Clerks usually recorded
few details, noting merely that these women offended by wearing a ‘man’s
gown’, or ‘man’s array’. Elizabeth Chekyn wore a priest’s gown in 1516,
perhaps because she was having sex with priests or perhaps, as the clerk
implied, to mock the priesthood (case 11); her attire offended by crossing
status as well as gender. Margaret Cotton allegedly obtained her man’s
gown from a tailor and her hat from a servant (case 3). Her manly hat
did double duty – both hiding her long hair and suggesting masculinity.
Margery Brett, Margery Smyth and Margery Tyler adopted a more direct
approach; they cut their hair short in 1519 (cases 12–14), an action deemed a
‘lewd [read: vulgar] pleasure’ and ‘a great displeasure of God and an abom-
ination to the world’. It was also not unprecedented. Just nine years earlier,
Agnes Nelee’s neighbours whispered that she had whored with a friar and
had her hair cut ‘like a friar’ (case 10).
Judith M. Bennett, University of Southern California Judith.Bennett@usc.edu
Shannon McSheffrey, Concordia University Shannon.McSheffrey@concordia.ca
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These women who put on men’s clothes, wore men’s hats, and even cut
their hair like men were usually noticed by London’s courts in one context
only: moral oversight of sexual misbehaviour. Morality was the manifest
concern of the Commissary Court (cases 4, 5, 8 and 9), and cross-dressed
women brought before civic courts were also – usually indeed, primarily
accused as concubines or whores (case 3 is the sole exception).
one accusation provoked copycats, as in cases 4 and 5, two near-simultan-
eous charges of adultery with a cross-dressed teutonica or Dutch/German
woman (two different women were probably involved, as the accusations
arose from parishes in different parts of the City). Sometimes cross-dressers
were caught in larger civic sweeps against whores (a category that included
all women of ungoverned sexuality) and bawds (intermediaries akin to
today’s pimps). Trude Garard’s offence of wearing ‘man’s array’ (case 6)
came to civic attention during such a campaign in spring 1473, and what
mattered to the men who judged her was that she, like dozens of others
punished that April and May, was a ‘common strumpet’; her cross-dressing
was a side issue. Brett, Smyth and Tyler had somewhat similar experiences
when they were indicted, along with Elizabeth Thomson, as ‘strumpets and
common harlots of their bodies’ during a royally mandated crackdown in
1519 (cases 12–14).
Save for the piquant requirement (doubtless prompted
by their shorn heads) that they be led from prison wearing men’s bonnets,
their punishment matched that of their co-defendant and, indeed, prostitutes
generally. Even the one case recovered from a non-legal source – Alice
Wolfe, reported in a private letter as having escaped from the Tower wearing
men’s clothes (case 15) – was refracted through her reputation for whore-
dom. She had earlier been publicly accused (in the parliamentary act that
attainted her for murder) of engaging in a licentious foursome.
people distinguished whoredom (sexual misrule) from prostitution (sexual
trade), but also readily conflated them.
We can discern both categories
among these cross-dressers – Alice Wolfe more an ungoverned ‘whore’
and Trude Garard more a working-for-money ‘prostitute’. But London’s
governors readily blurred the two in their searches for all sexually misgov-
erned women, and for them, the improper clothing adopted by such women
merely added insult to injury.
Aside from this strong association with sexual laxity, these cases differ
substantially from that of medieval London’s most famous cross-dresser,
John Rykener, who in 1395 appeared before the mayor and aldermen
dressed as a woman and calling himself Eleanor (case 1). Rykener had
been apprehended at night while engaging in what the record describes as
a ‘detestable, unmentionable, and ignominious vice’ with another man. He
told London’s governors that a bawd and prostitute had taught him how to
dress and have sex as a woman, and he claimed that many of his male
partners thought he was a woman. Rykener also said he had sex ‘as a
man’ and ‘as a woman’ with many partners, including a fair number of
priests and nuns. These details suggest that he tailored his testimony to
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the sympathies – anticlerical and otherwise – of his civic audience, but he
clearly lived, worked and loved as both a man and a woman. For more than
fifty years after Rykener’s riveting report, only one other London cross-
dresser appeared in London’s court records. In June 1425 John Tirell, ar-
rested in women’s apparel, was released from custody after he promised to
behave properly (case 2).
The thirteen cases reported in London after 1450 are different. First, they
involved women, not men. We have located only one additional report of
male aberrant dressing before 1553. In 1544, when London was wracked
with disputes over religious reform, Hugh Eton ‘in fond fashion disguised’
paraded through his church during Mass (case 18). We do not know what he
wore – perhaps women’s clothes, perhaps priest’s attire, perhaps something
else. Second, unlike Rykener, most of the women reported between 1450 and
1553 did not seek to live as another gender. Only the unnamed cross-dres-
sing concubine of one Thomasina in 1493 (case 8) and Agnes Hopton,
accused in 1537 of dressing as a man to live with her married lover (case
16), seem to have aspired to pass as men for extended periods. Perhaps Alice
Street, reported in 1495 as cross-dressing to follow her priest-lover to
Rochester (case 9), eventually also did the same. All others seem to have
adopted men’s clothes temporarily, and some seem not to have passed as
men at all. Even though they wore some male attire, they were, rather like
Joan of Arc, always recognized as women. Third and very regrettably, no
case between 1450 and 1553 offers the detail provided by Rykener’s extra-
ordinary testimony in 1395.
By focusing only on those accused of moral failings, the extant records
profoundly filter our view. If London women cross-dressed for reasons
other than those associated with sexual misbehaviour, we do not know
about them. But we can be confident on one score: ecclesiastical and civic
authorities in late medieval London understood female cross-dressing within
the long-established category of women’s sexual misrule. More than an of-
fence in itself, cross-dressing was a signifier of the extremity of women’s
sexual disorder. Cross-dressers certainly faced harsh treatment – marched
through a hostile city, shamed at Cornhill, and exiled forever. But this was
standard fare for all prostitutes and bawds. Only a token punishment was
added for the extra offence of cross-dressing – usually a manly hat, a picture,
or a text that told onlookers the woman had compounded her whoredom
with cross-dressing.
Scholars have focused so intently on cross-dressing in early modern Europe
that the practice easily seems distinctively modern, yet another form of re-
naissance self-fashioning.
But cross-dressing was not new in Elizabethan
London. Civic disapproval was steady, although recorded rarely before 1450
and only intermittently thereafter, when it tended to produce clusters of
cases (in the 1470s, 1490s, 1550s, 1570s and the years immediately
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surrounding 1600). The number of punished cross-dressers increased in
Elizabeth’s reign, but so, too, did London’s population. If there was,
indeed, a crisis in gender relations in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth
centuries, as some scholars have inferred from the flurry of pamphlets decry-
ing women in men’s clothing, it was a crisis of rhetoric, not behaviour.
the appendix shows, a few women were always cross-dressing in fifteenth
and sixteenth-century London, and every decade or so, a few of these few
were publicly reprimanded.
We have found no reports of cross-dressed women in other English
towns, but London was by no means the only late medieval city with such
women in its streets. In Speyer in 1477, the good men of that city executed
by drowning Katherina Hetzeldorfer, whose cross-dressing was a minor
detail in her main offence of having sex with other women. In Bruges in
1502, Nase de Poorter was accused of cross-dressing to live with her priest-
lover; she had passed in this disguise for some four years before they were
caught. Eight years later, the Bruges court convicted another cross-dresser, a
thief named Glaudyne Malengin who was so attached to men’s clothes that
she refused to give them up, even when forced to wear a woman’s dress in
court. The most prolific evidence comes from late medieval Italy, where
prostitutes in Venice, Florence and Rome were frequently cited by local
courts for wearing men’s clothes.
Cross-dressing so signalled a woman’s
sexual availability in Venice that, when books depicting fashions became
common in the later sixteenth century, the typical Venetian courtesan was
shown wearing men’s breeches beneath her womanly skirts (see Fig. 1).
This late medieval evidence pushes cross-dressing back to within shouting
distance of fourteenth-century changes in fashion that sharply differentiated
male and female silhouettes (see Figs 2 and 3).
Ulinka Rublack has shown
how these changes particularly emphasized male bodies and male sexuality:
men began to wear short doublets, hose and codpieces. Women also re-
vealed more of their bodies than before, but rather less than men: their
tighter bodices emphasized their breasts, but their full skirts left everything
below the waist a mystery.
By emphasizing the erotic possibilities of male
dress, these styles offered new salacious opportunities for cross-dressing
women. They could simultaneously echo the erotic accents of new male
fashions, expose the legs, hips and crotch hidden by female clothes, and
provide the transgressive charge of forbidden attire. If a man in a doublet,
tights and codpiece was pleasantly sexualized, a woman in such attire was
even more so.
The slow diffusion of these gender-distinguishing fashions did not reach
ordinary Londoners until the fifteenth century. But it would be a mistake to
push the start of cross-dressing back no further than the adoption of these
new styles. First, as our own twenty-first-century experiences remind us,
gendered clothing is often subtle and contextual. Long before the adoption
of doublets and codpieces in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, medieval
people had firm ideas about proper hairstyles for women and men, proper
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headgear and indeed, proper cut of gowns. Before 1300, clothing and hair
differentiated status (social and religious) more than gender, but medieval
people could readily discern men from women – and play with gender ac-
cordingly. When knights in Norman England began to wear their hair long,
contemporaries thought they ‘grew their hair like girls’; when Christina of
Markyate escaped from her parents’ home dressed as a man around 1120,
she had no trouble using clothes to disguise her true gender; when
Hildegund of Scho
¨nau put on male attire to join a Cistercian monastery
in 1187, she did the same; and as early as 1260, prostitutes in Florence used
short hair and men’s clothes to attract clients.
Second, our knowledge about female cross-dressers is partly an artifact of
source survival – that is, we know more about later cross-dressers because
sources are more plentiful for later centuries. Thus, it is not mere coinci-
dence that the London courts that have yielded late medieval cases only
have good runs of records from the fifteenth century; earlier cases, if re-
corded, were in records now lost. And, of course, it is almost by chance that
we have today such an extensive archive about the most famous cross-dres-
ser in European history. For Joan of Arc (d. 1431), wearing men’s clothing
was a central part of her mission, but we would not know much about it,
save for her critical intervention in the Hundred Years War and the exten-
sive trials to which she was later subjected.
Third, what we cannot trace in
the thinner archives of earlier centuries, we can sometimes glimpse else-
where. Medieval literature abounds with fictional tales of female cross-dres-
sers: early Christian saints (most located in the eastern Mediterranean) who
masqueraded as men in search of holiness; a female-dressed-as-male Pope
Joan, who, according to legend, ruled briefly in the ninth century; two hero-
ines of their own romances who masqueraded as men (Silence, raised as a
boy to ensure her inheritance, and Ide, forced to escape an incestuous father
by cross-dressing); and lady-knights who dashed about in pseudo-tourna-
Some stories were wholly imaginative, but not necessarily all.
Henry Knighton described several dozen well-born women who arrived at
the tournaments of Edward III, dressed ‘in various and amazing men’s
clothes’ and suggestively wearing ‘knives called ‘‘daggers’’ in pouches
slung over their stomachs’. Knighton did not approve; he reported that
heavy thunderstorms dampened the fun and plague soon followed.
Valerie Hotchkiss, who has expertly surveyed much of this medieval ma-
terial, has no doubt about its implications: medieval people were amused by
the blurring of gender boundaries and perhaps especially by female gender-
Self-improvement somewhat excused the deceptions of cross-
dressed women – that is, by becoming more male they also, in medieval
understandings of gender difference, became more perfectly human.
although medieval people were well aware of the biblical injunction against
cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5) and suspicious of any dress that dis-
guised the true status of its wearer, the gutsy self-promoting of cross-
dressing women was hard for them to resist. Once revealed as a woman, a
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cross-dresser at the University of Krakow was admired for her motive (love
of learning) and made abbess of a nearby convent. Her acquaintances could
‘find nothing improper to say about her’.
These often playful stories
allowed medieval people to explore the flexibility and constructedness of
gender identities. The thirteenth-century Roman de Silence was explicit –
and strikingly ‘modern’ – on this score. When Silence found her/himself
torn between male persona and female body, s/he was counselled by both
Nature, who urged a return to femaleness, and Nurture, who urged Silence
to remain a man.
Medieval benevolence toward female cross-dressers was clearer in fiction
than action, something that any cross-dressed woman punished in the streets
of London knew well. But, with the exception of Italy, cross-gender dressing
rarely appeared in the sumptuary legislation that became so common in
Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; these laws sought to
punish any who dared dress above their station, only rarely those who
dressed as another gender.
Perhaps the donning of cross-gendered clothing
was too obviously offensive to require legislation; or perhaps it was too
common and trivial to matter; or perhaps too rare.
On the continent,
sumptuary laws sought to regulate the status-dressing of both genders,
but in England, men’s clothing incited much more legislative concern.
Englishwomen certainly dressed beyond their station – Chaucer’s Wife of
Bath is evidence enough of that phenomenon – but lawmakers mostly
ignored them.
Women who cross-dressed in late medieval London, then,
offended Christian law but not explicit secular ordinance, even if they were
occasionally punished by the City.
Pots of ink – both scholarly and fictional – have been spilt in the last few
decades on some seemingly precocious and picturesque female cross-dressers,
especially Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant-nun of seventeenth-century
Spain; Mary Frith (also known as Moll Cutpurse or the Roaring Girl) in
seventeenth-century London; and of course Anne Bonny and other female
pirates (and soldiers) of the eighteenth century. But with the predictable
hubris of the living, we have generally seen such women as little more than
early precursors of our own laudable, edgy, postmodern liberation from
gender roles and sexual rules. Thus, Marjorie Garber’s foundational study
Vested Interests is stunningly ahistorical, using examples willy-nilly, without
regard to time, place, or source.
Thus, Judith (now Jack) Halberstam’s
Female Masculinity so focuses on recent times that s/he can breathlessly ex-
claim, as a somewhat remarkable fact, that masculine women have ‘chal-
lenged the gender system for at least two centuries’.
The cross-dressed
women of late medieval London would have chuckled at such short-sighted-
ness. Their stories suggest not only that female cross-dressing was not at all
dependent on modernity (much less postmodernity), but also that it was not
much of a precursor to modern cross-dressing, which is strongly associated
with lesbian and trans communities. In late medieval London, female cross-
dressing was erotic, but aimed more at male than female audiences.
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Some cross-dressing was (and is) simply ludic: playful parody, associated
once with Christmas, Shrovetide and May Day, and more recently with
Halloween and Gay Pride. By 1500, for example, the repertoire of morris
dancing at summer festivals called for a boy to impersonate Maid Marion
and flirt prettily with Friar Tuck. The fun of such scenes rested in inversion:
a person of one gender (usually male) dressed (temporarily) as the other.
Male cross-dressers were particularly common on the medieval stage where,
as would remain the case for centuries, female roles were conventionally
played by men. This practice enforced female modesty, protected the em-
ployment of male actors and provided occasions for dramatic ribaldry.
Ludic cross-dressing remains today a mainly male preserve. From Dame
Edna to Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals to drag queens atop Gay
Pride floats, the public performance of drag remains, as Garber has put
it, ‘pre-eminently a male-to-female art’.
We scholars have followed suit,
casting male cross-dressing in early modern Europe as festive, parodic and
rich with desire and female cross-dressing as its humourless, sober and prac-
tical poor cousin. Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol thought most women
cross-dressed by necessity for work or travel; David Cressy argued that
female transvestism was ‘limited, temporary, and pragmatic’; and Bernard
Capp contrasted cross-dressed women who merely hoped ‘to pass un-
noticed’ with men who cross-dressed ‘generally for fun’.
Fun was certainly not on the minds of some female cross-dressers in
medieval Europe. The holy Christina of Markyate dressed as a man to
escape a dreaded marriage. Jacqueline Duchess of Hainault and Holland
(and by marriage, Duchess of Gloucester) did much the same when, handed
over to enemy forces in 1425, she reportedly escaped wearing men’s
Some women in late medieval London might also have cross-
dressed pragmatically: Alice Wolfe, who escaped from the Tower in 1534
(case 15), no doubt hoped to pass incognito in the city streets; Alice Street in
1495 (case 9) and Agnes Hopton in 1537 (case 16) used similar strategies
when they followed their male lovers out of London. And many others –
such as the two unnamed Dutch or German concubines in 1471 (cases 4 and
5) – might have donned male clothing briefly so as to move more easily
through London’s streets, particularly at night.
Historians have not, then, been wrong to point to the pragmatic motiv-
ations of many women who donned male attire, but this emphasis has
obscured the passions that also drove female cross-dressing. These desires
were not invariably sexual, perhaps especially during the middle ages when
cross-dressed holy women, most notably Joan of Arc, were understood to be
motivated by passion for God.
Yet even in the middle ages, cross-dressing
expressed sexual as well as saintly desire. Thus at her rehabilitation trial in
1456, Joan’s fellow soldiers assumed they would normally have been
aroused by the sight of a young woman wearing men’s clothes; part of
Joan’s sanctity was that she never provoked such desire.
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These multiple meanings – sexual, practical and holy – slipped and shifted
by context, experience and perspective, and of course, whatever meanings a
cross-dressed woman found in her attire did not necessarily match the
understandings of those who saw her. For medieval people, these complex
significations could be cause for fun. William Caxton’s 1484 translation of
the fourteenth-century Book of the Knight of the Tower tells of how an
adulterous wife explained away her lover’s breeches – found beside the
marital bed by her too-trusting husband – by claiming that they were her
own. A friend supported her, telling the cuckolded husband that his wife,
like all the good women of the neighbourhood, cross-dressed to guard her
chastity: ‘Truth it is that she and I and many others of this town, good
women and true, have taken each of us a pair of breeches and wear them
for these lechers and pimps that force and will do their wills of good
The humour of this ruse relied on the profound ambiguity of women
in men’s clothing. Within the narrative, the explanation of breeches-for-
chastity worked to deceive the foolish husband, both because it evoked
holy women who donned male clothing to escape men and sex, and because
breeches – presumably worn under gowns – made access to women’s privy
parts more difficult. For readers and listeners, however, the women’s cock-
eyed justification amusingly emphasized their sexual duplicity, as well as
the husband’s ludicrous credulity, for breeches could also signal a
woman’s sexual adventurousness. These two meanings – moral and immoral
– easily coexisted. In pre-Lenten celebrations in Nuremberg, Reformation
polemicists accused ‘lascivious girls’ of dressing as men to attract clients, yet
at very same festival, a play featured a woman who, precisely in order to
avoid sex, dressed as a man.
Our London cases may contain a rare instance of cross-dressing propelled
by female sexual desire, and if so, it is a yearning we might today identify as
‘lesbian’ or perhaps ‘transgender’. In 1493, London’s Commissary Court
laconically noted that a woman named Thomasina had kept in her room
a concubine in men’s clothing (case 8); the relationship between these two is
intriguing but elusive. We know little about Thomasina, except that she was
certainly female. The clerk firmly wrote Thomesyn, not Thomas, and he
reported that she worked in the female craft of corseweaving (weaving flat
By one reading, Thomasina, perhaps acting as a bawd, offered
shelter to a cross-dressed woman who was the concubine of some unnamed
man. This interpretation is plausible (the clerk did not write concubinam
suam), but raises troubling questions: why the clerk did not identify
Thomasina as a bawd; why he did not name the offending man; and why
Thomasina would have hosted such a scandalous woman. By another read-
ing, Thomasina herself held (tenuit) the concubina (a term for any woman in
a long-term but illicit union), just as all householders then held their
spouses, children and servants under their authority.
That is, perhaps
Thomasina had an intimate union with the woman who lived in her
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house, dressed in masculine clothes. Having no ready words to describe this
same-sex relationship, the clerk’s best option had been concubinage — an
illicit union, even if usually between a woman and man. Whatever the pre-
cise nature of Thomasina’s relationship with the cross-dressed concubine,
the reaction from the Commissary Court was muted: she was asked to pro-
duce only three other compurgators or character witnesses, and her case was
dismissed. Perhaps the charge was malicious and unfounded, or perhaps
Thomasina’s relationship with a cross-dressed concubine, although unusual,
lay outside the court’s central concerns.
It was, however, male sexual desire that drove most female cross-dressing
in late medieval London, as seen especially in the charges against Joan
White c. 1490 (case 7). We know about White because of a dispute between
two well positioned men, the German merchant Herman Ryng and White’s
master, Stephen Reygate, a citizen of London. Ryng’s petition to Chancery
tells his side of the story, and it is the only side we have. He was in the
Steelyard, the Hanse merchants’ precinct in London, when White boldly
approached and offered her sexual services; he declined, but she brashly
persisted; Ryng then had her whipped; and Reygate, presumably aggrieved
that Joan’s wounds had deprived him of her service, sued Ryng for trespass.
Ryng was a young man and son of a one-time mayor of Cologne; he was
well known in London for sexual indiscretions with both whores and wives;
and he had ahead of him a distinguished career as a Cologne patrician and
diplomat. Reygate was an older man of modest accomplishment (a ship-
wright and wine-drawer) and some notoriety as a forger and jury-fixer.
In his petition, Ryng characterized White and her master as deeply mis-
governed. He called White a ‘singlewoman’ (that is, in the slum lingo of late
medieval London, a prostitute), and he portrayed her as uncommonly bold.
As to Reygate, Ryng described him as a ‘needy man and a troublemaker
(combroux)’ who ran a disordered household. Most critically for our pur-
poses, Ryng reported that White had confessed that she was ‘wont to dance
and make revels in her master’s house, sometimes in man’s clothing and
sometimes naked’. Whether true or not, this claim had to be reasonable, for
the effectiveness of Ryng’s petition relied on its plausibility. Ryng must have
thought, in other words, that the men charged with judging his complaint
would not have blinked at the notion that Londoners could find houses
wherein prostitutes sometimes danced in male attire, or no attire at all.
The chancellor and his staff did not have to frequent brothels to appre-
ciate the erotics of cross-dressed dancing, for they might have seen much the
same over dinner. The surviving manuscripts of the contemporary Play of
Wisdom include a scene, set in a brothel, in which six women dance – three
dressed as men (‘gallants’) and three dressed as wives (‘matrons’). The
manuscripts date from the 1480s, and production notes give us rare confi-
dence it was actually performed, most likely in venues associated with the
Inns of Court and Bury St Edmunds. The play was a moral interlude
designed for a pause at a great feast in a great hall; its protagonist was,
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unusually for the genre, a woman. Anima, aided by the three faculties of
Mind, Understanding and Will, enacted a very human struggle, resisting
temptation, then falling into sin, and being finally redeemed. In the scene
of interest to us, Will was joined by dancing prostitutes, three disguised as
men, three as matrons. Their dance was set in a ‘stew’ (or brothel) and
accompanied by a minstrel playing a hornpipe, an instrument associated
with lust and lechery.
These cross-dressed dancers in Play of Wisdom, taken together with
Ryng’s description of Joan White’s dancing in her master’s household,
offer a rare peek into the whorehouses of late medieval London. By the
second half of the fifteenth century, prostitution was officially tolerated
only in the suburb of Southwark, whose ‘Stewside’ brothels were exten-
sively regulated, but in the City itself, ill-ruled homes, alehouses and wine
taverns (such as Reygate’s) fed the sex trade.
Whether formal brothel or
informal bawdyhouse, these establishments offered men not just sexual ser-
vices but also entertainment – sometimes just a quick performance on a
cleared space between tavern benches (as suggested in Ryng’s petition),
and sometimes a more elaborate production (as echoed in Play of
Wisdom). These performances often played on erotically charged disguises,
which were, as Will proclaimed in Play of Wisdom, ‘amiable’, ‘delectable’
and ‘pertaining unto love’.
Erotic disguise took many forms. Some were simply disguises, not cross-
dressing, and English people of all sorts celebrated with costumes, masks
and other kinds of masquerades, especially between Christmas and Twelfth
Edward Hall’s detailed accounts of Henry VIII’s maskings describe
how the king and his courtiers, male and female, donned masks and fabu-
lously luxurious costumes, often modelled after the clothes of other ‘nations’
(Turkey, India, Russia, Venice).
In theory the disguises hid identity, but
often not so. The pleasure lay in the manipulation of disguise and identity, in
the delight that the king and the court took in the pretence of anonymity,
and in the social licence allowed by that pseudo-anonymity. As Baldassare
Castiglione advised courtiers in 1528, disguises delighted by playing outward
appearance against the viewer’s real knowledge of what lay inward.
Just as
these courtly ‘disguisings’ played with the titillation of knowing-but-not-
knowing, so also did Joan White’s dancing in men’s clothes do nothing to
conceal her femaleness.
The erotic power of disguises could be as much about status – economic
and marital – as gender. As Christine Varholy has shown for Elizabethan
London, cross-class dressing, both in brothels and on the stage, was highly
charged in erotic terms. In brothels, a prostitute who dressed above her
station adopted attire ‘designed to manipulate masculine desire and to
turn profit’. This Elizabethan pleasure in prostitute-ladies likely had a his-
tory that stretched as far back as the late thirteenth century, when London
prohibited prostitutes wearing furred hoods ‘after the manner of reputable
Although long interpreted as aimed at the social posturing of poor
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Fig. 1. In this image from a later sixteenth-century Italian costume book, the Venetian courtesan
is typified by the breeches she wears under her dress; readers lifted a flap to reveal her manly garb.
Pietro Bertelli, Diversarum nationum habitus (Padua, 1589), plate 7, as reproduced in Yale
University’s Beinecke Digital Collections.
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Fig. 2. In this image from a book produced in London before 1340, a woman (centre) wears a
distinctively female headdress, but her gown is similar to those worn by the men at either side.
As reproduced in The Holkam Bible Picture Book, ed. Michelle P. Brown, London 2007.
Fig. 3. This woodcut from 1509 shows how the new fashions of the later fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries more clearly differentiated the genders, with men in doublets and breeches or
hose, and women in long skirts. From Antoine la Sale, The Fyftene Joyes of Maryage,
Westminster, 1509, f. 17r.
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women, this ordinance might also (or instead) have sought to mitigate the
eroticism of over-dressed prostitutes.
Play of Wisdom suggests that clients might also have been particularly
aroused by prostitutes masquerading as ‘matrons’ – that is, as highly re-
spectable wives. The erotic power of uxorial disguise might have been par-
ticularly intense for apprentices, always major clients of prostitutes, for
whom such fantasies both spoke to anxieties about female domestic power
and expressed social aspirations. The titillation of cross-status attire might
explain an otherwise curious rule in the late medieval ordinances for
Southwark’s brothels: that prostitutes were not to wear aprons. Aprons
might have been a sign of artisanal respectability, since they protected the
clothes of workers, both male and female; they might have worked to ridi-
cule the bishop of Winchester and his like, for a covering apron was part of
their ecclesiastical garb; and they might also have been already in the fif-
teenth century – as they certainly later were – primarily a sign of domestic,
wifely, respectability.
When Joan White made merry in her master’s house and danced in men’s
clothes, part of her delectability was simply disguise itself – the erotic pleas-
ure of a covering that only half-hid (and thereby accentuated) her actual
body underneath. This pleasure applied to many disguises – dressing across
class or marital status, as well as gender. For some clients, the disguise of
cross-gender dressing was its chief appeal, and it entertained and titillated
much as it does today in, for example, the edgy costumes of such performers
as Lady Gaga and Janelle Mona
´e. For other clients, the cross-gender part of
the disguise might have particularly resonated, offering them the fantasy of
sex with men within the relatively more secure reality of paid sex with a
woman. In Italian city-states, for example, officials worried that prostitutes,
whose trade they tolerated as a remedy for ‘sodomy’, sometimes dressed as
men in order to attract more clients. Venice decreed in 1480 that women
were not to cut their hair cut short in ‘mushroom’ style, as they did so only
to ‘conceal their sex and strive to please men by pretending to be men, which
is a form of sodomy’.
There is good reason to think such pleasures oper-
ated in London, too. We cannot know what the clients of John/Eleanor
Rykener thought they were getting when they bought his/her sexual services,
but we can guess that ambiguity was part of the attraction.
Cross-dressing might, in fact, have been so much part of London’s sex
trade that it shaped the traditional punishments inflicted on prostitutes. As
prescribed in the Liber Albus (1419), convicted prostitutes were led about the
city – Aldgate, Cheapside, Newgate, Cock’s Lane, pillory at Cornhill – in a
carefully orchestrated ritual of public entertainment. They sometimes car-
ried signs (such as an H for ‘harlot’) or wore headgear (usually a striped
hood) that betokened their offence, and they were accompanied by minstrels
and sometimes also the raucous ringing of basins and pans. It is not hard to
imagine that some prostitutes danced a bit to this loud accompaniment, if
only to cajole some sympathy from passers-by. As they moved in this
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fashion through London’s streets, these women were also required to carry a
‘white rod’. The symbolism of this rod has been the subject of much specu-
lation. Did it echo the candles carried by penitents? Was it intended to mock
rods of office? But the London records tell us quite explicitly that the white
rod was a ‘token of harlotry’.
If guilty of repeat offences, prostitutes were
also, according to the Liber Albus, to have their hair cropped, a masculiniz-
ing punishment, then as well as now. Hair-cropping seems not to have been
imposed in the fifteenth century – or at least, we have no explicit statements
to that effect.
But it was certainly imposed in the reign of Edward VI,
when the mayor and aldermen revived the ‘ancient law’ on punishment of
harlots: in 1548, for instance, ‘Flouncing Bess, a common and abominable
harlot of her body’, was sentenced to have her hair ‘cut and rounded as short
as her ears’.
A prostitute, accompanied by minstrels, carrying a phallic
rod, sometimes even with shorn hair: this punishment remarkably echoes the
cross-dressed, erotic dancing of Joan White and the prostitutes in Play of
Late medieval Londoners understood women’s cross-dressing as not only
erotic but also foreign, or as they would have put it, ‘alien’ or ‘strange’. Of
the thirteen cases found between 1450 and 1553, five identified people born
outside England (women in cases 4, 5 and 6; men in cases 7 and 15). Most
hailed, as did most strangers then in London, from the Low Countries or
German states. Too much could be made of this alien presence among cross-
dressers and their lovers, especially because aliens also proliferated in the sex
trade wherein so many cross-dressers worked. Young female migrants, from
both England and abroad, often found in London iffy lodgings, poor pay,
predatory employers and few friends, all miseries that made them vulnerable
for recruitment into prostitution. Foreign-born men in London had few
female compatriots (roughly, three or four men for each alien woman)
and seem therefore to have often patronized prostitutes. No doubt some
aliens objected to stereotypes associating the ‘Doche’ with prostitution, but
the stereotype had some truth: ‘Doche’ (Dutch or German) women were
prominent among those charged in London courts with whoredom, and
bawdy houses proliferated wherever immigrants settled.
Yet, even so,
the alien tilt of cross-dressing accusations is striking, and it raises four
First, some Europeans might have been more enthusiastic about female
cross-dressing than others. Dekker and van de Pol argued, perhaps too
ambitiously, that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries cross-dressing
‘was strongest by far in the north-west, in the Netherlands, England and
Their observation may only apply to the particular ‘passing’
variety of cross-dressing on which they focused. Prostitutes and whores who
cross-dressed temporarily had motivations more erotic than practical, and
although these are the sorts of cross-dressers found in late medieval London,
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they are, in fact, most copiously documented not elsewhere in northern
Europe but instead in Italian cities. Women’s cross-dressing carried very
different – and sometimes opposing – meanings in different circumstances.
If these practices and meanings varied consistently across Europe, they
cannot yet be traced.
Second, cross-dressing might have particularly appealed to migrants.
Dekker and van de Pol found, for example, that about half their cross-
dressers were born outside the Dutch Republic.
The link between
migration and cross-dressing might have sometimes been forged by
prostitution – that is, migration fed prostitution which, in turn, fed cross-
dressing. The poverty of migrants might also have encouraged some to try to
pass and work as men. And, of course, migration itself was a process of
identity remaking that might have encouraged cross-dressing. John/Eleanor
Rykener was able to live as both a man and a woman because s/he moved
about – from London to Oxford to Burford to Beaconsfield and back to
London. Both migration and cross-dressing offered radically transformative
opportunities for personal self-fashioning, and some women, lost in a new
city, might have chosen to lose their gender too.
Third, and somewhat more confidently, cross-dressing was associated
with the customs of alien cultures: Sir John Mandeville’s fourteenth-century
Voyages, for instance, reported that among the Tartars, ‘all the women wear
breeches, as well as the men’.
The lure of the foreign exotic was an im-
portant part of the London sex trade. Many prostitutes took foreign by-
names, suggesting that they used their alien origins – or perhaps, their
purported alien origins – to entice clients: Dutch Kate, Irish Nan, French
Jane, Spanish Nell.
The most intriguing was a woman known as ‘French
Philip’ who worked as a prostitute in the late 1460s, and three decades later,
was still in the trade, albeit as a bawd.
Because Philip was a rare English
name, her name doubly evoked French origin; because Philip was, in late
medieval English usage, both masculine and feminine, her name evoked
gender uncertainty; and because the very few Philips (and Philippas, if ren-
dered in Latin) in late medieval England tended to be well-born, her name
also hinted at cross-class masquerade. Artifice and exotica were among the
most important tools of the sex trade, and they could be spun in different
directions for different clients: some were lured by fantasies of aristocratic
French ladies, others by women dressed as boys.
Fourth, late medieval Londoners, renowned for their dislike of for-
eigners, might have readily displaced cross-dressing on to foreigners. In
1500 about one of every fourteen Londoners was an ‘alien’ or ‘stranger’
born outside the realm. Despite (or because of) this significant immigrant
presence, native Londoners often greeted incomers with a reflexive xeno-
International merchants – Italian, Spanish, or from the northern
Hanseatic League, often resident in London intermittently and briefly –
were well-known customers of London prostitutes, some of whom appar-
ently specialized as ‘Lombard whores’ or ‘whores to the Easterlings’.
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aliens, however, were labourers and artisans, mostly ‘Doche’, and among
prostitutes in London, ‘Doche’ women were plentiful. The English com-
plained that aliens kept to themselves too much; that they refused to
employ English workers; that they enjoyed special privileges from the
crown; that they were inclined to treachery and treason; that their beer
was unhealthy for human consumption; that their lax sexual customs threa-
tened the city. For their part, aliens commented on the unfriendliness of
Londoners and claimed that, as the Venetian ambassador put it in 1497, ‘the
English are great lovers of themselves’.
To these great lovers of themselves, cross-dressing was a moral offence –
a ‘lewd pleasure’, a ‘perilous example’, a practice instinctively tied to such
sexual disorders as prostitution and concubinage. Given the sex trade’s as-
sociation with aliens and, indeed, visitors to London generally, it was easy –
and probably deeply reassuring – for London’s governors to displace the
immorality of cross-dressing onto non-Londoners, imagining it as an im-
ported vice. In other words, the cross-dressing cases brought to London
courts before 1553 might have been constructed to make cross-dressing out-
landish, both as medieval people used the term (foreign) and as we use it
today (bizarre). In these narratives, aliens were joined by other dramatic
displacements – Rochester, where Alice Street joined her lover (case 9);
Hertfordshire, to which Agnes Hopton and John Salmon decamped (case
16); the liberty of St Martin le Grand from whence a tailor supplied
Margaret Cotton with her men’s gown (case 3); and two staple complaints
of civic moralists, sinning priests (cases 9 and 10) and women on their own
(case 8, 12, 13 and 14). Each of the thirteen cases found between 1450 and
1553 contains such a distancing detail; not one was cast as wholly indigen-
ous to London’s laity. Thus the judges, jurors, lawyers and clerks who
dealt with these perilous examples could, like the author of Hic Mulier
(The Man-Woman) in 1620, rest comfortably in the thought that female
cross-dressing was not their own, but instead belonged with ‘the rude
Scythian, the untamed Moor, the naked Indian, or the wild Irish’.
Today’s drag kings and FTM gender-benders would not recognize them-
selves in the cross-dressed women of late medieval London, most of whom
were intent on appealing to men and especially, men as clients. But cross-
dressers then and now share the pleasure and eroticism produced by their
transgressive dress. These desires ask us to rethink the seemingly sober prac-
ticality of female cross-dressing before the twentieth century. In a world in
which cross-dressed women were erotic, delightful and, quite possibly, a
common amusement of the sex trade, maybe someone like Agnes Hopton
dressed as a man partly to follow her lover, but also partly to indulge his
(even their) sexual pleasures (case 16); perhaps Elizabeth Chekyn put on
priest’s robes not merely to mock priests but also to arouse them (case
11); maybe Trude Garard assumed men’s clothing not only for greater
safety on the streets but also for more clients (case 6). Perhaps the up-
front eroticism of cross-dressed prostitutes even allowed women some
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pleasures of their own. The three Margeries who cut their hair in manly style
in 1520 (cases 12–14) might have been looking to attract more male clients;
they might also have hoped thereby to be able to move about London’s
streets more easily at night; and perhaps under the disguise offered by these
two well-recognized motivations, they might simply have enjoyed what, fol-
lowing Halberstam, we could call their ‘female masculinity’. So, too, might
the unnamed concubine of Thomasina the corseweaver (case 8) have found
playful pleasure in her manly disguise. We cannot know for sure, but we can
know this: late medieval Londoners understood well the erotic power of
clothing that disguised and teased, especially clothing that turned – however
briefly or incompletely – a woman into a man.
Judith M. Bennett teaches women’s history and medieval history at the
University of Southern California. She is the author of several books and
numerous articles about working women and singlewomen in late medieval
Shannon McSheffrey is a historian of medieval and Tudor England teaching
at Concordia University in Montreal. She has written a number of scholarly
articles and books on issues related to gender, sexuality, religion, and law in
fifteenth and sixteenth-century England.
We thank Laura Gowing and John Watts for hosting discussions at the Women’s History
Seminar (Institute of Historical Research) and the Later Medieval Europe Seminar (Oxford
University). We also thank Caroline Barron, Elizabeth Ewan, Vanessa Harding, Cynthia
Herrup, Ruth Karras, Krista Kesselring, Eric Reiter, Janelle Werner and Christopher
Whittick. We have not differentiated – because the distinctions cannot not now be known –
between cross-dressing (as an act) and cross-dressers (as a possible identity).
1 On this point, see also Rudolf M. Dekker and Lotte C. van de Pol, The Tradition of
Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe, New York, 1989, p. 75.
2 LMA, COL/CC/01/01, Journals of the Court of Common Council (hereafter Journal),
Journal 11, f. 264v; TNA, SP 1/18, f. 233.
3 25 Hen. VIII, c. 34, The Statutes of the Realm, London, 1810, vol. 3, pp. 490–1.
4 Ruth Mazo Karras, Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England, New York, 1996, pp.
10–12. Following Karras, we use ‘prostitute’ only for cases that probably involved commercial
5 The major historical studies include Dekker and Pol, Female Transvestism; David Cressy,
‘Gender Trouble and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England’, Journal of British Studies 35:
4, 1996; and Bernard Capp, ‘Playgoers, Players and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern London:
the Bridewell Evidence’, The Seventeenth Century 18, 2003. Recent literary studies on English
practice include Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: the Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s
England, Cambridge, 1996; Rachel Trubowitz, ‘Cross-Dressed Women and Natural Mothers:
‘‘Boundary Panic’’ in Hic Mulier’, in Debating Gender in Early Modern England, 1500–1700, ed.
Cristina Malcolmson and Mihoko Suzuki, New York, 2002; Christine M. Varholy, ‘‘‘Rich Like
a Lady’’: Cross-Class Dressing in the Brothels and Theaters of Early Modern London’, Journal
of Early Modern Cultural Studies 8: 1, 2008; Susan Vincent, Dressing the Elite: Clothes in Early
Modern England, Oxford, 2003. Stephen Greenblatt does not deal with cross-dressing in his
Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Chicago, 1980.
6 Cressy, ‘Gender Trouble’ critiques the notion of a gender crisis.
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7 Helmut Puff, ‘Female Sodomy: the Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477)’, The Journal
of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30, 2000; Mariann Naessens, ‘Judicial Authorities’ Views
of Women’s Roles in Late Medieval Flanders’ (2004), in The Texture of Society: Medieval
Women in the Southern Low Countries, ed. Ellen E. Kittell and Mary A. Suydam, New
York, 2004; Patrizia Cibin, ‘Meretrici e cortegiane a Venezia nel ’500’, DonnaWomanFemme:
Quaderni internazionali di studi sulla donna 25/26, 1985, p. 99; Richard Trexler, ‘Florentine
Prostitution in the Fifteenth Century: Patrons and Clients’, in his Power and Dependence in
Renaissance Florence, vol. 2, Binghamton NY, 1993, pp. 49–51; Tessa Storey, ‘Clothing
Courtesans: Fabrics, Signals, and Experiences’, in Clothing Culture 1350–1650, ed. Catherine
Richardson, Burlington VT, 2004, pp. 97–9.
8 Franc¸ oise Piponnier and Perrine Maine, Dress in the Middle Ages, New Haven, 1997, pp.
79–81; Ulinka Rublack, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe, New York, 2010,
pp. 17–18.
9 Rublack, Dressing Up, pp. 13, 17–18.
10 For Normans, Robert Bartlett, ‘Symbolic Meanings of Hair in the Middle Ages’,
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series vol. 4, 1994. For Christina and
Hildegund, see Valerie R. Hotchkiss, Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in
Medieval Europe, London, 1999. For Florence, see Trexler, ‘Florentine Prostitution’, p. 49.
11 See especially, Susan Shibanoff, ‘True Lies: Transvestism and Idolatry in the Trial of
Joan of Arc’, in Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood, New
York, 1999, and Susan Crane, ‘Clothing and Gender Definition: Joan of Arc’, Journal of
Medieval and Early Modern Studies 26: 2, 1996.
12 Hotchkiss (Clothes Make the Man) discusses most instances. See also Alain Boureau,
The Myth of Pope Joan, Chicago, 2001; Robert L. A. Clark, ‘A Heroine’s Sexual Itinerary:
Incest, Transvestism and Same-Sex Marriage in Yde et Olive’, in Gender Transgressions:
Crossing the Normative Barrier in Old French Literature, ed. Karen J. Taylor, New York,
1998; Sarah Westphal-Wihl, ‘The Ladies’ Tournament: Marriage, Sex, and Honor in
Thirteenth-Century Germany’, Signs 14: 2, 1989; Helen Solterer, ‘Figures of Female
Militancy in Medieval France’, Signs 16: 3, 1991.
13 Henry Knighton, Chronicon Henrici Knighton; vel, Cnitthon, monachi leycestrensis, ed.
Joseph Rawson Lumby, London, 1889, vol. 2, pp. 57–8.
14 Hotchkiss, Clothes Make the Man. For an early statement, see Vern L. Bullough,
‘Transvestism in the Middle Ages’, in Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, ed. Vern L.
Bullough and James Brundage, Buffalo, 1981.
15 For modern echoes, see Ruth Padawer, ‘Boygirl’, The New York Times Magazine,12
Aug. 2012, pp. 19–23, 36, 46.
16 Michael H. Shank, ‘A Female University Student in Late Medieval Krako
´w’, Signs 12:
2, 1987.
17 On Italy, see Catherine Kovesi Killerby, Sumptuary Law in Italy 1200–1500, Oxford,
2002, pp. 64–5, 140.
18 For the relative unimportance of dressing across genders, see Robert L. A. Clark and
Clair Sponsler ‘Queer Play: the Cultural Work of Crossdressing in Medieval Drama’, New
Literary History 28, 1997 and ‘Othered Bodies: Racial Cross-Dressing in the Mistere de la
Saint Hostie and the Croxton Play of the Sacrament’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern
Studies 29: 1, 1999.
19 22 Edw. IV, c. 1, Statutes of the Realm, vol. 2, p. 470. See Kim M. Phillips,
‘Masculinities and Medieval English Sumptuary Laws’, Gender and History 19: 1, 2007 and
Vincent, Dressing the Elite, pp. 117–52.
20 Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, New York,
21 Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity, Durham NC, 1998, p. 45.
22 Michael Shapiro, ‘Cross-Dressing in Elizabethan Robin Hood Plays’, in Playing Robin
Hood: the Legend As Performance in Five Centuries, ed. Lois Potter, Newark, 1998; Meg
Twycross and Sarah Carpenter, Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England,
Aldershot, 2002, esp. pp. 33–6, 65–76; Natalie Zemon Davis, ‘Women on Top’, in her Society
and Culture in Early Modern France, Stanford CA, 1975, esp. pp. 137–8.
23 Meg Twycross, ‘Transvestism in Mystery Plays’, Medieval English Theatre 5: 2, 1983;
Katie Normanton, Gender and Medieval Drama, Woodbridge, 2004, pp. 55–70.
24 Garber, Vested Interests, p. 152.
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25 Dekker and Pol, Female Transvestism; Cressy, ‘Gender Trouble’, p. 460; Capp,
‘Playgoers’, pp. 165 and 167.
26 Great Chronicle of London, p. 136.
27 Images that depicted transvestite saints in conventional clothing suggest some discom-
fort with the practice: Saisha Grayson, ‘Disruptive Disguises: the Problem of Transvestite
Saints for Medieval Art, Identity, and Identification’, Medieval Feminist Forum 45, 2009.
28 Schibanoff, ‘True Lies’, p. 51.
29 Geoffroy de La Tour Landry, The Book of the Knight of the Tower, transl. William
Caxton, ed. Marguerite Y. Offord, Early English Text Society, Supplementary Series no. 2,
London, 1971, pp. 87–92, at p. 89. The tale also appears in fabliaux collections.
30 Twycross and Carpenter, Masks and Masking, pp. 75–6.
31 Anne F. Sutton, The Mercery of London: Trade, Goods and People, 1130–1578,
Aldershot, 2005, p. 51 and n. 18.
32 Janelle Werner, ‘Promiscuous Priests and Vicarage Children: Clerical Sexuality and
Masculinity in Late Medieval England’, in Negotiating Clerical Identities: Priests, Monks and
Masculinity in the Middle Ages, ed. Jennifer D. Thibodeaux, New York, 2010, pp. 169–70; Ruth
Mazo Karras, ‘The Latin Vocabulary of Illicit Sex in English Ecclesiastical Court Records’, The
Journal of Medieval Latin 2, January 1992, p. 5.
33 The Wisdom Symposium: Papers from the Trinity College Medieval Festival, ed. Milla
Cozart Riggio, New York, 1986 and The Play of Wisdom: Its Texts and Contexts, ed. Milla
Cozart Riggio, New York, 1998; Two Moral Interludes: the Pride of Life and Wisdom, ed. David
N. Klausner, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, Kalamazoo MI, 2009.
34 John B. Post, ‘A Fifteenth-Century Customary of the Southwark Stews’, Journal of the
Society of Archivists 5, 1977; Karras, Common Women.
35 Twycross and Carpenter, Masks and Masking, throughout, and especially pp. 65–76, 90.
36 Edward Hall, Hall’s Chronicle, ed. Henry Ellis, London, 1809, throughout pp. 507–803,
for instance pp. 513–14, 580, 595–7, 619–20.
37 Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, transl. Leonard Eckstein Opdycke,
New York, 1903, p. 87. See also Clark and Sponsler, ‘Queer Play’; Varholy, ‘Rich like a Lady’,
p. 5; and Sarah Carpenter, ‘Masking and Politics: the Alison Craik Incident, Edinburgh 1561’,
Renaissance Studies 21: 5, 2007.
38 Karras, Common Women, pp. 21–2. See also Erik Spindler, ‘Were Medieval Prostitutes
Marginals? Evidence from Sluis, 1387–1440’, Revue Belge de philologie et d’histoire 87: 2, 2009,
pp. 265–8; Storey, ‘Clothing Courtesans’, pp. 99–106.
39 Karras, Common Women, p. 157, n. 39.
40 David Sanderson Chambers, Jennifer Fletcher and Brian S. Pullan, Venice: a
Documentary History, 1450–1630, Toronto, 2001, p. 123; see also a later ordinance that con-
nects cross-dressed prostitutes to young men’s ‘appetite’ for sodomy; Cibin, ‘Meretrici e corte-
giane’, p. 99; Trexler, ‘Florentine Prostitution’, pp. 48–51. See also Everett Rowson, ‘Gender
Irregularity as Entertainment: Institutionalized Transvestism at the Caliphal Court in Medieval
Baghdad’, in Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages, ed. Sharon Farmer and Carol Braun
Pasternack, Minneapolis, 2003.
41 Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Post-
Modern, Durham NC, 1999, pp. 106–12.
42 Karras, Common Women, p. 149, n. 10.
43 LMA, COL/AD/01/010, Letter Book K, f. 11v; COL/AD/01/011, Letter Book L, f.
275v–276r. Men’s hair was sometimes clipped too: LMA, COL/AD/01/012, Letter Book M, f.
44 LMA, COL/CA/01/01, Repertories of the Court of Aldermen, vol. 12, f. 473r; see also
vol. 13, f. 128v–129r.
45 On aliens and prostitution generally, see Karras, Common Women, pp. 56–7.
46 Dekker and Pol, Female Transvestism, p. 2. They link the phenomenon to the relatively
late age of marriage in northern Europe.
47 Dekker and Pol, Female Transvestism, p. 11.
48 The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville, Kt., ed. James O. Halliwell-Phillipps,
London, 1839, p. 250.
49 LMA, Comm. Act Book 1, f. 38v; Comm. Act Book 4, f. 250r, 240v; Karras, Common
Women, pp. 56–7; Richard M. Wunderli, London Church Courts and Society on the Eve of the
Reformation, Cambridge MA, 1981, p. 100.
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50 LMA, COL/AD/05/001, Portsoken Wardmote Presentments, edited, somewhat
unreliably, by Christine I. Winter, ‘The Portsoken Presentments: an Analysis of a London
Ward in the Fifteenth Century’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological
Society 56, 2005. References to French Philip are on pages 114, 116, 118; see also Journal
10, f. 109r.
51 The Alien Communities of London in the Fifteenth Century, James Laurence Bolton,
Stamford, 1998; Andrew Pettegree, Foreign Protestant Communities in Sixteenth-Century
London, Oxford, 1986; Ian W. Archer, ‘Responses to Alien Immigrants’, in Le migrazioni in
Europa: secc. xiii–xviii, ed. Simonetta Cavaciocchi, Firenze, 1994; Lien Bich Luu, Immigrants
and the Industries of London, 1500–1700, Aldershot, 2005.
52 See, for instance, insults reported in the Commissary Court: LMA, Comm. Act Book 4,
f. 101v, 128v, 269r; Comm. Act Book 5, f. 26r.
53 As quoted in Lien Bich Luu, ‘‘‘Taking the Bread out of Our Mouths’’: Xenophobia in
Early Modern London’, Immigrants and Minorities 19: 2, 2000, p. 1.
54 As quoted in Trubowitz, ‘Cross-Dressed’, p. 193.
This table summarizes all instances of cross-dressing in London between 1450 and 1553 (cases 3-9,
11-16, below), and to provide context for these cases, it also briefly summarizes all other known
instances of cross-dressing in London before 1603. The cases central to our study are in bold.
Summary Sources Comments
Case 1: December 1395.
John Rykener was interrogated about his life
as a prostitute and cross-dresser in London
and elsewhere.
Printed in David Lorenzo Boyd and
Ruth Mazo Karras, ‘The
Interrogation of a Male Transvestite
Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century
London’, GLQ, 1, 1995, pp. 459–65.
Case 2: 8 June 1425.
John Tirell was found walking around the
City in women’s clothing (transiens in appa-
ratu mulieris) and arrested. He took an oath
of good behaviour and was let go.
Journal 2, f. 45v.
Case 3: 6 July 1454, Ward of Candlewick-Street.
Margaret Cotton, widow of Peter Cotton and
living in Lime Street, had been arrested at 11
p.m. the previous night, dressed in a man’s
gown (in una toga virili). She hired (conduxit)
the gown from a tailor (surnamed Pycard, no
forename given) in St Martin le Grand, and
she got her hat (caleptrum) from a servant of
her husband. No punishment recorded.
Journal 5, f. 173v. ØSt Martin le Grand was a liberty
and sanctuary within the London
walls; already by the mid-15
tury St Martin’s was known as an
enclave for stranger artisans (thus
by implication the gown may have
been ‘alien’).
Case 4: Early September 1471, Parish of St Botolph without Aldgate.
Charles ‘of Tower Hill’ accused of committing
adultery with a German or Dutch woman
(teutonica) who came to him in male clothing
(in vestibus virilibus).
Comm. Act Book 1, f. 104r. ØThere is no indication that Charles
was summoned. Perhaps the com-
missary thought the identities of
both parties too vague to proceed.
ØCharles was not a common English
name in this period.
Case 5: Mid-September 1471, Parish of St Peter Westcheap.
Thomas a Wode was accused of committing
adultery with a German or Dutch woman
(tutonica) whom he led in male clothing (in
habitu virili); he gave her a silk doublet
(doploidem de serico).
Comm. Act Book 1, f. 109r. ØNo record of summons or further
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Summary Sources Comments
Case 6: 5 May 1473.
Trude Garard was taken vagrant and walking
in the streets in male clothing (‘in a mans aray
and clothyng’); she confessed in court that she
was a common strumpet.
Journal 8, f. 50r. ØGarard’s name suggests she was a
Dutch or German immigrant.
ØDozens of indictments for bawdry
and whoredom were brought before
the Court of Common Council in
late April and early May 1473 – see
Journal 8, f. 47r-50r – a sweep that
was noted by London chroniclers.
ØGarard’s punishment was conven-
tional for London prostitutes and
bawds, and the clerk explicitly
stated she was punished because
‘she is a common strumpet’.
Nevertheless, her case became a
precedent for the punishment of
cross-dressers. It was copied into
the Liber Dunthorne sometime
before 1489 and marked by a later
clerk (c. 1520) as concerning a
woman ‘capta et arestata in veste
virili’; and it was cited as a prece-
dent in 1537 (see case 16).
Punishment: Garard was to be led from prison
to Aldgate and then to the pillory at Cornhill,
accompanied by minstrels, wearing a striped
hood on her head, and carrying a white rod in
her hand; at Cornhill, the cause of her pun-
ishment was to be proclaimed; then, she was to
be led through Cheapside to Newgate and
expelled forever from London. If she returned
to London thereafter, she was to be punished
on the pillory for one hour on each of three
market days and imprisoned for a year and a
day. Anyone who brought her before the court
was to be awarded 6s. 8d.
Case 7: ca. 1486–93,
The Steelyard, enclave of Hanseatic merchants in central London.
Herman Ryng, a Hansa merchant, com-
plained that Joan White, singlewoman,
offered herself to him, and that when he
refused, he was harassed by her and her
master (Stephen Reygate). Ryng described
Joan White as ‘wont to daunce & make revells
in hir maisters hous, som tyme in mannys
clothing and somtyme naked’.
Court of Chancery
TNA C1/158/47
ØSeveral Joan Whites appear in
London records in the 1490s. One,
living on Thames Street, was the
defendant in a defamation suit in
the London Consistory court in
1494; another was named as the
mother of an illegitimate child
fathered by a William Smyth of
Whitechapel in 1497; and the
administration of the goods of Joan
White of the parish of St Mary le
Strand was recorded in March
ØHerman Ryng was summoned to
answer charges of sexual misbeha-
vior with four different women in
the bishop of London’s Commissary
court on several occasions in 1490-
Ryng was the son of a Cologne
mayor and had a long career ahead
of him as a Cologne patrician and
part-time diplomat at the courts of
Henry VII and Henry VIII.
ØStephen Reygate, citizen and ship-
wright, also called a wine-drawer,
of London, features in a number of
records from 1452, when he was
admitted to the freedom of the
City, through the 1480s. One
record from 1462 specified that he
lived in the parish of St Martin in
the Vintry. He was accused in the
1460s, 1470s and 1480s of misdeeds
such as fixing juries.
Case 8: 26 February–2 March 1493, Parish of St Andrew Cornhill.
Thomasina, a corseweaver, led a cross-dressed
concubine to her room and held her in the
same place (adduxit concubinam ad cameram
suam in veste virili et ibidem eam tenuit).
Comm. Act Book 5, f. 67v. ØThe entry is crossed out, indicating
that the case was concluded and a
fine paid. This fine did not indicate
guilt; a user fee, it was paid by the
defendant whether found guilty or
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Summary Sources Comments
not guilty.
No penance was
Case 9: 13–22 January 1495, Parish of St Mary Staining Lane.
Alice Street was cited as a common prostitute
with priests and especially John Mitton. They
were caught at Rochester; she followed him
there in men’s clothes (in vestibus virilibus);
they have continued together for a long time.
Street was also cited as a common defamer.
Comm. Act Book 6, f. 91v. ØFine (user fee) paid.
Case 10: 25 February 1501, Parish of St Sepulchre.
Agnes Nelee was defamed by John Foster
who called her a ‘strong fryres hore, thou
wer shorne in the white frires like a fryre’.
Referred to the court as a common defamer
of his neighbours, Foster confessed and was
Comm. Act Book 9, f. 11v. ØBecause the commissary judged
that Foster’s defamatory com-
ments were untrue, we have noted
this case, but not counted Nelee
among our cross-dressers.
Case 11: 16 and 18 September 1516.
Elizabeth Chekyn was arrested ‘in a preestes
goun’ and walking in the streets ‘in a preestes
array & clothyng in rebuke and reproche of
the Ordre of presthod asmoche as in her is’.
She was found in bed with William Lewes,
priest, and another, unnamed priest; she con-
fessed to having sex with Lewes on two
occasions; she was convicted as a common
harlot and strumpet.
Repertory 3, f. 103v.
Journal 11, f. 264v.
Letter Book N, LMA, COL/AD/01/
013, f. 21r–21v.
Punishment: Chekyn was to be led, with a
second woman convicted of bawdry, from
prison to Newgate and then taken – with
basins and pans ringing before them, striped
hoods on their heads, white rods in their
hands, and (for Chekyn) a letter H (made
from yellow woollen cloth) on her breast to
signify her harlotry and on her left shoulder a
picture of a woman in a priest’s gown –
through Cheapside to the pillory at Cornhill;
the causes of their punishments to be pro-
claimed there; thence to be led to Aldgate and
expelled forever from London. If either
woman returned to London, she was to be
punished on the pillory for one hour on three
market days and imprisoned for a year and a
day. Anyone who brought her before the court
was to be reasonably rewarded.
Cases 12, 13, 14: 10 July 1519, Wards of Cheap (Brett and Tyler) and Langbourn (Smyth and Thomson).
Margery Brett, Margery Smyth, Margery
Tyler, and Elizabeth Thomson were convicted
as strumpets and common harlots. Also, the
three Margeries were said to have ‘cut their
here like unto mennys hedes to thentent [the
intent] to goo in mennes clothing at tymes
whan their lewde pleasure is, to the greate
displeasure of god and abhomynacion to the
Journal 12, f. 10r. ØThese arrests occurred in conjunc-
tion with a general sweep of ‘idell,
vagrant and suspecious persons’,
mandated by the crown; the entry
in the State Papers reporting the
arrests named all four women.
Punishment: The three Margeries were to be
led with minstrelsy from prison to Aldgate and
then to the pillory at Cornhill, dressed in
men’s bonnets and without a kerchief, with a
striped hood about their shoulders, and with
white rods in their hands; at Cornhill, the
cause of their punishment to be proclaimed;
then, they were to be led through Cheapside to
Newgate and expelled forever from London.
If they returned to London, they were to be
put on the pillory for an hour on three market
days, and imprisoned for a year and a day.
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Summary Sources Comments
Thomson was punished similarly, but without
the man’s bonnet.
Case 15: 28 March 1534.
Alice Wolfe was reported to have escaped
from the Tower of London, on the eve of her
execution, with the help of her jailer, John
Bawde. She and Bawde were caught when two
watchmen noticed that one of the two suspi-
cious people walking on Tower Hill was ‘a
oman [woman] aparylyd lyck a man’.
State Papers
TNA, SP 3/3, fols. 133-134.
ØThis account of her attempted
escape was written to Lord Lisle by
John Grenville. Lisle was
Grenville’s patron and relative by
marriage; Grenville was a servant
of Lord Audley, the chancellor, and
he likely drew his details from
insider information.
ØWolfe had been convicted by par-
liamentary attainder for a heinous
murder: she and her husband John
Wolfe, a Hanseatic merchant from
Cologne, together with four other
men, conspired to murder and rob
two Italian merchants in July 1533.
A central aspect of the conspiracy
involved Alice and another of the
conspirators, a young gentleman,
attracting the merchants to a house
on the Strand where they spent
many hours together, by implica-
tion engaging in illicit sexual
ØAlice Wolfe and her husband John,
who had also been held in the
Tower, were executed on or about 1
April 1534, suspended in chains
over the Thames to be drowned by
the tide. This form of execution was
used for pirates and sea-robbers.
Case 16: 20 February 1537.
Agnes Hopton ‘apparaylled yn a mannys
rayment’ kept company with John Salmon, a
minstrel and married man. He kept her in
Hertfordshire, ‘yn mannes rayment’, provid-
ing ‘a right perilous example of all other like
Repertory 9, f. 351r.
Letter Book P, LMA COL/AD/01/
015, f. 117.
Punishment: Hopton was ordered to be pun-
ished according to the judgement inflicted on
Trude Garard (Case 6). Salmon was to ride
before her, seated backwards on a horse, with
a paper on his head (presumably, a paper
proclaiming his adultery) and playing his own
instrument; both were to be banished for one
Case 17: 23 October 1539.
In a letter to the Elector of Saxony, Martin
Luther claims that Stephen Gardiner, the
bishop of Winchester, ‘now leads about with
him two bad women in men’s clothing’.
Martin Luther to Elector John
Frederick, Wittenberg, 23 October
1539, In Luther’s Works, ed.
Gottfried G. Krodel, Philadelphia,
1955, vol. 50, p. 202.
ØGardiner spent most of his time in
ØBecause this report smacks of
more slander than fact, we have
not included its cross-dressed
women in our main group.
Case 18: 1544.
Hugh Eton disrupted services at St Bride’s
by entering the church ‘in fond fashion dis-
guised’ and parading before the priests.
Repertory 11, f. 33v. ØEton’s clothing was transgressive,
but not necessarily trans-gender.
Case 19: 1554.
John Mordreyte enticed an unnamed women
into whoredom; caused her to cut her hair
and put on a man’s cape and cloak; and had
prepared for her men’s hose and a doublet.
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 1
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Summary Sources Comments
Case 20: 1556.
Robert Chetwyn wore women’s apparel,
including a scarf about his neck.
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 2
Case 21: 1569.
Joan Goodman, with her husband’s assis-
tance, wore soldier’s clothes and weapons
and went about the City as a lackey.
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 3
Case 22: 1575.
Magdalene Gawyn (aged 21–22 years)
dressed in men’s clothing to meet her lover
at 4 a.m. at Paul’s Wharf.
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 4
Cases 23, 24: 1575.
Margaret Bolton (accused in another case)
and her daughter are said to have gone
abroad in men’s apparel.
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 5
Case 25: July 1576.
Dorothy Clayton, spinster, wore men’s
clothes and abused her body (that is, was a
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 6
Case 26: November 1576.
Alice Young, aged 17 years, lewdly disguised
herself in men’s apparel.
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 7
Case 27: March 1577.
Jane Trosse was arrested in apparel ‘more
manlike than womanlike’.
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 8
Case 28: March 1579.
Jane Ludlow went in a man’s gown and hat
to meet her lover (the main accused).
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 9
Case 29: February 1599.
Katherine Cuffe put on boy’s apparel in
order to surreptitiously visit her lover. A
servant testified that he knew her identity
even though she wore a doublet, hose, cloak,
and hat.
Bridewell. Minutes of the Court of
Governors, 4, 61r. Available online at
Case 30: January 1600.
Margaret Wakeley gave birth to a bastard
and went about in men’s apparel.
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 10
Case 31: September 1601.
Helen Balsen alias Hudson, known to be a
notorious whore, put on man’s apparel at
the instigation of a client.
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 11
Case 32: October 1601.
Elizabeth Griffin alias Partridge was pun-
ished for lewdness and going about in man’s
Printed in Benbow and Hawkyard,
Case 12
Cases 33, 34: June 1602.
Rose Davies and John Littlewood, two
vagrants, were taken in men’s and women’s
apparel respectively.
Bridewell. Minutes of the Court of
Governors, 4, 307v. Available online
at http://www.bethlemheritage.org.
1 Many of these cases were first located by Ann Lancashire, Stephanie Tarbin and Paul Griffiths, and we
thank them for sharing their findings. We also thank Cordelia Beattie, Mary Erler, Elizabeth Ewan, Ian
Forrest, Laura Gowing, Barbara Hanawalt, Madonna Hettinger, Marjorie McIntosh, Derek Neal, Lena
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Orlin, and Christopher Whittick for their advice on other cases and sources. We have systematically searched
in the Journals, Repertories, and Letter Books of the City of London before 1553; the 1465-83 records of
Portsoken wardmote; the Act Books of the Commissary Court of London, 1470-1529; the State Papers series
for the reign of Henry VIII; and the King’s Bench indictments for London and Middlesex (TNA, KB 9).
Abbreviations: LMA (London Metropolitan Archive); Journal (Journal of the Court of Common Council,
LMA, COL/CC/01/01); Repertory (Repertory of the Court of Aldermen, LMA, COL/CA/01/01); Comm.
Act Book (Act Book of the Commissary Court of the Bishop of London, LMA DL/C/B/043/MS09064);
TNA (The National Archives); Benbow and Hawkyard (R. Mark Benbow and Alasdair D. K. Hawkyard,
‘Legal Records of Cross-dressing’, in Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female
Pages, ed. Michael Shapiro, Ann Arbor, 1994, pp. 225–34).
2 See for instance mentions of alien artisans living in St Martin’s in statutes during Edward IV’s
reign: 3 Edw. IV, c. 4 and 5, and 17 Edw. IV, c. 1; Statutes of the Realm, vol. 2, pp. 396–402, 452–61.
3Great Chronicle of London, p. 222; Fabyan, New Chronicles, p. 663.
4 Liber Dunthorne, LMA, COL/CS/01/010, fol. 127v.
5 Although Chancery bills are undated, they can be assigned a range of years based on the chancellor
addressed; as this bill was addressed to the archbishop of Canterbury, it was submitted in 1486–93 or 1504–
15, with the former more likely given other references to the activities of Herman Ryng and Stephen Reygate.
6 Available online at http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT7/ChP/C1no158/IMG_0084.htm.
7 ‘Consistory Database’, ed. Shannon McSheffrey, http://digitalhistory.concordia.ca/consistory/obj.
php?p¼1712; Comm. Act Book 8, f. 43r; LMA, DL/C/B/001/MS09168/001, f. 19.
8 Comm. Act Book 4, f. 38r, 83r, 227v, 239v, 263v; see also TNA, E 41/422.
9 His father, another Herman Ryng or Rynck, was mayor in 1480–1. Hanserecesse von 1477–1530,ed.
Dietrich Scha
¨fer, 3 vols, Leipzig, 1881, vol 3, pp. 197–8, 204, 310. As agent of Emperor Maximilian in
marriage negotiations between the emperor’s daughter Margaret, duchess of Savoy, and Henry VII, Ryng
commissioned the portrait of Henry VII now in the National Portrait Gallery in London; see Roy C. Strong,
Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2 vols, London, 1969, vol. 1, pp. 149–50, vol. 2, plate 290. Ryng was termed a
knight from the 1510s, perhaps on being knighted by Henry VIII; see TNA, C 1/410/59. See also for his later
diplomatic career, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. J. S. Brewer, 21
vols, London, 1862–1932, vol. 1, pp. 657–8; vol. 3, pp. 195, 315, 327, 387, vol. 4, pt. 2, pp. 1180, 1656, 2011,
2038, 2083, 2087; vol. 4, pt. 3, p. 2405; vol. 6, pp. 457, 480.
10 Journal 5, f. 94r; TNA, C 1/29/478, C 1/32/431, C 1/46/481, C 1/48/70, C 1/61/352; Calendar of Close
Rolls, 1454–61, 207, 352, and Calendar of Close Rolls, 1461–8,153;Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1467–77, 325.
11 Wunderli, London Church Courts, p. 54.
12 State Papers, TNA, SP 1/18, f. 233.
13 Printed in Lisle Letters, ed. Byrne, vol. 2, pp. 87–8. The case will be extensively discussed in a forth-
coming article by Margaret McGlynn and Shannon McSheffrey.
14 See 25 Hen. VIII, c. 34, Statutes of the Realm, 3:490–91, and Edward Hall’s account in Hall’s
Chronicle, p. 815.
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  • ... 62 In later medieval London, alien prostitutes even advertised their foreign ethnicity as a selling point. 63 Many sources suggest that women from the Low Countries were particularly prominent in this line of work. A London proclamation of 1393 concerning prostitution singled out 'Flemish women, who profess and follow such a shameful and dolorous life'. ...
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