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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #1 - Shank 1987 "A Female University Student in Late Medieval Krakow"

Full citation: 

Shank, Michael H. 1987. "A Female University Student in Late Medieval Krakow" in Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society: 12:373-380.

I thought I'd start off with this little gem because it encapsulates the sort of historic tidbit that could inspire an entire novel. There are no overt lesbian connections but the theme of cross-dressing to successfully play a male role in society is highly relevant.

Edited on 2019/05/03 to add the primary source text and translation that were included in the footnotes in Schank.

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A 15th century account of a young woman attending Krakow university in male disguise. After successfully passing as a man for two years and nearly attaining her degree, she was unmasked due to the suspicions of a soldier who won a bet with his friends by forcibly undressing her and revealing her sex. She was taken before a judge but no one could find any complaint against her except the cross-dressing. After that she chose (from among unknown other options) to go into a convent where she became Abbess. A small amount of her earlier backstory is given: as a child she was a student along with some other children. When her parents died she came into an inheritance and that supported her decision to disguise herself “for the love of learning”. The source of the story is the autobiography of Martin of Leibitz (d. 1464) where he presents it as an event that occurred when he was living in Krakow.

Shank discusses the possible relationship of the themes of the story to hagiographical and moralistic literature popular at the time, as well as identifying details and connections within the story that argue for its historicity. He leans towards the latter.

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Schank includes the primary text and a translation in his footnotes--which I somehow missed when originally reading the article! I quote them here for "primary sources" tag.

Juvenis: Dic aliqua rara, si nosti, ibidem Cracoviae facta.

Youth: Tell me some unusual event that occurred in Kraków if you know one.

Senex: Accidit cum ibidem moram facerem, quod prodita fuit quaedam puella, quae Virginem se affirmavit, quae per duos annos in veste virili et Studentis studium [ms: studii] frequentavit, et vicina fuit ad Baccalariatum in Artibus. In bursa stetit, cum aliis honeste se rexit, balnea non frequentavit, lectiones diligenter visitavit. Patrem habuit in Magna Polonia scholasticum, circa quem cum aliis pueris rudimenta puerorum didicit; et mortuis parentibus, patromonium suum recepit, et latenter veste virili [ms.: virila] induta ad Studium venit.

Elder: When I was there, a young woman who claimed to be a virgin attended the university for two years in male dress, and came close to the baccalaureate in arts. She lived in a student hostel, behaved properly toward otehrs, did not frequent the baths, and attended the lectures diligently. In Magna Polonia she had had a teacher [pater scholasticus] under whom she had studied with other children. When her parents died, she came into an inheritance and, after dressing in male clothing, she went to the university.

Juvenis: Quomodo fuit deprehensa, et quit postea de ea actum est?

Youth: How was she discovered? And what happened to her thereafter?

Senex: Quidam miles videns eam transire in civitate, in domo civis qui dicebatur Kaltherbrig, dixit ad cosios suos: Si persona illa in specie Studentis vadens non est puella, dabo vobis tantum; si est, dabitis michi. Placuit illis. Postea cum propre portam domus veniret, vocavit eam quasi [ms. add. sibi] locuturus, et eoram sociis posuit eam ad mensam, et nudata ea, apparuit cujus suxus esset. Deinde tradita fuit Judici. Interrogata, cur sexum occultasset, respondit: amore Studii. Interrogatus conventor bursae sub juramento et socii, nichil inhonestum de ea dicere pouerunt. Optavit tradi ad Monasterium Monialium, et ita factum est. Et fact est Magistra et Abbatissa omnium aliarum, et puto quod adhuc vivit: quia noviter habui srutinium de ea quodam, qui Cracoviae moratus fuit.

Elder: Upon seeing her walk through the city, a soldier in the house of a burgher named Kaltherbrig said to his companions: "If that person walking about in the guise of a student is not a girl, I will pay you so much. If she is, you will pay me." They agreed. Later, as she approached the entrance of the house,, the soldier called her as if to talk to her, and he set her on a table before his companions. Once she was undressed, it became clear what she was. She was taken before the judge. When asked why she had disguised her sex, she answered: "For the love of learning." The head of her hostel was questioned under oath, and her colleagues as well. They could find nothing improper to say about her. She chose to be taken to the convent, where she was made Mistress [Magistra] and Abbess over all the others. And I think she still lives there, for I recently heard news about her from someone who stayed in Kraków.

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