A fifteenth-century prayer book shows bearded father of the church St Jerome wearing the clothing you’d associate with a noblewoman. What’s going on?
Around 1400 Jean de Berry, a French nobleman, commissioned a sumptuously illustrated prayer book, the Belles Heures, today recognised as a masterpiece of its period. One of its illustrations concerns Saint Jerome, one of the most respected of saints. The illustration is in two parts. On the right, Jerome sleeps in a small room while another monk carries a garment of bright blue, a striking contrast with the dull colours of the monk’s habit and the blankets on Jerome’s bed. Then, in the image on the left, Jerome – identified by his beard and saintly halo – is wearing the blue garment in the chapel. It turns out to be the kind of dress women in this period wore, with a tight waist and sleeves and a full, trailing skirt. Two monks seem to be having a conversation about what Jerome is doing, and are possibly laughing at him.
What are we to make of this? Is this evidence of medieval cross-dressing? Are the monks being transphobic? Certainly, cross-dressing happened in this period. Among the offences which led to Joan of Arc being burned at the stake in France in 1431 was her wearing the clothes associated with men and cutting her hair short. In London, in December 1394, Eleanor Rykener was arrested for having sex in the street with John Britby. Britby said that he had assumed Eleanor was a woman, but the authorities identified her as a cross-dressed man called John and accused her of selling sex. She had worked as an embroideress in Oxford, where she had sold sex to students, and elsewhere – she said she preferred sex with priests, because they paid better. At times, in her male persona, John had sex with women – including married women and nuns.
The images of Saint Jerome, however, aren’t about this kind of defiance of gender norms, as Robert Mills explains in his book Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The story – told in various medieval texts – goes as follows. Jerome was an enthusiast for clerical celibacy, which made him unpopular with the other monks. So what we see in the left panel is a practical joke being played: the dress is left by his bed, in the hope that in the dark, high-minded Jerome won’t notice what clothes he’s putting on. When he gets to the chapel, his fellow monks are indeed laughing at him. But they are laughing because the dress implies that Jerome has had a woman in his room – the saintly celibate is exposed as a hypocrite, his room full of the discarded clothes of his female lovers. Jerome’s dress doesn’t suggest that he is what we’d now call queer – rather, in the minds of his accusers it suggests how frequently he has sex with women.
There’s a more general point here. If we look at historical evidence from a modern perspective, it may lead us astray. If we’re LGBT, we may long to find evidence of our forebears in the past. Certainly it’s true that history isn’t an all-straight, all-cis affair – there’s plenty of same-sex desire and defiance of gender norms in the historical record. But we always need to interpret the evidence in the context of the society that produced it – there’s a danger that we see what we want to see, and so that we underestimate how truly strange to us other societies really are.