Sexual dysphoria in late antiquity, which I discussed in my posting on Ausonius, can be found in other instances.
There is a Vita, a saint’s life, for St Matrona, a woman who gave up a typical life in the eastern empire in the fifth century to become a monk, rather than a nun, disguised her sex and took a male name, Babylas. She seems to have been born c.AD410. Her name is suspect (Matrona just means ‘married woman’ in Latin). However she is historical, was visited by the wife of the Emperor Leo and the wife of Anthemius, dating her to the 460s, and her reasons for adopting male identity are rational. She came from Perga in Pamphylia, on the south coast of Asia Minor. ‘Babylas’ is the name of a famous third century bishop, martyred in Syria, and whose church was built to block the temple of Apollo at Daphne, near Antioch.
Here’s a selection from the Vita.
Again, as Matrona was seeking to learn how she must live in quietude (and) to please God, she was taught by the Lord through a vision in her sleep. Hers was a marvellous one. It seemed that her husband was chasing her and, as she fled, she was saved by some monks, which signified that she must go in a monastery of men and enter into the life of monks. For in this way, she would not be recognized either by her husband or by others.
She shaved her hair close to the skin and dressed herself like a eunuch. [That is to say that she put on men's clothes]. Once more she went with Eugenia to the said Church of the Holy Apostles, and desiring to learn the meaning of secret things from the divine, she opened the Holy Bible, and there she found it stated: "He who wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take his cross, and follow me." [Lk. IX. 23). Thereupon, they had a firm knowledge of the things that please God, and having abandoned themselves to Him and expecting Him to be their assistant in their practices, they parted from each other.
Matrona, as has already been said, pretended to be a eunuch, and called herself Babylas. She went to the monastery of the holy Basianus. There she was received by the monks and immediately engaged in spiritual competition. She did not feign devotion by sadness and paleness of her face rather, she was truthfully pursuing virtue and was eager to escape notice, so that she soon elevated herself to the perfect life according to God, and all marvelled that a man afflicted with the weakness of a eunuch could so endure hard labors and seek to surpass all the monks, winning over the spirit and despising glory as vanity and being completely obedient out of great modesty (From Ch.6).
It happened that once she was working in the garden with other monks, (and) she was more zealous than they in her work. A monk by the name of Barnabas, who was assigned to work with her, looked at her curiously. He had entered the monastic life a short while earlier, (and) even though he had come from the stage later he increased in virtue and became a hegumen [abbot]. He asked her to tell him why the lobes of her ears were pierced. The blessed woman quickly gave him an intelligent answer saying, "You have, O brother, suffered something human which is alien to our profession. One must pay attention to the land and not gaze curiously on human features. But to answer your question: the woman who had owned me before and who raised me was so affectionately disposed toward me that she wished even to place gold ornaments in my ears." So, the blessed woman, wisely, rid the monk of his suspicions.
But many troublesome thoughts came to her, and she remembered the exhortation of Eugenia who said: "it is difficult for a woman to live with men and pretend to be a man. It is impossible to avoid detection forever." (From Ch.7)
A similar life was lived by Theodora of Alexandria, wife of a Prefect of Egypt, who left her husband and lived as a man in a monastery, only being discovered as a woman after her death. During her time as a man she must have been tonsured and acted in a masculine way never to have been discovered. She was accused of fathering a child with a local woman. She had become a monk supposedly in penance for a sin; the logic of this is that she may have had a lesbian experience and punished herself by placing herself among only men as a man, a symbolic removal of self from sex.
There are also vitae of ‘desert mothers’ such as St Pelagia and St Marina ‘the monk’, who may be the same person, because their names have identical meanings in Greek and Latin. Certainly St Marina of Syria seems a bit late (her death is given as AD750) since Syria had been under Islamic rule for 110 years. St Pelagia lived as Pelagius, so it may have involved some transfer from the British heterodox theologian of that name, whose followers in fifth century Britain were known for their flamboyant clothes. By contrast, there is a late imperial princess Marina, sister of the Emperor Theodosius II, born in AD401 and possibly his non-identical twin. She gave her name to the Marina Quarter of Constantinople and was known for her piety, following the example of her elder sister and imperial regent, Pulcheria.
Marinus/Pelagius was so much into the role of being a man, she accepted responsibility for impregnating a local girl and acted as a father to her baby. It was only after her death that the women charged with washing her body discovered the truth. This transgender saint is venerated by the Maronite church and by the local Roman Catholic church, refounded in AD751, a year after Marina’s supposed death, suggesting that there was a power struggle in the Church at that time, each side using her to legitimate their presence in the Muslim-dominated Levant; among a dwindling congregation of dhimmi (non-Muslims allowed to worship freely), a genuine local saint would have been a strong impetus.
Many of the comments refer to the extreme asceticism of the woman living as men, notably how starved they were. All of them may be mythologised versions of St Mary of Egypt, found starving to death in the Egyptian desert dressed in rags that had once been a monk’s habit. Marina is a diminutive of Maria, on whom she may have been modelled.
The second extract, which involves a man living as a woman, is from Gregory of Tours, the sixth century Gallo-Roman metropolitan (archbishop) of that city. If anyone thinks this is a bit late to be Roman, let’s remember that Gregory (born Georgius Florentius) considered he came from a ‘senatorial family’, one that would have held the position of senator if it had still existed (his ancestor Aquilinus had been a noble in Lyon under the empire). Gregory was born in AD538, which makes him contemporary with Justinian and Procopius.
The following event took place at the nunnery in Poitiers (Pictavia) in AD589, in which Basina and Clotild, two Frankish princesses living as nuns, revolted. Gregory was their metropolitan and was called in to adjudicate at a formal tribunal; he reports:
Then the bishops who were present sat on the tribunal of the church, and Chrodield [Clotild] appeared and gave vent to much abuse of the abbess and many charges, asserting that she had a man in the monastery who wore woman's clothes and was treated as a woman although he had been very clearly shown to be a man, and that he was in constant attendance on the abbess herself, and she pointed her finger at him and said: "There he is himself." And when this man had taken the stand before all in woman's clothes, as I have stated, he said that he was impotent and therefore had put these clothes on; but he did not know the abbess except by name and he asserted that had never seen her or spoken with her, as he lived more than forty miles from the city of Poitiers. Then as she had not proved the abbess guilty of this crime, she added: "What holiness is there in this abbess who makes men eunuchs and orders them to live with her as if she were an empress." The abbess, being questioned, replied that she knew nothing of this matter. Meantime when Chrodield had given the name of the man who was a eunuch, Reoval, the chief physician, appeared and said: "This man when he was a child was diseased in the thigh and was so ill that his life was despaired of ; his mother went to the holy Radegunda to request that he should have some attention. But she called me and bade me give what assistance I could. Then I castrated him in the way I had once seen physicians do in Constantinople, and restored the boy in good health to his sorrowing mother’. (Gregory of Tours Decem Libri Historiarum, Bk 10.15)
Here ‘thigh’ seems to be a euphemism for male genitals, as it is believed to be in the birth of Dionysus (who was born from Zeus’s ‘thigh’ and was god of wine, while Athena was born from his head and was goddess of wisdom; you work it out!). We might wonder if ‘diseased in the thigh’ is a physiological condition from malformed or damaged genitals, or a psychological interpretation of homosexuality as a mental illness. Castration here seems to mean total removal of exterior genitals, which it was in the Eastern Roman/Byzantine world in the sixth century. This would have meant the child would have more closely resembled a girl, and could have passed as such for a while. Male castrati in adulthood do not resemble females. According to Georgian descriptions and cartoons, they grew to be very tall and had large chests.
The last narrative I want to discuss here is the strange tale of the Valesians of southern Gaul. This religious sect, originating in the near east, was found in Gaul in the later fourth century AD. It is noted for its extreme attitudes towards sin, which they thought came to men through the genitals and could only be cured through castration. This is discussed in Leadership and Community in Late Antique Gaul by Raymond Van Dam (U Calif Press, 1985, pp.80-1). Despite its dull name, this is an excellent book on the later empire.
This sect was known well to Epiphanius of Salamis who discusses them at length (Panarion 38, pp100-4). Epiphanius was bishop of Constantia on Cyprus. Even he says ‘But these people are really crazy’. They seem to have been Arabs living in what is now northern Iraq and to have broken off during the reign of Aurelian, when this area was under the rule of Palmyra and almost anything went. They seem to have been extreme Sethians, followers of a religion similar to Judaism which regarded Seth, third son of Adam and Eve, as their founder.
Epiphanius reports they were not allowed to eat red meat unless they had been castrated. ‘It is widely rumoured’ he says ‘that they have often made this disposition [forced castration] of strangers when they were passing through and accepted their hospitality. They seize them when they come inside, bind them on their backs to boards and perform the castration by force’. (Panarion 38, 6-7).
A panarion is a Greek medicine-chest, and Epiphanius (AD320-403) wrote the book in c.377. As its name suggests, he treats heresies as diseases, so a mutilation of the body is a medical treatment. He differentiates the Valesians from those born as eunuchs, who he says carry no blame (rather like Gregory’s at Poitiers), and from those made eunuchs by others, such as ‘barbarian’ kings in order to serve in seraglios (somewhat like St Matrona). Epiphanius treated each of the fifty heresies he discusses as animals, and the Valesians he considered to be scorpions.
The difference between the Valesians and the self-castrated priests of Cybele is unclear. Cybele, imported into Rome as ‘Magna Mater’, was a near-eastern goddess, whose priest, Attis, had self-castrated, and all later priests of her cult did, and were allowed to do so in defiance of Roman law, which made it illegal. The Latin term for those priests was galli, literally ‘male-hens’, as galla means hen. The word is a homophone for Galli, men from Gaul (Gallia). This is why the symbol used to this day in France is a cock, and is used in sport (le coq sportif) and the famous crowing bird on the Pathé movie openings.
The great problem for religious groups which oppose sexual contact is that they cannot exist beyond the current generation except by induction of new recruits. This is what did for the Shakers in America and for the higher levels of the Cathars. They depend on junior members who are allowed to marry and on adult converts. The Cathars, as Manichees, survived almost underground from antiquity with ‘hearers’ allowed to reproduce, while the Valesians mentioned by van Dam in Gaul may have been assigned that title by outsiders; they may have been no more than particularly nasty Bacaudae.