Edward Kynaston


[By R.B. Parkes (Engraver), R. Cooper (Artist) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.]

We’re all about showcasing what really makes a person hot here, but this week I’m actually featuring a figure who was well known by contemporaries for, among other things, being drop-dead gorgeous.

Historical fiction fans may already be familiar with Edward Kynaston, a 17th century actor who is most famous today for his stunning beauty when he played women on the English stage. What’s most interesting to me about Kynaston is that, popularly speaking, his broader acting career has been eclipsed by his beauty in drag. Kynaston’s famous beauty as and aptitude for playing women, along with corresponding assumptions about his sexuality, have generally concealed a superb actor—he was well received in dramatic and comedic roles—who wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. In addition to a few homoerotic rumours that circulated during his lifetime, Kynaston was involved in a couple of scandals surrounding the staging of plays that satirised contemporaries. One such role resulted in Kynaston being badly assaulted.

Although the English theatre in the early modern period is often imagined as being free from actresses, audiences increasingly favoured women playing women during Kynaston’s career. Kynaston, however, remained popular in women’s roles. But he wasn’t a one-trick pony; he continued to act beyond the point when he actually wished to retire because he was such a profitable draw. Moreover, Kynaston’s biographer, J. Milling, shows how frequently and well Kynaston played men, even implying that he usually played men’s roles, at least later in his career. He was more than a pretty face or a shtick. He played men and women alike, though he stuck to men’s roles after the Crown cracked down on men playing women in the 1660s amidst fears that it would lead to sodomy.

To me, Kynaston’s unusual relationship with beauty serves as a reminder that looks are far from everything, even when people make them so. By most accounts Kynaston was an actor with range and gravitas, yet his appearance has outshined his achievements and even his character—we know little about the kind of person he was offstage. History is often about highlighting change, but Kynaston raises all kinds of questions for me about the historical value of beauty.



“Kynaston, Edward (bap. 1643, d. 1712?),” J. Milling in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, September 2013, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/15821 (accessed April 30, 2016).

Charles Spencer, Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier (London: Phoenix, 2007), 314-315.

Edward Kynaston


Histories of settler colonialism and enslavement are inseparable in the Americas. These twin genocides, at once separate and yet indispensable to one another, have forged to create the bedrock of the United States and many other modern-day countries in the Americas such as México and Brasil. Although we know relatively little about today’s historical figure, her life is demonstrative of how histories of settler colonialism and enslavement were intertwined in the Americas in the seventeenth century.

Tituba was an enslaved woman who was the first woman accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Her personal history, as with that of millions of enslaved people in the Americas, is murky as to her ethnic background and her exact biographical details. Born in the seventeenth century, there are two main theories as to where Tituba hailed from. The first, as put forward most prominently by the scholar Elaine Breslaw, was that Tituba was an Indigenous woman of Arawak descent, from the present-day region known as Guyana and Venezuela. The second theory was put forth by Peter Hoffer in 1997, and claims that Tituba was a Yoruba woman – as her name is a Yoruba word. Either of these theories could be true, or neither. She could have been an Arawak woman, a Yoruba woman, an Afro-Indigenous woman, or a woman from various other ethnic groups. Regardless, she was enslaved by Samuel Parris in Barbados and forcibly brought to Massachusetts.

In 1692, several young girls and women from Parris’s household – including his daughter Betty and niece Abigail – began to exhibit symptoms that were classified as bewitchment, and Tituba (along with two other women) was accused of witchcraft. Tituba was put on trial, and provided testimony saying that it was “the devil, for all I know” that had bewitched the four young girls/women. Tituba provided one of the longest testimonies in the Salem Witch Trials, one that went on to influence how the rest of the trials were conducted.

Tituba’s life has been subject to the whims of historians, authors, artists, and the general public since the seventeenth century. Her origins, her testimony, her involvement in witchcraft have all been historicized according to the sociocultural and racial context of those writing her story. At times depicted as Indigenous, at other times African, and at other times of mixed background, Tituba’s story has been twisted to suite the modes of the moment in which any given historian, author, or artist has depicted her. Tituba, as with the broader history of witchcraft in the Americas, is a complicated figure. What constituted as witchcraft? What type of person was accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials? How does the perception of Tituba’s “racial” origin matter to accusations of witchcraft? How should we understand her testimony – that of an enslaved woman of colour/Indigenous woman accused of a spiritual, gendered crime? In what ways do particular gender identities become intertwined in histories of colonial witchcraft? Where do Euro-centric understandings and histories of witchcraft fit (or collide) with other ways of knowing and communing with spiritual worlds that originate in Indigenous traditions or West African traditions?

These are questions that continue to perplex historians of witchcraft and practitioners of various traditions referred to as “witchcraft” alike.

~ M


Barillari, Alyssa. “Tituba.” Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. Accessed April 22, 2016. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/tituba.html.

Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York: NYU Press, 1997.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.



James Barry


[James Barry, c. 1813-1816. This image is in the pubic domain.]

It’s often said that historians make meaning or sense of the past. It’s been my experience as a student of history that, when I come across certain historical figures, I wish to make sense of them. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to let people be who they are. Thus, this week I am featuring James Barry, an Irish-born medical reformer from the British Army.

James Barry was born in 1799 in a body that was considered after death to be female. From early childhood, Barry’s mother and her friends identified Barry as a wunderkind. In 1809, Barry began studying university medicine and literature as a male student. Three years later, Barry successfully graduated with an MD, despite the university’s attempts to stopper someone so youthful from presenting a thesis. Later in the same year, Barry moved to London and apprenticed with a surgeon at St. Thomas’s Hospital. A year later Barry joined the army as a junior-most medical officer, a career that took Barry to several colonies.

As an army surgeon, Barry displayed professional prowess and enacted medical reforms. Sydney Brandon, one of Barry’s biographers, has noted that Barry had an egalitarian attitude toward medicine—“She invariably championed the neglected and oppressed of any race or station in life. Prisons, leper colonies, and indigent patients always received her attention, and she never accepted fees for her private practice.”[1] And this led to conflicts with authority figures. Nonetheless, Barry had a long career as a medical inspector in the army. When Barry died in 1865, the death certificate was signed without a corresponding medical examination; the signatory of Barry’s death certificate had long known Barry, and found it unnecessary to examine, and especially to sex the corpse. The death certificate listed Barry’s sex as male, and Barry was buried in the masculinised garb in which the surgeon had dressed in life. However, the woman who laid out Barry’s body considered it to be female (and to have once been pregnant), and the story was picked up by the press in cities across Britain.

As a historical figure, Barry is problematical (not least because of his military and colonial associations). Some might consider Barry an example of an empowered, rebellious woman who presented herself as a man—hoodwinking contemporary intellectuals and military officials—in order to pursue a successful, masculinised career. Indeed, Barry has been retroactively credited with being the first woman MD. Some authors refer to Barry as “she,” and others as “he.” I confess, the question of which pronoun I ought to use plagued me as I wrote this. Would it be truest to the surgeon to present Barry as a woman, a man, or as genderqueer? The singular they would anachronistically place Barry into a category that wasn’t contemporaneously defined. Would that be more or less “truthful” than labelling Barry as “she” or “he?” (In the end I chose to use alternate sentence construction in order avoid pronouns altogether). Predominant present day perspectives compel one to understand Barry as either a woman living secretly as a man, or else as a transgendered man. Either or these may be the case. Or they may not be. Not everyone is male, female, trans or intersexed. Assumptions about gender limit how we understand one another in the present day, and this is equally the case when we try to discern the “truth” of those in bygone times.


[1] “Barry, James (c.1799–1865),” Sydney Brandon in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/1563 (accessed April 15, 2016).

James Barry

Marian Anderson

American Contralto Marian Anderson
11 Nov 1936, London, England, UK — Original caption: 11/11/1936-London, England- Miss. Marian Anderson, American negro contralto, is pictured a[s] she arrived at Victoria Station here to keep an engagement at famed Queen’s Hall. Miss Anderson was once told by the Great Toscannini, “A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.” — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS\

[A stunning photograph of Marian Anderson – that style and smile! – obtained from the excellent blog Vintage Black Glamour (vintageblackglamour.tumblr.com). Reproduced here with original citation and title as found on Vintage Black Glamour.*]

Today’s HH post is in tribute to the incredibly talented (and absolutely gorgeous!) Marian Anderson, a Black American contralto singer. Born in 1897, she became central to the fight against racial oppression suffered by Black artists in the United States during the twentieth century. In April 1939, Anderson performed an Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial (Washington, DC) in response to her being banned by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing to an integrated audience. She later went on to become the first Black person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, doing so in January 1955. While establishing herself as one of the most eminent classical musicians and singers in the United States of the twentieth century, she simultaneously fought for the rights of Black Americans by taking part in the Civil Rights Movement (including singing at the 1963 March on Washington).

[“Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial.” Uploaded March 26, 2010 to YouTube.]

Anderson is just one of the many, many Black artists who utilized their craft to advocate for the rights of Black Americans across the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. She was not only astoundingly talented as a singer, but also a fierce freedom fighter for the duration of her life. Marian Anderson was a woman who used her voice to its fullest potential, to both bring us beauty through song and to embolden us to fight against oppression.

~ M


“11/11/1936-London, England- Miss. Marian Anderson, American negro contralto, is pictured a[s] she arrived at Victoria Station here to keep an engagement at famed Queen’s Hall. Miss Anderson was once told by the Great Toscannini, ‘A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.'” Gainer, Nichelle. Vintage Black Glamour: Marian Anderson. Post accessed April 8, 2016. http://vintageblackglamour.tumblr.com/post/44168728592/marian-anderson-the-elegant-and-groundbreaking

Keiler, Allan. Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002.


*Nichelle Gainer (Vintage Black Glamour) has published a wonderful book, Vintage Black Glamour, and a forthcoming book Vintage Black Glamour: Gentlemen’s Quarters, both of which can be purchased here: http://vintageblackglamourbook.com/. We encourage our readers to check out her amazing work.


Marian Anderson