The Man-Woman and Womanish Man, Cross-Dressing in Jacobean London


So I was rummaging through my books in storage in an attempt to get some inspiration for this week’s post. Serendipitously I came across two of my favorite Jacobean pamphlets. (Yes, I am that level of a geek when it comes to Renaissance studies.) The Hic Mulier or The Man Woman and Haer Vir or the Womanish Man (both written in 1620)* are two pamphlets that debate the fad of female transvestitism in early 17th-century London. The more I thought about devoting a post to this topic the more I came to realize how appropriate this would be considering that the 12th Annual International Demin Day was celebrated on April 21st. For those unaware, Demin Day is a worldwide protest against a ruling by the Italian Supreme court in 1992. Here are the particulars of the case: a teenage girl was brutally raped by a 45-year old driving instructor, who threatened her life if she would tell anyone. Courageously the girl did report her assailant, and he was rightfully imprisoned. However, his conviction was overturned on appeal: the Italian Supreme Court ruled that despite the assault and death threats the sex must have been consensual since she was wearing skinny jeans and had to have taken them off for her rapist. Hence the girl was complicit in the act. So outraged by the absurdity of the court’s ruling, the women of the Italian Parliament within hours began protesting and showing solidarity with the victim by wearing jeans.  In 1999, the organization Peace Over Violence started the first Demin Day in L.A..

The issue of sexual violence against women and women’s choice in clothing was being discussed in Jacobean London. Before I continue, I should give some context about the significance of clothing in Early Modern England. What a person wore was very rigidly policed by the state: the Sumptuary Laws regulated what type of clothe a person could wear. The penalty for violating the law could range from confiscation of property and/or imprisonment. Mainly, the purpose of these laws was to establish a visible marker of class, particularly at a time when the mercantile class was gaining the financial means to purchase richer clothe. Though the laws were maintained throughout the 16th-century (Henry VIII actually updated them), James I repealed them in 1604. Beyond class, clothing was also a way of stabilizing gender and sexual identity. A good example of this was the custom of breeching. Childhood was considered a period of asexuality; it was not until a young boy was “breeched” or put on his first pair of pants, between the age of 2-8. Until this point, young boys wore dresses/gowns. Clothing gave a person his/her sex.  (See Stephen Orgel’s Impersonations: the Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England [1996].)

Young boy before breechingYoung boy breeched

The emergence of women cross-dressing really troubled the connection between clothing and sexual identity. For those Latin nerds out there, you probably notice something wrong right away with the term hic mulier: hic is the masculine form of “this,” while the noun it modifies is feminine, “mulier” or “woman.” The comment being made is that the female transvestite throws everything into chaos, including language.

 Frontispiece to Hic Mulier

In the 1620 pamphlet, Hic Mulier, the writer constantly describes this figure as defying any categorization: the hic mulier is “not halfe man, halfe woman; halfe fish, halfe flesh; halfe beast, halfe Monster.” The pamphlet goes on to accuse the female transvestite of dressing more lasciviously:

From the other, you have taken the monstrousness of your deformitie in apparell, exchanging the modest attire of the comely Hood, Cawle, Coyfe, handsome Drsse and Kerchiefe, to the cloudy Ruffianly broad-brim’d Hatte, and wanton Feather, the modest upper parts of a concleaing straight gowne, to the loose, lascivious civill embracement of a French doublet. . . and extreme short wasted to give most easie way to every luxurious action.

In other words, yet confusing, the writer actually finds that in dressing like a man the hic mulier is exhibiting her lustful nature. The anonymous writer at one point insinuates that the female transvestite has traded sexual favors for her outfit and for having her hair cut short. Among being compared to a monster, “the untamed Moore, the naked Indian, and the wilde Irish,” the writer also suggests the hic mulier to be comparable to a prostitute. In Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girl (1610), Moll Cutpurse, a character based on the real life female transvestite, Mary Firth, is often perceived by other characters as being sexually promiscuous.

Woodcut of Moll Cutpurse

One such character, Laxton, whose name implies his on impotency, attempts to lure Moll into a sexual rendezvous, only to have Moll come armed and challenging him to a duel. In one of the more satisfying moments in Jacobean drama, Moll soundly beats him but not before giving a speech, the longest one in the play, detailing the wrong men have done to women in presuming them to be their whores. (Here’s a link to the play. The speech happens in III.i)**

To the Hic Mulier pamphlet, a very clever response was written entitled Haec Vir, or the Womanish Man.

This pamphlet is dialogue between the characters of the haec vir (again “haec” being feminine, while vir [man] is masculine) and the hic mulier. Essentially, the hic mulier rebuts the haec vir’s argument that she is defying nature by claiming her liberation from slavish adherence to custom:

Bondage or Slavery, is a restraint from those actions, which the minde(of it owne accord) doth most willingly desire: to performe the intents and purposes of anothers disposition, and that not  but by. . . sweetnesse of entreatie, but by force of authoritie and strength of compulsion.

What the hic mulier argues is that there is nothing natural about women wearing a particular type of clothing. Rather, it is merely custom or conventionality that dictates which sex should wear what. Really, this pamphlet is incredibly empowering, admonishing women to break from custom and be allowed to use their reason: “To conclude Custome is an Idiot; and whosoever  dependeth wholely on him [Custom], without the discourse of Reason, will . . . become a slave indeed to contempt and censure.” Since they are “free-borne as Men, have free election, and as free spirit,” the hic mulier character demands that women exercise their own choice in clothing.

* “Custome Is an Idiot”: Jacodean pamphlet Literature on Women. Ed. Susan Gushee O’Malley (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004)

**The villainous father in the play, Sir Alexander, who is under the impression that his son wishes to marry Moll, thinks that she may be a hermaphrodite: “Hoyda! Breeches! What, will he marry a monster with two trinkets? What age is this? If the wife go in breeches, the man must wear long coats like a fool.” (Ii.ii.71-2)


About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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4 Responses to The Man-Woman and Womanish Man, Cross-Dressing in Jacobean London

  1. Gabs says:

    I have much more to say and thoughts and such (this is a GREAT topic for discussion) but wanted to say about the women cross-dressing messing up the nature and order of things that Shakespeare played with some of that.

    Particularly, I’m thinking Twelfth Night, when Viola reflects on Olivia’s affection for her disguise and how Orsino is thrown into the mix:

    “How will this fadge? my master loves her dearly;
    And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;” (2.2)

    We talked in one of my classes about the reference to a “monster” as her state of cross dressing.

    I always thought Viola was awesome. It was really a shame that she loved a tool.

    • One of the things that I always loved about Twelfth Night is how closely Shakespeare brings together homosexuality and heterosexuality. You always get the feeling that it is by sheer fortune that the heterosexuality predominates at the end of the play.

      Regarding the topic of this post, Viola’s line at the end of the play, when she constantly refers to putting back on her “maiden weeds” (V.i.268), reveals just how much clothing almost dictated one’s sex. Viola does not become a woman again until she has assumed the proper attire.

      Also, it is not surprising that Viola refers to herslef as a “monster.” Just like the hic mulier, she exists in a liminal space, neither woman nor man. Hybridity was a characteristic of the monster. Consider how Trinculo refers to Caliban as being “half a fish and half a monster” (III.ii.29). Stephen Greenblatt writes about ambiguous sexualities and monsters in Shakespearean Negotiations

      • Gabs says:

        Oh man! The “maiden’s weeds”! Totally forgot about that! Excellent point. The sexuality in that play really is fantastic, and I have a secret little theory that Olivia doesn’t identify any way and could have ended up with anybody, really. You know the part where Viola reveals herself and Olivia responds with “Most wonderful!” (5.2) I think it’s because she now has two of them.

        Anyway. Really love the ideas of the second pamphlet here. About clothes being a conventionality, which they still are, and are still holding people back today. Not so much with women, who can wear pants without any sort of problems, but if a guy wants to wear a skirt? Then again, the idea of cross-dressing in today’s world has completely changed into a whole different issue than just clothes.

        When I was working on my English thesis, I read about a couple cases of women who were allowed to make lives with other women and even marry them if one of them dressed and acted as a man. That was maybe my favorite instance of cross-dressing.

  2. Jane says:

    How could children identify with either gender when mothers are painting their son’s toenails Pink!!!!! They should at least choose a masculine color such as”no crying blue” or “suck it up brown”.
    Any thoughts?????

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