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11 February 2021

Pyander, a transvesting ingle in 1599

  • Thomas Middleton
     Thomas Middleton.“Satire 5 - Ingling Pyander” in MicroCynicon: Six Snarling Satires. 1599.

A work of poetic satire by the English playwright who was then 18. Later he wrote plays and other
poems, many of which include gender swapping plots, and sex between men.

“Ingle” was used in different ways in the 16th and 17th centuries, but more often than not it was a term for what we would call queer. It was especially applied to pretty young men who might be kept or might be whores. The terms “catamite” and “ganymede” were near synonyms. The verb form, ‘to ingle’ usually means to have anal sex with an ingle, or for an ingle to have sex. Some ingles transvested.

In recent decades, Middleton’s poem has become a topic for theses and books, and is used by some writers to argue that transvesting ingles were common on the streets of London in the 1590s. While Middleton used female pronouns for Pyander, none of the modern commentators do. Nor do most of them seem to have read anything about trans sex workers for comparison. Certainly no trans person seems to have commented on Pyander.

This essay will be a survey of the major writing about Pyander. Are they cisplaining? Did Middleton base his poem on an actual person? What is the order of events in the poem? Poetry, of course, is harder than prose to pin down. Poetic License is a term coined to excuse poetry.

Excerpts from the poem

The 5th satire is a 99-line poem. Click for the full poem).

The most relevant lines are:

The still memorial, if I aim aright, Is a pale chequer'd black hermaphrodite.

Sometimes he jets it like a gentleman,

Other whiles much like a wanton courtesan;

But, truth to tell, a man or woman whether,

I cannot say, she's excellent at either;

But if report may certify a truth,

She's neither of either, but a cheating youth. (lines 21-8)

Of beauty's counterfeits affords not one

So like a lovely smiling paragon,

As is Pyander in a nymph’s attire

Whose rolling eye sets gazers hearts on fire,

Whose cherry lip, black brow, and smiles procure

Lust-burning buzzards to the tempting lure.

And suffer not Pyander's sin appear?

I will, I will. Your reason? Why, I'll tell,

Because time was I lov'd Pyander well;

True love indeed will hate love's black defame,

So loathes my soul to seek Pyander's shame. (lines 31-42)

I spied Pyander in a nymph's attire:

No nymph more fair than did Pyander seem,

Had not Pyander then Pyander been;

No lady with a fairer face more grac'd,

But that Pyander's self himself defac'd;

Never was boy so pleasing to the heart

As was Pyander for a woman's part;

Never did woman foster such another (lines 63-70)

That force perforce I must Pyander prove:

The issue of which proof did testify

Ingling Pyander's damnèd villany.

I lov'd indeed, and, to my mickle cost,

I lov'd Pyander, so my labour lost (lines 75-9)

Trust not a painted puppet, as I've done,

Who far more doted than Pygmalion:

The streets are full of juggling parasites

With the true shape of virgins' counterfeits:

But if of force you must a hackney hire,

Be curious in your choice, the best will tire;

The best is bad, therefore hire none at all;

Better to go on foot than ride and fall. (lines 92-9)

(Note: ‘hackney’ was a 16th century term for a whore, in that like a hackney carriage she could be hired.)

History

The archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London issued an order prohibiting the printing of any satires whatever including this one. They required that the published satires of Thomas Middleton, Joseph Hall, John Marston, Thomas Nashe, and others be burned. This was done 4 June 1599 in a Bonfire at the Stationers’ Hall.

The history of the late 16th century and indeed the whole of the 17th century records very few male-born persons in female attire except on the stage where boy-actresses played all the female parts until 1672. There were of course plentiful female-born persons discovered and even arrested in male attire: “female husbands”, those seeking a man’s wage and so on (and the interesting question is which of them should we regard as trans in the modern sense?).

One of the very few mentions of a male-born person transvesting is this poem of Middleton’s. The poem is designated by Middleton as satire, and taken so by the bishops who burnt his work. The obvious question is: is Pyander based on a real-life person or incident in the street, or is she just a poetic fiction?

Alan Bray

The gay historian, Bray, in his pioneering Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 1982, compares Pyander to the mollies of the early 18th century.

“Transvestism of this kind [18th century] had a function crucially different from that of Elizabethan or Jacobean London. Transvestism itself was not new, as one can see from the extensive contemporary description of it in Thomas Middleton's Micro-Cynicon published in 1599; but the significance given to it a century later was radically different. … Transvestism was as common in Elizabethan London as it was to be a century later, but there are sharp differences between transvestism in the two periods; and one of them is present in Middleton's reference to the streets as the haunt of transvestites. Transvestism in the eighteenth-century molly houses was something that took place behind closed doors: it had nothing to do with the streets. The transvestism Thomas Middleton is describing was intended to deceive: that of an eighteenth-century molly house was not; it was quite obviously a man dressed in women's clothes. What then was its purpose? The answer is in the other major difference between Middleton's tale and the conditions of the eighteenth century: Middleton's tale is not concerned with homosexuality. The whole point of the story is that the transvestite was trying to avoid sexual intercourse so as to avoid being discovered. His motives were apparently mercenary, leading to the suggestion - which is probably the best explanation of the sexual ambiguity of the story - that Middleton looked on transvestism as a vice in its own right.”

“extensive contemporary description”? One reference in a satirical poem?

Bray was writing, and pioneering, in 1982, so I don’t want to be too critical. However later academics criticise the uncritical use of 20th-century terms as ‘presentism’. Nobody in 1599 would understand words such as ‘transvestism’ (which did not come into English use until the late 18th century, taken from Italian and French usage) and ‘homosexuality’ (coined in the late 19th century). The verb form ‘transvesting’ is noted in dictionaries as first being used in 1652, and presumably was used verbally before anyone wrote it down. So it would be more suitable. Middleton used the verb term ‘ingling’: Bray is aware of the word, but does not use it.

“Middleton's tale is not concerned with homosexuality. The whole point of the story is that the transvestite was trying to avoid sexual intercourse so as to avoid being discovered. His motives were apparently mercenary”.

This is a very problematic sentence. Some 21st century trans prostitutes regard themselves as gay, some as transgender, some as both, some otherwise. Is it not likely that such a person would deliver sex if the man indicated that he wanted such, but flip to a simple demand for money if not? Of course it is not “concerned with homosexuality”. Neither party has such a concept. Bray does not seem to understand how a transvesting ingle or a modern trans sex worker needs to be adaptable, nor what her motivation would be.

Note that Bray uses male pronouns for Pyander, despite the fact that the narrator uses female:

“But, truth to tell, a man or woman whether,

I cannot say, she's excellent at either;

But if report may certify a truth,

She's neither of either, but a cheating youth.”

Secondly Bray does not make any allowance for the narrator (Middleton?) rewriting the encounter to diminish his interest in having sex with an ingle. Nor that he declares that he had loved her. Is he a reliable narrator?

It is surprising that Bray who was a GLF activist who must have met trans women in London in the 1970s does not even consider that Pyander could be trans.

Bray is cited by all the writers below.

Marjorie Garber,

Garber, a decade later, sort-of summarised what Bray had to say.

“During the period 1580 to 1620, as we have already noted, some women as well as men cross-dressed publicly in London, whether for fashion, for comfort, for pleasure, as a stratagem that facilitated theft of other crime, or as a cultural sign of their social position, high or low.”

She concludes that Pyander

“is not, or not self-evidently, a homosexual but rather a trickster seeking to rob his unwary partner”.

Like Bray she uses male pronouns, is disinterested in any dissimulating done by the narrator and that the narrator says that he loved her.

Rictor Norton

The gay historian, Norton, writing at the same time as Garber, sees through the narrator.

“The author for a time ‘loved Pyander well’, but stung by the pricks of conscience, and the fact that Pyander spent all his money and then deserted him, he repents, and confesses his sin by writing this ‘snarling satire’. This may well be a completely fictional creation based more upon Juvenal’s Satires than upon life in London, but the author seems to expect his readers to recognise such characters as Pyander.”

Norton avoids pronouns for Pyander. He reads in the poem as Bray and Garber did not, that the narrator had taken Pyander as a mistress, until his money ran out and she left. This is completely different from seeing her as a trickster. A cis female mistress may have done likewise without being put down as a trickster.

Bruce Smith

Smith writing two years after Norton had seen it differently:

“The spiral of power and pleasure that locks the satirist and the satirized in a furious embrace is especially tight.” The Author “owns up himself to the vices he lambastes in others”. Because the narrator “actually participated in what he writes about, however, the emphasis falls not on the cozener but on the cozened. What we see from that subjective vantage point is a jolting discrepancy between appearance and reality.”

Again no consideration that Pyander might be trans.

Michael Shapiro

Shapiro, writing four years after Norton, comments:

“There is far less evidence of male cross-dressing in the early modern period than there is of women wearing male apparel, either in literature or in life. … Some English literary works allude to male cross-dressing. The fifth satire of Middleton’s Microcynicon (1599) features Ingling Pyander, a male transvestite posing as a female prostitute … Perhaps such literary figures were modelled on actual male transvestites, but I know of no corroborating non-literary evidence.”

Again the statement that the narrator had taken her as a mistress is ignored, but he makes the important point that there is no evidence of such persons in real life.

Herbert Jack Heller

Heller, a year later, starts by pointing out the unusual narrator. The satire “differs from the other five satires by the involvement of the narrator in the situation he describes. It is unclear whether there is a single narrator or several in Microcynicon, but in the previous four satires, the narrator is an observer, not a participant.” He again sees the narrator as a victim: “His complaint is that he had fallen in love with Pyander, unaware that ‘she’ is a cross-dressing boy”. However. like Smith he sees the poem “implicates its narrator, perhaps more so than even Pyander himself. Any confusion the narrator can raise about Pyander's sex or activities might also serve to diminish the reader's sense of his own culpability. But the narrator is not exonerated.” And even “ while the narrator considers Pyander's parentage, we quickly learn that he is the son of a prostitute that even the narrator has consorted with”.

Heller addresses the unreliability of the narration: “The narrator does not indicate whether his sexual union with Pyander occurred just after they met in the street, or how long it was until ‘So far entangled was my soul by love,/ That force perforce I must Pyander prove’ (74-75). But however long this took, the narrator would have us believe that he always took Pyander for a woman.” Except that he also says: "Sometimes he jets it like a gentleman,/ Otherwhiles much like a wanton courtesan " (23-24), and what are we to make of "time was [he] loved Pyander well ”(40)? Which would imply passage of time between their first meeting and the narrator complaining that he has been cozened

Which is how Norton (not mentioned in Heller) had presented it.

But why quotation marks around ‘she’?

Dimitris Savvidis

Savvidis, 14 years later than Heller, but unaware of his thesis/book and of Norton’s comments, returns to Bray’s model:

“the potential client is deceived by the transvestite prostitute, who manages to lure him to an act that did not match with what the client had in mind. Middleton’s hermaphrodite has a different service to offer, not so much an offer that involves the sexual act per se but a different aesthetic of the sexual experience”.

He also thinks that the narrator actually takes Pyander to be a cis woman. However he rejects Bray’s assumption that they did not have sex - after all one of the meanings of the verb ‘to ingle’ is to have anal sex.

Randolph Trumbach

Trumbach finds yet another reading:

“Middleton bitterly tells of a man who has fallen in love with a boy he then encounters ‘ingling’ or whoring in the street dressed in ‘a nymphs attire’”.

This removes Heller’s quandary of how long is the period from the encounter in the street to the end of their affair, in that for him the street scene comes after, not before.

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Trumbach and Norton are the only two writers here who have some idea of what it was to be a transvesting ingle.

None of these writers use the word ‘transvesting’. It has fallen out of use, but it is period appropriate and is easily understood.

Most of the writers refuse female pronouns for Pyander - to the point of rudeness.

It is noteworthy that the authors who assume that Pyander was based on an actual person, do not put her name/pseudonym in their index, as they thereby should.

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  • Alan Bray. Homosexuality on Renaissance England, Columbia University Press, 1982:87-88.
  • Majorie Garber. Vested interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety. Rutledge, 1992: 29-30.
  • Rictor Norton. Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830. GMP, 1992: 19.
  • Bruce R Smith. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics. The University of Chicago Press, 1994: 181-2.
  • Michael Shapiro. Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines & Female Pages. The University of Michigan Press, 1996: 29.
  • Herbert Jack Heller, Penitent Brothellers: Grace, Sexuality, and Genre in Thomas Middleton's City Comedies. PhD thesis, Louisiana State University, 1997: 180-7. Online.
  • Dimitris Savvidis. Male prostitution and the homoerotic sex-market in Early Modern England. PhD Thesis, University of Sussex, 2011: 31-2, 101-7. Online.
  • Randolph Trumbach. “From Age to Gender, c1500-1750: From the adolescent male to the adult effeminate body”. In Sarah Toulalan & Kate Fisher (eds) The Routledge History of Sex and the Body.Routledge, 2013: 129.

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