I should be reading the next of the ten gazillion (seemingly) library books I have out for this semester’s research project, but I’m going to write this report on the first one instead, in the hopes that discussing it will help me to process the information and figure out exactly what my topic question is.
So, as you can see, the title of this book is “TransAntiquity: Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World,” a title which is actually a bit misleading, as the modern concept of transgender is, well, modern, only a few decades old. So this is more an approach from the modern perspective, with full understanding (and acceptance) of transgender. (And this is, of course, the kind of book you don’t want to buy: it’s priced for library purchases, not individual purchases, over $100 a copy.)
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I didn’t actually read this book cover-to-cover. I’m researching a paper that’s going to be on the definitions of gender (and behavior towards transgressors of those definitions) in ancient Greece and Rome, and so I skipped over two of the essays in this book, because they really did not apply: one was about Pharaonic Egypt, and the other was about a period I’d more consider to be the early Middle Ages than late Antiquity (y’know, post-600 AD) so it was actually concerned with Christianity’s reaction to gender transgressions, which is a completely different topic. (Technically, one of the ones I did read also included a lot of discussion of early Christianity, but it also talked about pre-Christian Rome. Plus…well, I’ll get to it in turn, and you’ll see why I had to read it.)
I’m going to talk about each essay in turn, but I’ll address the book as a whole first, briefly. This grew out of an academic workshop held at the University of Pisa, and most of the contributors work at universities in Italy and Germany, with a few UK universities thrown into the mix as well. Consequently, the authors and editors pretty much assume that if you’re reading the book, you must speak all the major European languages, and they don’t translate their French, Italian and German quotes. (And I always seemed to be reading it in a time and place where I couldn’t just use Google Translate to get a rough idea of what was being said; all I could do was guess based on cognates and my rusty-to-the-point-of-not-really-existing Latin and German skills.) The constant reminders that I’m just an ignorant American were kind of painful. (I do want to learn other languages! I just suck at them. And have too much else going on in my life to take proper lessons.)
Anyway, as scholars of the ancient world, the authors are hampered by the existing evidence, and can only address what information survives, so behavior that would actually be identified as trans by modern standards is conspicuously absent for the vast majority of the book, because there just isn’t much surviving data to support a discussion. There’s a lot of talk about cross-dressing, and about men who were labelled as effeminate, and some discussion of women who were labelled as masculine, and what function those labels served in their society. So it was really useful to my project, but might not be so useful to other research endeavors.
Okay, so now I want to talk a little about each essay, to give an idea what’s in the book. (Also to help me process the information properly. What can I say? I think better via fingers on a keyboard. That’s just the messed up way my brain is wired.)