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Cadden on Sex and Gender

Monday, September 23, 2019 - 07:00

This turned out to be a good choice to follow directly after Laqueur, as they cover much the same ground but from different angles. (Although I've tried to plan out the order of the publications I'm covering in this "basic theory" group so that I'm following thematic threads, I don't always know how that will play out until I start reading.)

Both authors point to the contrasting ideas of sexual difference in the classical authors that formed the underpinnings of later theory, and to how those ideas were transmitted and interpreted in new contexts. But where Laqueur seems to reach for a relatively tidy notion that the "one-sex" model was dominant in classical and medieval times, Cadden puts a lot more weight on how diverse and contradictory the material was and how those contrasts formed part of the ongoing development of sexual theory.

Both Laqueur and Cadden are clearly distinguishing between ideas about sex/sexual difference--that is, the physiology of male and female--and ideas about gender (masculine and feminine) that relate to idealized prototypes of behavior/roles/social attributes which are associated with, but not identical to, the sexes. I'll come back to this later in the coverage of Cadden when it becomes a focus of one of the chapters. This distinction of sex and gender in earlier historic eras is similar--but not identical--to current gender theory. Earlier concepts of gender were focused on an inherent association of certain behaviors, personalities, and attributes with a gender concept (man or woman), as contrasted with modern theory which focuses more on an individual subjective "sense of self". But the idea that sex and gender were distinct and not always aligned is common throughout (western) history.

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Full citation: 

Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6


While covering much of the same timeframe, Cadden takes a broader and more diverse view than Laqueur, while acknowledging the reality of his two models (the one-sex and two-sex models). In all eras, the “facts” about sex and sexuality are filtered through cultural prejudices. Medieval ideas about sex difference were part of the culture’s assumptions about gender. Medieval society was not a single culture, and the era covered several overall shifts in thinking, so there isn’t a single unified “medieval idea” of sex difference that can be pointed to.

Cadden differs from Laqueur, who considered pre-18th century ideas as deriving from a unified “one-sex” concept in which male and female existed on a single scale. Though much of the medieval evidence fits this one-sex model, other views were present throughout. [Note: Laqueur acknowledges this even though he considers one model to have predominated at any given time.] Even when systems of thought (e.g., theology and medicine) agreed on a principle relating to sexuality, they might come to it from different rationales.

It isn’t possible to make an overall judgement of whether medieval thought on sex difference was “good” or “bad” for women. Some concepts, such as the importance of female orgasm to conception, had both positive and negative consequences. In the later middle ages (12-14th century), European culture became more inflexible and intolerant in general, which affected attitudes toward women and sex. Cadden’s book looks at the diversity and eclecticism of medieval thought regarding sexual difference during this period.

Most sources were in Latin and therefore reflect the learned class dominated by men, but these sources also sometimes include “popular” thought, collected into encyclopedic works. This can include material collected from female professionals. The diversity of sources, authors, and genres makes interpretation more complex as it isn't easy to determine whether contrasting opinions reflected different traditions of thought or were simply accepted in their inherent contradiction. Topics include the physical and functional differences between female and male, details of reproduction, and behavioral differences between the sexes. The texts rarely addressed the idea of sex difference directly, but the underlying concepts inform other topics. Masculine and feminine (i.e., gender) were viewed as attributes separate from male and female (i.e., sex).

Cadden points out that Foucault’s History of Sexuality boils down to a history of male sexuality and doesn’t touch on sex difference much at all.

The structure of the work is laid out: Part I (chapters 1-3) traces the evolution of medieval medical and natural philosophy about sex difference. Part II (chapters 4-6) looks at the collection of learned ideas with regard to specific topics. From this, no overall unified picture emerges, rather a cluster of related ideas that didn’t always align or agree.

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