Reading Uncertain Genders


This resource will introduce you to the field of historical trans studies, which is the study of trans, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming history. This resource focuses on questions of textual interpretation. It provides you with examples of texts from the 14th-18th centuries that create uncertainty around gender. As these texts are introduced, you will learn about ways that writers create uncertainty around gender, and you will be given the chance to think about why they do so. This is an opportunity to think about the similarities and the differences between discussions of gender in the past and in the present. Literature provides a window into the ways gender was imagined and puzzled over in the past.

Reading Uncertain Genders

For as long as there have been gender norms, there have been people who did not fit those norms. People diverged from the norm in terms of their identity (who they were), their gender expression (how they presented themselves and acted), and their anatomy. Historical trans studies is the academic field that investigates these various forms of gender divergence. This field of study overlaps with intersex studies, which focuses on people whose bodies diverge from the binary norm, and queer studies, which focuses on atypical forms of attachment. The present resource is concerned with trans and gender nonconforming people. A trans person is someone who has moved away from the gender they were assigned at birth — “trans” means “across” in Latin. In Europe, we have evidence that people have moved across genders and thought about moving across genders for centuries. There are different kinds of evidence that we might use to discover how people thought about gender nonconformity. For example, we might look at paintings and illustrations that depict people outside of the binary norms of gender presentation. Or we might look at texts.

Textual evidence is the primary source for much of our knowledge about past European society and culture. Because historical trans studies uses textual evidence to uncover ideas people had in the past about gender and facts about people who lived in the past, historical trans studies often operates within the discipline of history. In their exploration of older cultures, historians often end up using works of literary art as documents of the culture within which they were produced. Because this resource is focused on gender uncertainty in textual sources, it is relevant both to history and to English studies. While a historian might ask what a work of literature tells us about the person who wrote it and the culture in which they lived, a literary scholar might ask what effects that work of literature has on its readers, what produces these effects, and why. When we read a text as a work of literature, we allow that text to ask us questions directly. Reading texts about uncertain genders as historical documents, we might look for the ideas these texts illustrate about gender. Reading them as literary works, we might allow the texts to transform our own ideas about gender.

Video Resource

Resource activities

Reading Uncertain Genders Worksheet

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Activity questions

  • Who was Samuel Bundy?
  • Where does the punctuation in modern editions of Shakespeare come from?
  • What do we know about the gender of Iphis in John Gower’s story, “Iphis and Ianthe”?

Reflective questions

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Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading

  • Iphis and Ianthe

    The full text of Gower’s “Iphis and Ianthe” (Confessio Amantis, Book 4, lines 451-538) in the original Middle English with explanatory notes.

  • Shakespeare’s sonnets (1609 edition)

    An online scan of Shakespeare’s sonnets in their original 1609 edition.