The Menniste Bruyloft (Mennonite Wedding) was a well-known tavern and musical centre in the Oude Brugsteeg in Amsterdam, a tiny alley near the port and the commodity exchange. In the early part of the 17th century it was run by Jan Theunisz, perhaps an unusual man for an innkeeper; he was a religious liberal, a printer, a scholar in Latin, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. Although Theunisz probably died between 1635 and 1640, the tavern remained a popular sight for visitors, in part because of a cabinet of curiosities it contained.
Whether the stories come via a 17th-century ballad, a 19th-century newspaper or a 21st-century tablet, the public has been fascinated for centuries by tales of women who put on men’s clothes, take a male name and run away to join the army – or to go to sea.
Mark Stoyle, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton, is the latest scholar to add to these entangled histories of war and gender. His forthcoming article, ‘“Give mee a Souldier’s coat”: female cross-dressing during the English Civil War’, is based on the study of hundreds of printed works and original manuscripts, and unsurprisingly drew The Guardian’s attention.
These stories of transgression have, as Stoyle writes, an ‘intrinsic human interest’ as well as a ‘peculiar elusiveness’ and have captured the imaginations of women dreaming of life outside restrictive gender norms. Feminist writers such as Julie Wheelwright, author of Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness, have written dozens of ‘cross-dressing soldiers’ into a history of women’s collective struggle for emancipation, which they themselves project back on to the past.
Yet does calling all these individuals who went to war in men’s attire ‘cross-dressing women’ account for all the possibilities of how they might have viewed themselves?
In their study of North Africa’s indigenous population, The Berbers, Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress lament the tendency of histories of the Maghreb to focus on ‘events which involved the conquerors’. In a Moroccan context it was not until the arrival of Islam in the seventh century that a conquering force had a lasting influence extending beyond coastal areas and the Atlas Mountains. In the late-1950s, the American writer Paul Bowles wrote – in a probable allusion to Morocco’s medieval Islamic Almoravid and Almohad dynasties – that ‘this region’s contact with Europe has been that of conqueror: in its decline it has been comparatively unmolested by industrial Europe’. The country did have to endure its own ‘Years of Lead’ under Hassan II, after gaining independence from France in 1956.
BY THE BOAT
Spend your Friday evening at the National Gallery with author Michael Rosen and curator Christopher Riopelle who will discuss the life and work of Émile Zola (1840–1902), the French novelist, art critic and ardent champion of the Impressionists.