June 9, 2016

The Medieval Transgender Woman

Jewish women in Haggadah for Passover (the ‘Golden Haggadah”)
The story about a medieval  poem on  becoming your true gender.

Many of you will have met the following argument in the transgender debate:

Since crossdreaming and transgender identities are social constructs, they are most likely to be the end product of modern Capitalist society, the Patriarchy or something equally sinister -- an line of argument which will most likely lead to a discussion about sexualization and fetishes.

This impression is reinforced by the fact that historians and art scholars have had a tendency to ignore -- or outright censor -- the voices of gender variant people from other cultures and epochs.

As I pointed out in my blog post on  crossdreamers in the Kama Sutra, until recently all English translations of that work skipped the part about straight women dominating straight men, most likely because it was considered threatening to the world order or impossible to understand.

So a lot of work is needed in this field. I am confident that if we look, we will find crossdreamers and transgender people in all cultures and all periods of time. They lives will be expressed in different manners according to  local language and cultural framework (as they are today), but they will have this in common: A desire or a need to express or be recognised as their true gender or as a blend of the two.

A Medieval Poem About the Longing to Become a Woman

A year ago Tuitey made me aware of a beautiful transgender poem over at tumblr.

The poem was written in the 14th century by a Jewish male to female transgender philosopher  and translator from Provence:  Kalonymos ben Kalonymus (also known as Qalonymos ben Qalonymos ben Meir). The poem was originally published in the book Even Bohan (or Eben Bohan) in 1322.

The transgender content of the poem has been dismissed as some kind of mischievous humor (and there is definitely humor in the text).

Others have pointed to parts that describe the burden of being a man under Jewish law ("Strong statutes and awesome commandments, six hundred and thirteen"), arguing -- I presume -- that this is more about showing how hard life can be for a man.

But to me it clearly expresses s a deep longing for the life of a woman.

The Beauty of Women

Take, for instance, this description of women:
. . . Oh, but had the artisan who made me
created me instead—a fair woman.
Today I would be wise and insightful.
We would weave, my friends and I,
and in the moonlight spin our yarn,
and tell our stories to one another,
from dusk till midnight.
We’d tell of the events of our day, silly things,
matters of no consequence.
But also I would grow very wise from the spinning,
and I would say, “Happy is she who knows how to work with combed flax and weave it into fine white linen.”
This is not irony. This is true appreciation of the culture and abilities of women. The author truly longs to be one of them.

Jewish women from Aragon dancing, ca. 1350–1360. 
Dressing as a woman

There is also a clear crossdressing aspect to the author's fantasy:
On holidays I would put on my best jewelry.
I would beat on the drum
and my clapping hands would ring.
And when I was ready and the time was right,
an excellent youth would be my fortune.
He would love me, place me on a pedestal,
dress me in jewels of gold,
earrings, bracelets, necklaces.
According to G.G. Bolich this is not the only place where Kalonymos writes about dressing up like a woman. ("Oh my heart, you seduced me [to desire...] precious attire... and fine... linen of the kind virgin princesses wear.")

Being a sexual woman

Is there any erotic crossdreaming? Does Kalonymos dream of being a sensual woman? Most certainly!
He [her husband] would not chastise nor harshly treat me,
and my [sexual] pleasure he would not diminish
Every Sabbath, and each new moon,
his head he would rest upon my breast.
The three husbandly duties he would fulfill,
rations, raiment, and regular intimacy.
And three wifely duties would I also fulfill,
[watching for menstrual] blood, [Sabbath candle] lights, and bread. . .
Magical transformation

In contemporary crossdreamer fantasies there is often a miracle of sorts, magical or scientific, that makes the new life possible. This is also found in this poem:
Father in heaven, who did miracles for our ancestors with fire and water,
You changed the fire of Chaldees so it would not burn hot,
You changed Dina in the womb of her mother to a girl,
You changed the staff to a snake before a million eyes,
You changed [Moses’] hand to [leprous] white
and the sea to dry land.
In the desert you turned rock to water,
hard flint to a fountain.
Who would then turn me from a man to woman?
Were I only to have merited this, being so graced by your goodness. . .
The tragedy

And underneath it all is the tragedy of the gender dysphoric person who realizes that her dream will never become reality:
What shall I say? Why cry or be bitter?
If my Father in heaven has decreed upon me
and has maimed me with an immutable deformity,
then I do not wish to remove it.
And the sorrow of the impossible
is a human pain that nothing will cure
and for which no comfort can be found.
So, I will bear and suffer
until I die and wither in the ground.
The poem does end in irony, as the author quotes the traditional Jewish blessing:
Blessed are you, O Lord,
who has not made me a woman.
The original text i Hebrew (with English language translation)
Alternative translation by Peter Cole (PDF)
G. G. Bolich: Gender Studies


  1. That wishing of crossing over existed in medieval times is hardly a revelation Jack but the form that it took certainly is. It must have been very difficult in those times to fulfill these deep seated desires and it needed to find an outlet somehow. Very intetesting.

  2. Provence in the 14th century had been through the big shift towards a more positive view of women. The new troubadour tradition had gone as far as presenting Woman (with capital W) as a representation of the divine. It is sometimes hard to see if their love poetry was to be interpreted literally or as some kind of mystical allegory of man's love for God.I guess both.

    That being so, this was still a culture where being considered "womanish" in any sense was considered a deep insult for a man. The gender roles were very strictly defined, and since this poet was raised withing a Judaistic framework, I suspect her leeway for transgressions was even more limited.

    There have been, and are, cultures that do leave room for crossing gender boundaries. Many shamanistic cultures accept and even expect gender crossing from their shamans; as they have access to a space beyond the binary. There is nothing natural about being transphobic.

    What I find particularly interesting about this poem is how similar her longings is to the ones of contemporary crossdreamers and transgender people. I guess that proves there is a common humanity that is the same regardless of laws and ideas.

  3. This line "Since crossdreaming and transgender identities are social constructs..." always tees me off as it slyly makes it implies a common and accepted knowledge that is simply untrue, but politeness dictates that we listen to the whole statement before attempting to return to the original assumption.

    It's like saying that being gay is a choice or social construct. Our sexuality is what it is. I think that is becoming commonly accepted in society.

    I sometimes ask myself if I had a choice would I be transgender or cisgender? I'm pretty sure I'd stay with what I am which is definitely trans. Although I have no plans or dreams of transitioning I would worry that I'd turn into some Donald Trump character, toting Marlboros rolled up in my T-shirt sleeve, a misogynist perhaps. But that's a stereotype in itself that isn't fair to some very wonderful cisgender men I've known.

    I also agree with Joanna and Jack that trans people have been around forever and always will be. We need look no further than some American Indian tribes who embrace "Two Spirited" people, Samoans who have "fa'afafine", and others who are enlightened within what are at least somewhat macho communities.

    I do think it's delightful that we have what we have today. What a far cry it was from even several decades ago. Sure, we have a long way to go but I sense that the momentum and energy is favoring us.


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