What do most women think of crossdressing?

Impersonation through crossdressing

A historical phenomenon

Thomas Jander | February 2, 2021

"We need really a true gender? Western societies have affirmed this with a persistence that borders on stubbornness. "[1]During the transition from the late Middle Ages to the modern age, this “stubbornness” killed women who made the decision to spend their lives as men by putting on male clothes. In this text, the head of the collection, Thomas Jander, highlights historically tangible cases.

The sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld has been collecting and publishing newspaper reports since around 1900 about people who appeared and stood out in public in the clothes of the opposite sex. From these snippets he compiled a monograph, which was published in 1910 under the title The transvestites appeared. In it he not only systematically “worked on” this socio-sexological phenomenon for the first time, but also coined the term “transvestism”, which was used for a long time. Despite numerous case studies, however, he described only one woman who was the first to receive a medical report from his hand, which later enabled her to wear men's clothes in public, often a reason for arrests and charges. Hirschfeld and his colleagues at the Institute for Sexual Sciences wrote many similar reports during the time of the first German republic, whereupon local police stations issued so-called transvestite certificates. They allowed the unmolested wearing of the individually correct items of clothing and in the early 20th century created an at least temporary way out of the criminalization of crossdressing, which was already to be found in the late Middle Ages.

Inequality. Order and Society in the Late Middle Ages

The society of the European Middle Ages was hierarchical: clergy, nobility as well as bourgeoisie and peasantry each formed a class that represented their rank and importance in the Christian world. These were understood to be set by God in an everlasting order. Women as well as men were born into them and thus their status was also the main feature of their identity. But even when class barriers became more permeable from the late Middle Ages and groups such as professions or functions formed “classes”, women were basically subordinate to men: While men had many options for shaping their lives, women were usually denied active participation in public life and alternative living environments found them, to put it bluntly, only in the narrow alley between the married house and the monastery.

To maintain the order of a generally accepted inequality, there were hardly any codified legal texts in the premodern - with the exception of the Holy Scriptures: The Decalogue, the ten commandments, was (s) in a sense an eternal basic law and that Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Moses, contained specific individual laws and in verse 22 deals with the relationship between clothing and gender. This is translated as follows in the first German-language Bible, the Mentelin Bible printed in Strasbourg in 1466: "The white is not gevasted with human garments: nor the one nuetz white garment. When he does this it is burned by the gentleman.“[2]

Following this spiritual or, better, ecclesiastical rule, the secular social order that had been handed down by God had to be externally visible. With regard to clothing, German cities have therefore issued regulations since the 13th century to differentiate people according to class, office, function, age - and gender. In them, the social and gender hierarchy was expressed through the assignment of certain items of clothing, shapes, colors and accessories down to the smallest detail: Class and gender-specific clothing was a main feature of social identity and thus a kind of premodern ID. The prohibition on wearing clothes of the opposite sex was also formulated in these regulations, albeit rarely explicitly. According to the Speyr dress code of 1356, "deheine [none] vrouwe or jungrouwe deheine man's coat dragen". [3] Some of the “Policey regulations” of the early modern period, which were also written by the city, were even banned during Shrove Tuesday "the masking / [...] do women in man's and man in women's clothes [because it gives rise to] punishable vices of [...] fornication / and other crimes [...]“.[4]

Especially with regard to “fornication”, the criminal law conceptions of church and secular authorities complemented each other and the church condemnation of homosexual acts was also found in the first (proto) state legal texts. That's how she writes Constitutio Carolina, the criminal law that has been in force for the entire Holy Roman Empire since 1532: "Item […] Woman with woman, indulging in unchastity / they have ruined life too / and one should judge them according to the common habit with the apartment from life to death.“[5]

This view corresponded to the interest of both rulers to preserve Christian marriage as the core of the social order and to prevent deviating, sterile sexualities.

Clothing as a professional ID: Sheet "A Jungfraw von Sex zu Nuernberg" from Joost Amman's costume book "In the Frauwenzimmer Wirt reported all sorts of beautiful clothes and traditional costumes of women [etc.]" (Frankfurt am Main, 1586). © DHM

Death penalty. Female homosexuality and criminal law in the 15th and 16th centuries century

Some of the traditional historical examples of women crossing gender boundaries by wearing male clothing show us patterns of this forbidden practice as well as official reactions to it. The actors are, in Foucault’s sense, "infamous" people, because we only know about their fates because their way of life was punished by a regulatory authority. Their perception of the phenomenon arose from a medieval world of ideas in which a mixture of the incompatible gives birth to something monstrous, which violates the divine, natural and social laws. This includes not only the well-known marvelous peoples, but also the mixing of the sexes: Anyone who is man and woman at the same time represents a social monstrosity and endangers order.

Early historical evidence of such a mix of genders is the case of Katherina Hetzeldorfer from Nuremberg. In 1475 she came to Speyer and lived there for two years dressed as a man with her companion, sometimes as siblings, sometimes as a married couple. Hetzeldorfer was suspected, reported and finally brought before the Speyer city court in 1477. Charges were brought there and after questioning various witnesses, she was sentenced to death. The trial revealed that she had sexual intercourse not only with her mate but also with women other than men. The main evidence of the trial was a type of homemade dildo detailed by the clerk as "Eyn instrument […] remove the ledder and the fore filled with cotton with eym clearing and poke a holt on it ”. S.he was finally considered guilty of sodomy and:has been crushed […] uf frytag before deposicionis Sancti Widonis [2. May 1477]. "[6]

For the year 1537 the Basel chronicler Frydolin Ryff reported “einner frouwen, so dressed in mansz clothes” after she lived for several years as a man in the Freiburg area and in the country as a servant “served and worked with threshers and other boer work" would have. She also lived with a woman until "sy sy evil struck [and] began to puff, rush and lie in everything like another pitiful gsel."After she was arrested for theft and locked in a prison,"sy tortures or straightens"And the bailiffs remarked,"dasz esz en wib wasz". She was also punished with death and "on the melded day [September 24, 1537] court and drowned.“[7]

Another example has come down to us from the Wroclaw town clerk Nikolaus Pol, who noted in his chronicle published in 1612 for 23 August 1544 that “a woman to theApartmentcondemned and burned in man's garments. For she went about in man's clothes, passed herself off in front of a man and called Hans Lose, married two women, one of whom brought her health and life through unnatural housing, the other one who had her bureaucracy wired up.“[8]

A fourth case has become legal in France. In 1599, two women were charged with “sodomy” in Rouen, and the man who lived as a man was sentenced to death. After appeals against the verdict, however, the death row inmate was repeatedly examined by doctors. An expert finally came to the conclusion that the internal sexual organs were male and that the convict should therefore be classified as a hermaphrodite. The court did not come to a unified verdict and finally acquitted the woman.

Exchange of clothes despite the ban: couple with cat, the man wears a woman’s bonnet with a veil and a woman’s jacket, the woman wears a man’s hat and jacket, the cat vomits, drawing, Adriaen Pietersz von de Venne, London, around 1620 © bpk / The Trustees of the British Museum

Because of the examination method and its consequences, this acquittal is a turning point: not the external appearance of the body, as usual, but the examination of the internal organs revealed the “truth” about gender and identity. The case thus stands for an emerging change in the perception of realities. Using scientific methodology, a new knowledge of the body and sexuality slowly emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, which - even more slowly - led to a gradual medical-biological pathologization of the sex criminal law.

Refuges. Women as (male) soldiers in the 18th and 19th centuries

In the 18th century, a case of female crossdressing in Prussia attracted public attention: On November 8, 1721, Catharina Margaretha Linck, who lived as a man, was beheaded in Halberstadt and her body was then burned. Linck was born near Glauchau in 1687 and raised in the Francke orphanage there. Since she was 15, she often lived as a man and was a soldier under the name Anastasius Beurlein in the War of the Spanish Succession. In July 1708, before the Battle of Oudenarde, she deserted from the 6th Infantry Regiment in the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg, was caught and sentenced to death under martial law. But shortly before going onto the scaffold, Linck revealed her female identity. The execution was suspended and, after the personal intercession of her tutor August Hermann Francke, canceled. Freely again, she married a woman as Anasatasius Lagrantinus Rosenstengel in Halberstadt, but poverty forced the couple to change locations and even religious denominations several times. In the end, this was also exposed and charged. In a turbulent court case, Linck / Rosenstengel received a life sentence, but King Friedrich Wilhelm I converted this into a death sentence.

Illustration for crossdressing by Catharina Margaretha Linck from the anonymous pamphlet “Cumbersome and true description of a country and people cheater”, which appeared in 1720 during the trial in Halberstadt. © Württemberg State Library

This showed that the legal opinion prevailing in the 18th century no longer regarded female “sodomy” unquestionably as worthy of death. It also became apparent that the military had become a seemingly safe, temporary escape and living space for "disguised" women. Because this phenomenon was still exceptional in Europe, but not an anomaly either. For the Netherlands alone, 120 women who lived wholly or temporarily as men between 1550 and 1839 were identified. Their biographies, mostly obtained from court files, show that many women from poverty were highly mobile. Their path led them disproportionately often in men's clothing to the armies and fleets, which, with its open recruiting culture, became a loophole for those who wanted to escape their primary identity. A representative example is the Englishwoman Hannah Snell, who became a soldier in 1745, revealed her “true” gender five adventurous years later and then successfully demanded a pension for her services. She published her story and for a short time became a kind of "media star".

But Prussia, too, later had its female soldier legend: Eleonore Prochaska from Potsdam served under the name August Renz for six months in the Lützow Freikorps in the so-called Wars of Liberation, until she was wounded and exposed in the Battle of the Göhrde. She died on October 5, 1813. Transfigured as a “heroic virgin”, her story was exploited in newspapers, poems and songs: Prochaska became a German “Jeanne d'Arc” and was only the most famous, but not the only woman who fought against the French as a man in uniform between 1813 and 1815. Role changes by individual women were accepted as patriotic heroic deeds, and even honored depending on the situation. A public defamation of women would have contradicted the struggle disguised as people's war too much, since almost all of them came from simple backgrounds. At the same time, however, crossing the border remained an absolute state of emergency in contemporary discourse. Initially silent after the end of the war, the stories did not spread until the second half of the century in an exotic-anecdotal manner through contemporary history and drama literature.

The wounding of Eleonore Prohaska alias August Renz during the Battle of the Göhrde in the painting “Eleonore Prohaska” (Paul Sauer, 1956), commissioned by the Museum for German History of the GDR. © DHM

Life alternatives. On the historical understanding of female crossdressing

Female crossdressing was a European phenomenon that began in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 19th century, it appeared more and more in the sources, especially in judicial traditions from the last 500 years, and disappeared again in the 19th century. There are always similar and almost consistently dark stories of women who, temporarily or permanently, often lived as men in a marriage-like relationship or real marriage with other women until they were discovered, charged, convicted and executed. But a change became visible: in the 15th and 16th centuries, the courts very often imposed and carried out the death penalty because they viewed this way of life as a danger to the divine order, social hierarchy and, above all, to marriage and its reproductive function. Since the 17th century, a new, scientifically shaped understanding of body and gender emerged through secularization and enlightenment, which gradually meant a certain defuse of the criminal practice. In addition, the historical examples show that the standing armies of the early modern period were clearly used as temporary living spaces up to the beginning of the 19th century. Researchers repeatedly point to the fact that we only know about the failed attempts and suspect a much higher number of real change biographies.

Whether these women were heterosexual, homosexual, inter- or transsexual or gender / -ident in today's sense does not really promote knowledge in the end: These currently used terms or self-concepts cannot simply be transferred to historical groups and lifeworlds ; the often one-sided and overall thin source cover does not allow this. It should be noted, however, that through the practice of swapping clothes and identities, which has been practiced throughout Europe and over centuries, women have created variable living spaces and play areas for themselves since the late Middle Ages. This reveals remarkably creative and daring reactions to fixed gender boundaries and roles, which in turn are easier to circumvent from this perspective and seem less lacking in alternatives.


[1] Michel Foucault, The True Sex, in: Ders., About Hermaphrodism. The Barbin case, Frankfurt / Main, pp. 7-18, here p. 7.

[2] Deuteronomy, 22, 5: https://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/0003/bsb00036981/images/index.html?id=00036981&groesser=&fip=eayayztssdasyztssdassdaseayayztsen&no=83&seite=122; Called on July 4, 2020.

[3] Quoted from: Franz J. Mohne, Sittenpolizei zu Speier, Strasbourg and Konstanz in the 14th and 15th centuries, in: Zeitschrift für die Geschichte des Oberrheins (7/1865), pp. 55-66, here p. 59.

[4] Renewed and increased Policey order / of the most transparent prince and lord / Hern Christian Ernsten / Marggrafens zu Brandenburg [etc.], Bayreuth 1672, XXIV, p. 62. (https://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/ de / fs1 / object / display / bsb10490409_00001.html; accessed on July 4, 2020)

[5] Of all the most brilliant, most powerful, most insurmountable Keyser Karl of the fifth and the Heyligen Roman Empire embarrassing court order [etc.], Mainz 1543, Article 116.(https://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/de/fs1/object/display/bsb10145168_00001.html; accessed on July 4, 2020)

[6] Quoted from: Helmut Puff: Female sodomy. The trial against Katherina Hetzeldorfer and the rhetoric of the unspeakable at the turn of the Middle Ages to the early modern period, in: Historische Anthropologie (Vol. 7 / Heft 3, 1993), pp. 364-380.

[7] Quoted from Basler Chroniken, Vol. 1, Leipzig 1872, p. 150 (https://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/de/fs1/object/display/bsb11247533_00180.html; accessed on January 20, 2021 ), See also: Heath miracles, gender identities. Women and men in the late Middle Ages and at the beginning of the modern era, in: K. Hausen, H. Wunder (ed.), Frauengeschichte, Geschlechtgeschichte, Frankfurt 1992, pp. 131-136, here 133 f.

[8] Nicolaus Pol, Hemerlogion Silesiacum Vratislaviense, Breslau 1612, p. 318. (https://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/de/fs1/object/display/bsb10012477_00354.html; accessed January 20, 2021)

Selected and further literature on the topic

Rudolf Dekker, Lotte van de Pol, women in men's clothes. Female transvestites and their stories, Berlin 1990.

Moritz Florin, Victoria Gutsche, Natalie Krentz (eds.), Diversity historically. Representations and Practices of Social Differentiation in Transition, Bielefeld 2018.

Michel Foucault, The Abnormal. Lectures at the College de France (1974 - 1975), Frankfurt / Main 2003.

Ute Gerhard (Ed.), Women in the History of Law: From the Early Modern Times to the Present, Munich 1997.

Magnus Hirschfeld, The Transvestites. An investigation into the erotic disguise instinct, Berlin 1910.

Klaus Latzel, Franka Maubach, Silke Satjukow (eds.), Female soldiers. Violence and Gender in War from the Middle Ages to Today, Paderborn 2011.

Maximilian Schwochow, The order of the hermaphrodite sexes. A genealogy of the concept of gender, Berlin 2009.

Angela Steidele, in men's clothes. The daring life of Catherina Linck alias Anastasius Langrantinus Rosenstengel, executed in 1721, Cologne and others in 2004.