‘Immodestly in Mans Apparrell’: Queer Possibility and Tagging Gender in the Cambridgeshire Records

REED’s Cambridgeshire records present various instances of potentially queer gender performance and dress. Each example provides a window into examining early modern gender, as well as a case studies for REED to explore tagging criteria for gender in its online editions.

In a record from the diocesan court in 1602, Anne Petigall is ‘vehemently suspected for an incontinent liuer, who did goe vpon a time immodestly in mans Apparrell.‘  Petigall confesses to wearing men’s clothing, but denies any ‘incontinence,’ or implied sexual misconduct.  Petigall’s trial is characteristic of many such court proceedings, where the conflation of these two charges – dressing in men’s clothing and sexual liberality – is common. Indeed, this conflation is the caustic refrain of Hic Mulier, a seventeenth-century treaty which argues that masculine-expressing AFAB (assigned female at birth) individuals ‘thrust virtue out of doors, and giue a shamelesse libertie to euery loose passion.’[1]

Hic mulier, or, The man-woman : being a medicine to cure the coltish disease of the staggers in the masculine-feminines of our times : exprest in a briefe declamation (London, 1620; STC 13374). LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection.

Similar charges appear in a document from 1609, in which the dean of Ely gives his reasons for firing Headmaster Pamplyn. These include complaints about Pamplyn’s daughter:

She beinge Suspected to be of very loose behaviour, as the Carriage of her Selfe did pertely shewe, for She would not Stick to put one boyes apparell, & lett boyes putt one hers, & Com into the Schoole, in his Absence & daunce amongeste the boyes. And moreover where their Should be a teachinge Schoole in the day tyme for the boyes, by her meanes it was made a dauncinge Schoole at xij a Clock in the Night, & Sometimes all the Night longe. Whither did resorte (& by her meanes sometimes were Called) Mennes Wives, Womens husbands, Mennes, seruaunts & Children to be disordered.

This complaint (though later redacted by the dean) shows gender play in a lived context outside of a courtroom: Anna Pamplyn is seen here wearing ‘boys’’ clothes, dancing, teaching, and causing joyful disorder.

In studying the various iterations of such charges throughout the Cambridgeshire records, I feel particularly intrigued by a set of diocesan court documents from 1599, which present the following charge:

Presentatur Iohanne Biggs singlewoman for that lately she did weare mans apparell, and also in time of harvest laste in vilde manner turned vp her cloathes & shewed those partes that should be hidden, willinge the company to loke what a clocke it was if they had any skill of the Dyall.

The court’s language simultaneously rejects and reaffirms the gender fluidity and sexual freedom at stake in the charge against Bigges, an ambiguity apparent in the record’s clock metaphor.

In some contemporary sources, ‘reading the clock’ meant reading sexual promiscuity into feminine-coded bodies, as the courtroom does here. In Middleton’s A Mad World My Masters, Master Penitent Brothel says that ‘woman’ will ‘strike to ten when they should stop at one’[2]; here, the body’s clock reveals how many lovers it has taken.[3]  In Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, conversely, Moll Cutpurse – famous for wearing masculine apparel – uses the clock/body metaphor to proclaim a lack of sexual interest by saying, ‘I keep my legs together; a watch, what’s o’clock here.’ Because Moll’s legs are together, she says that her body’s dial reads ‘between one and two.’[4] Moll reclaims the clock, and her sexual desires.[5] To complicate the metaphor further, the hand of a clock, and reading it through a pair of trousers, was a common masculine-coded sexual metaphor for an erection.[6] Thus, though the clock metaphor seeks to denounce Biggs’s masculine attire, it partially reaffirms the masculine identity that such attire assumes. Even as the trial seeks to deny Joan’s masculinity and sexual freedom, the very language of the trial inadvertently relents to Biggs’s ability to express gender and sexual interest in queer ways.

Moll Cutpurse (Mary Frith) standing full-lenght facing front, carrying a sword and smoking a pipe; frontispiece to “The Roaring Girl” by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. Woodcut © The Trustees of the British Museum. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

As REED continues publishing records online, these three documents ask an important question of historians and editors: how should we tag the gender of Petigall, Pamplyn, and Biggs?  Gender is one of the primary tags for ‘person’ entities within humanities coding standards (TEI).  In REED records, each ‘person’ is given an online ‘entity’ that allows users to see the class, gender, and dates associated with them. Tagging gender has historically been important to various gendered projects; in REED, for example, gendered tagging can help scholars identify understudied theatrical contributors from historically marginalized genders. But these three instances call attention to the implicit problem with gendered tagging: it is impossible to ascertain the gender of any of these three figures. All three could be, in equal measure, trans men, cis women who enjoy wearing trousers, or individuals who are genderfluid or nonbinary.

TEI has been critiqued for its need to concretely categorize gender, which leaves out the inherent fluidity of lived gender.[7] This issue can be even more difficult for historical gendered experiences, which are already difficult to categorize. Moreover, the act of tagging gender imposes a reading of bodies and identities without their input, and therefore can be violent and reductive, especially in cases like these, where individuals seek a ‘queer turn’ from cisgendered gender performance.[8]

Ultimately, we have tagged all three with multiple genders for now: ‘Gender Male,’ ‘Gender Female,’ and ‘Gender Unknown.’ We have started to open up queer possibilities of gender in each case, so that users can explore multiple interpretations of the records, and it is my hope that future iterations of our tagging label system will also include further, less binary gender categories we can add to these tagging clusters.  

Jenna McKellips (she/her) is a digital indexer for REED and a PhD Candidate at the Department of English, University of Toronto.  Her research focuses on queer virginities, asexualities, and genders in the context of late medieval English drama.

Header: Detail, Mal Cut Purse. 1662 Etching and engraving © The Trustees of the British Museum. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

[1] Hic mulier: or, the man-woman and Haec-vir: or, the womanish-man (Exeter, 1973), https://archive.org/details/hicmulierormanwo00exetuoft/page/14/mode/2up, 14.

[2] Thomas Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters; Michaelmas Term; A Trick to Catch the Old One; No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s, ed. Michael Cordner, Peter Holland, and Martin Wiggins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 4.1.18-24.

[3] Deann Valrae Armstrong, ‘”Strange Times”‘: English Renaissance Literature and the Erotics of the Clock,” PhD dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 2018, 51.

[4] Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girle OR Moll Cut-Purse (Washington, DC, nd), accessed September 15, 2022. https://emed.folger.edu/sites/default/files/folger_encodings/pdf/EMED-Roaring-orig-3.pdf, wln 1966-7, 1969.

[5] I cautiously chose to use ‘her’ pronouns here because the play does, although I simultaneously acknowledge that it is problematic and difficult to excavate historical pronouns without input from the person in question.

[6] Gordon Williams, Shakespeare’s Sexual Language: A Glossary (London, 2006), 150.

[7] Pamela L. Caughie, Emily Datskou, and Rebecca Parker. ‘Storm Clouds on the Horizon: Feminist Ontologies and the Problem of Gender,’ Feminist Modernist Studies 1.3 (2018): 6-7, 10.

[8] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, and Others (Durham, NC, 2006), 13.