Feminism, Fashion, and Cross-Dressing in the Middle Ages

The Short-lived Tournament Maiden Movement

The joust
A Joust held in Florence, Italy
A huge spectacle.

by Gael Stirler
(August, 2010)

A century before Joan of Arc put on armor, cross-dressing women were not as rare as you may think. The clothing styles for men and women were similar except for length and headgear. Women occasionally wore short tunics when riding or traveling abroad on foot, as much for comfort as safety. Popular romances and saint's biographies contained stories of young women who wore masculine disguises to move about society with the freedom of men. They wore men's clothing as a sign of their celibacy, and willingness to defend it. Some even fell in love with women in these stories.

In Chronicon the cleric journalist, Henry Knighton, speaks of a tournament held in 1347, and complains that wherever tournaments were held anywhere in England at this time, troops of ladies attended, sometimes as many as 40 or 50, dressed up in all sorts of extraordinary masculine attire. They were young, beautiful, and wealthy. They acted so bold that they were often called rude. They dressed in "diverse and wonderful male apparel, in parti-colored tunics, with short caps and bands wound round the head, and girdles bound with gold and silver, and daggers in pouches (scabbards?) across their body..." "They paraded about the lists on carefully chosen chargers or equine beasts of some other well-groomed kind, ruining both their bodies and their fortunes by their wanton and scurrilous behaviour...But they neither fear the anger of God nor blush at the comments of God-fearing citizens".

Detail from Procession of the Youngest King
by Benozzo Gozzoli,
Perhaps these ladies looked like this.

Even earlier, Galvano della Flamma described "Amazons of Milan with golden girdles and hard masculine hearts" who wore masculine clothing in public. So it seems that there was a loosely organized, secular, feminist movement, perhaps fashion based, in the 14th century. Since little was written about it in its time, this movement probably had no strong leaders or role models, no philosophy like the Beguine movement, and seemed to only attract women when they were young.

What we can surmise from these descriptions is that this wasn't a few naughty girls who showed up at one or two tournaments but that it had to have been a movement made up of many well-born ladies who travelled all over to attend tournaments. They were not combatants, but were, somehow, allowed to parade with the knights on the list field. Imagine 40 or 50 beautiful ladies wearing elegant short tunics covered with embroidery, edged in fur, with glittering belts of gold and silver, their heads topped with marvelous liripipe chapeaus, all of them riding large, beautifully groomed horses. It would be a sight worth traveling to see.

women in men's attire mocked by an old man
Ladies in men's attire
attended jousts all over
England in the 1300s.

I imagine that these ladies were just rebellious young women who liked to hang out together, show off their new clothes, horses, jewelry and weapons, the way that wealthy teens gather at sporting events and show off their expensive cars and tattoos. I think that the Tournament Maidens were women who found freedom in male attire but were still not comfortable going out alone. They may have had bodyguards in attendance like heiresses do today and they must have had grooms for their horses in their entourage so the costs of participation were high.

No further mention of them is found after the 14th century. The movement probably lost steam due to the expense and its lack of a strong philosophical base. They were kind of like those enthusiatic participants at Renaissance Faires that go every weekend when they are young, but drop out after several years when life is more complicated.

Ideas for Re-enactors developing their personas.

I'm often asked if women in the SCA or Renaissance fairs have to wear dresses or if women are allowed to be knights. The answer is, it depends on your persona. There are enough examples from the 1st century to the 17th of cross-dressing women to build any kind of persona you want. In the 16th century, Shakespeare often used cross-dressing in his plots and in the 17th century there are many famous female pirates who wore men's clothing. I think it would be brilliant to see groups of cross-dressed equestrians working the crowds at Renaissance fairs like the ladies that Knighton describes. There are also stories about ladies who followed St. Joan into battle. When they caused disruption, she kicked them out, but that implies that you could model your persona around a follower who was alowed to stay. Since St. Joan's female descendants were allowed to become knights, you could model yourself on a fictitious descendant. You could even chose to be a male persona if you wanted. Why not? You are already choosing to be someone from a different time and country, with different ancestry, rank, and station than you have now, so why not chose a persona with a different sex or even race. Your only limit is your imagination.

University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2002.
Lewis, Katherine J. et al, editor, Young Medieval Women, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1999.

References about Tournament Maidens
Brook, Iris, English Costume from the Early Middle Ages Through the Sixteenth Century Dover Publications, Mineola, 2000 reprint of 1936 original.
Newton, Stella Mary, Fashion in te Age of the Black Prince:A study of the years 1340 to 1365, Boydell Press/Rowman & Littlefield, Suffolk, 1980.

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