Ideas on Yde and Ydé: (un)gendered names in classical and medieval literature

Thinking about sex and gender in past societies invariably makes you think how we could possible know the individual sex or gender or any person who lived centuries ago. In practice, we often rely on given names, as we are used to read names as markers of gender. In many cases, this works quite well, but this makes it all the more confusing to encounter either ‚double‘ names (as in the case of Anna Jakob Bürgin) or unisex names (like Duke Anne de Montmorency and his mother Anne Pot, who share their given name but not their sex).

The Hague, KB, 71 A 24 fol. 61v

St Euphrosina discovered. The Hague, KB, 71 A 24, fol. 61v. Source: PD.

Some time ago I already looked at unisex names in the Middle Ages, working mainly with tax rolls (read on here if you like: Tax rolls can be very useful to estimate how common unisex names were at a certain time in the respective place; yet they tell you precious little about what made people call their sons Anne or why Felice was used for girls and boys alike.

In this post, I want to turn my attention to names and gender in literary sources, and especially in stories about women passing as men – a relatively common topic in medieval literature (for an overview, see still Bullough&Bullough 1993). I will first look at names which are gender-marked by a suffix, and where they occur in such stories; in a second step, I will look at unisex names. Secondary literature on the names themselves is quite rare (as far as the Middle Ages are concerned), so it is alle the more important to highlight the work of Didier Lett who analysed many of the examples I quote in the following in an excellent article more than ten years ago (Lett 2005).

Suffice a suffix? Suffixes as gender-markers

In Latin and several romance languages, female given names are commonly marked by specific suffixes and are commonly derived from male names by changing or adding such a suffix. The most common example are female names derived from the names of male saints. To take St John as an example, in Latin, French, Italian and Spanish were find both Johannes and Johanna, Jean and Jeanne, Giovanni and Giovanna, Juan and Juana (to take only the most common versions of these names). There are many such pairs of names, and not only in romance languages. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they do turn up in stories about changes of sex and gender. Let me quote but three examples:

1. ‚Crossdressing‘ saints

In the Latin tradition, the so-called ‚crossdressing‘ saints (women passing as men to achieve holiness, most commonly by entering a monastery) often are presented in hagiographical sources as having such names. The female saints Marina, Eugenia, Theodora und Pelagia all pass as men according to the Legenda aurea, and in this context change their names into Marinus, Eugenius, Theodorus und Pelagius, respectively (ed. Graesse 1850, 353, 397-400, 602-605 and 674-675). Interestingly, while the name of the saint is often commented upon in hagiographical sources, this is not the case for these female saints, at least not in the Legenda aurea versions of their lifes.

2. Callo and Callon

Other stories of sex change indeed comment on the similarity of male and female given names. Diodor of Sicily, for example, relates what I take to be the oldest account of a sex-changing surgery (see According to this account, not long after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) an Epidarean woman called Callo underwent surgery that resulted into a change of gender:

Callo laid aside her loom-shuttles and all other instruments of woman’s work, and taking in their stead the garb and status of a man changed her name (by adding a single letter, N, at the end) to Callon.

Library of history XXXII,11,4 (see

3. Silence, Silentius and Silentia

The same is true for medieval stories of women passing as men. In the thirteenth-century Roman de Silence, for example, the name of the eponymous heroine is commented upon. It is the story of a girl raised as a boy which passes as a perfect knight; like some of the ‚cross-dressing‘ female saints, Silence is wrongly accused of having raped a woman but keeps her male role until the very end of the story, when her true sex is revealed and she marries as a woman. Questions of naming and gender several times are taken up in this chanson de geste. The narrator almost invariably refers to the heroine as Silence while changing the grammatical gender according to the changing social gender (female, male, female). In baptism, however, Silence is given the (Latin) male name Silentius as part of her male role (lines 2074-2078):


„Il iert només Scilenscius: / Et s’il avient par aventure / Al descovrir de sa nature / Nos muetons cest -us en -a, / S’avra a non Scilencia“ University of Nottingham, WLC/LM/6, fol. 198v (detail). Source: PD.

Il iert només Scilenscius;

Et s’il avient par aventure
Al descovrir de sa nature
Nos muerons cest -us en -a,
S’avra a non Scilencia.

He will be named Silentius,

and if it happens by chance
that his true nature is discovered,
we will change the -us to -a,
and she will be named Silentia.
[Text: see to the right; translation taken from Allen 1989, 108]

Evidently, the Latin suffixes -us and -a are played with here, and the narrator goes on to pun on the Old French us („custom, habit“): this us (meaning either the suffix or the practice of passing Silence as male) is said to be against nature.

In the course of the Roman de Silence, long and very learned dialogues between Nature and Nuture take up this question of sex and gender, and nicely summarize some of the more complex gender theories of the thirteenth century, but in the context of this blogpost, all I am interested in it that Silence is renamed only when she adopts the female gender again toward the end of the Roman de Silence:

Silence atornent come feme.
Segnor, que vos diroie plus?
Ains ot a non Scilensiüs:
Ostés est -us, mis i est -a,
Si est només Scilentiä.
They dressed Silence as a woman
Lords, what more should I say?
Before, her name was Silentius;
the -us was removed and -a put in its place,
and she was named Silentia.

[Text and translation as above.]

Unisex names

While unisex names were rare, or perhaps for this very reason, authors writing on gender ambiguity and sex change were quick to use these names for there hero/ines.


An early, and very influential case is Ovid in his Metamorphoses. He deliberatly chose one of the very few names to be attested for male and female bearers alike in Greek mythology for his story of a change of sex, the story of Iphis and Iante. The girls Iphis, so the story goes, was passed as a boy by the mother after her father had vowed to kill his offspring if it were female (see However, while father apparently thought to have a son, he happened to choose a unisex name, much to the delight of the mother:

vota pater solvit, nomenque inponit avitum: / Iphis avus fuerat. gavisa est nomine mater, / quod commune foret, nec quemquam falleret illo. / inde incepta pia mendacia fraude latebant.

The father made good his vows, and gave it the name of the grandfather: he was Iphis. The mother was delighted with the name, since it was appropriate for either gender, and no one was cheated by it.

Met. 9, 708-711; tr. Kline (see

Life of St Euphrosina

St Euphrosina is one of several female saints who pass as men in order to achieve holiness (see above on ‚cross-dressing‘ saints). Unlike Marina who styles herself Marinus (and so on), at least the Old French version of the Life of St Euphrosina relates that the saint was given a unsex name when entering the monastery in male garb:

Cant li mones saisit a oes Deu la pucele,
Se nom li at cangié; Esmerade l’apele.
Cis nons est comunaz a marle et a femele.
Esmerades est gemme et preciose et bele.

Having thus welcomed her to the service of God
The monk changes her name, and calls her Emerald,
A name that can be given to a man or a woman.
„Emerald“ refers to a very precious and beautiful gem.

ed. Hill 1919, ;; tr. Cazelles 1991, 175;

This joke best works in French (see Lett 2005). Of course, names referring to precious stones had a certain tradition, not only for women (Gemma) but also for men, including monks (Smaragdus of St Mihiel comes to mind, LCCN 88002780), and in 15th-century Florence, we find for example Smeraldo alongside Smeralda.

Yet only in French, Emerald (or Esmerald) was a unisex name, and in case you didn’t know, the narrators helpfully spells this out. St Euphrosina’s life was of course also transmitted in other languages, but as far as I can see, she always received a male name (Emeraldus or Smaragdus), not a unisex name, when entering the monastery.

Yde and Olive

Finally, the thirteenth-century French romance Yde and Olive calls for attention. Yde is the only daughter of King Florent and his wife Clarisse, who dies in childbed. When Yde grows to a beautiful girl, her father desires her (and most of the extant literature is interested in Yde and Olive as an incest story). She flees in male garb and goes an aventuire, becoming a model knight. King Oton, impressed by her knightly performance, gives his daughter Olive in marriage. The couple remains abstinent after marriage, and finally Yde confesses that she in fact is a woman to Olive; after her true sex becomes known to the king, he couple comes in danger of being burnt at the stake (a very rare and early reference to death penalty for female homosexuality, by the way). Desparate, they pray for help – and promptly, an angel descends from heaven asking Yde whether she would perhaps prefer to be changed into a man which Yde is indeed happy to confirm. All ends well, the couple marries, lives a happy life and engenders a son who later becomes a saint.

So what about the name? In a sense, the name des not change. Reading Yde and Olive (or the English version in the 16th c. Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux, for that matter; see ed. Lee 1882–87) would not give you much of a clue; however, listening to the story may have been different. This at least is suggested by Max Schweigel, who edited Yde and Olive in 1889 and distinguished between the (female) Yde and the (male) Ydé (Schweigel 1889; see Lett 2005, 277, who also points at Blanchandin and Blanchandine in the Tristan de Nanteuil). So one could argue that Yde is not really an unisex name, as the pronounciation could be adopted to the gender of the bearer; but it is certainly significant that the girl dressed in male garb and later transformed into a man bears a name that at least in writing is indistinguishable from a female name.


Like clothing, names were were normally gendered, and name changes are bound to come up in stories on the change of sex or gender. The similarity of certain ‚pairs‘ of names, or even the rare case of ‚true‘ unisex names was an opportunity these authors did not miss. Indeed,they deliberately chose or invented names that were (near) indistinguishable for both sexes, and comment on this very similarity of the names. Several times, they highlight how small the difference is (Callo/Callon), how easily the change can be achieved (Silence) or that indeed there is no difference (Iphis, Esmeralde). This is part and parcel of a presentation of the change of sex and gender as a surprisingly smooth transistion – in the case of Callo, a surgeon intervenes, but otherwise the women simply decide to put on male garb and a male name, and without apparent difficulties perform manly tasks either in the religious sphere or as knights.

So my impression is that the similarity of certain male and female names was employed in the account mentioned above to highlight even further that gender markers are relatively easy to change.  However, the same stories for the most part also insist that the name-change and all other means to pass as men only work temporarily: at the end of these stories, either the ‚true sex‘ is revealed (as in the case of most ‚cross dressing‘ saints and heroines) or the change of gendered attributes is completed by a change of bodily sex (as in the case of Callo/Callon, Iphis/Iphis and Yde/Ydé). So while the stories may have convey a certain sense of the arbitrariness of gender roles to their contemporary readers (after all, once these women are allowed to do ‚manly‘ tasks, they perform quite well), they in the end do not challenge the idea that there were only two sexes and that the bodily difference between the two could only be overcome in the most unusual of circumstances.



Primary sources


La chanson d’Esclarmonde. Esclarmonde, Clarisse et Florent, Yde et Olive, drei Fortsetzungen der Chanson von Huon de Bordeaux ; nach der einzigen Turiner Handschrift zum erstenmal veröffentlicht, ed. Max Schweigel (Ausgaben und Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiete der romanischen Philologie 83,  Marbach am Neckar, 1889).

The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux, done into English by Sir John Bourchier, lord Berners, and printed by Wynkyn de Worde about 1534 A.D, ed. Sidney L. Lee (EETS 40, 41, 43 & 50, 2 in 4 vols.,  London, 1882–87).

B. Cazelles, The Lady as saint: A collection of French hagiographic romances of the thirteenth century (The Middle Ages series,  Philadelphia, Pa., 1991).

R.T. Hill, ‚La Vie de Sainte Euphrosine‘, in Romanic Review, 10 (1919), 159-169 and 191-232 & 12 (1921), 44-49.

Jacobi a Voragine Legenda aurea, vulgo historia Lombardica dicta, hg. von Johann Georg Theodor Grässe, Leipzig 1850.

Silence. A thirteenth-century French romance, ed. and tr. S. Roche-Mahdi (Medieval texts and studies 10,  Woodbridge, 1992).

Secondary literature

Peter L. Allen, ‚The ambiguity of silence: gender, writing, and Le Roman de Silence‘, in: Sign, Sentence, Discourse: Language in Medieval Thought and Literature, ed. Julian N. Wasserman and Lois Roney (Syracuse, NY 1989), 98-112.

Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, Cross dressing, sex, and gender (Philadelphia, Pa., 1993).

Didier Lett, ‚L’habit ne fait pas le genre. Frère Denise (1262) de Rutebeuf : une jeune fille dans un couvent masculin‘, in Odile Redon, Line Teisseyre-Sallmann and Sylvie Steinberg (eds.), Le désir et le goût: une autre histoire (XIIIe-XVIIIe siècles) : actes du colloque international à la mémoire de Jean-Louis Flandrin, Saint-Denis, septembre 2003 (St Denis, 2005), 267-290.

Suggested citation: Christof Rolker, Ideas on Yde and Ydé: (un)gendered names in classical and medieval literature, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 05/03/2017, Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0 []. Letzter Aufruf: 28/03/2017.

Christof Rolker

PD Christof Rolker, MSt PhD, Historiker an den Universitäten Konstanz und Zürich.

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Christof Rolker

PD Christof Rolker, MSt PhD, Historiker an den Universitäten Konstanz und Zürich.

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