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Challenging and Upholding the Gender Binary in the 12th Century

Monday, April 1, 2019 - 07:00

This article coincidentally touches on some of the topics that will be the subject of this month's podcast essay. What is the relationship between physiology, social performance and presentation, and legal status with respect to gender and sexuality? In tracing shifts in how these questions were asked and answered across time and space, we can begin to grasp a relativistic understanding of gender and sexuality categories. That, in turn, can help us identify both the commonalties and the distinctions between gender and sexuality identities in the past and those we are constantly evolving today.

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Nederman, Cary J. and Jacqui True. 1996. “The Third Sex: The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 6:4: 497-517.

[Content note: This article deals with overlapping uses of the word “hermaphrodite” in medieval contexts. In some cases, it indicates a person of ambiguous genitalia, that is, an intersex person. In other cases, it indicates a person who combines aspects of performative gender assigned to men and women or who performs aspects of a gender not matching the one assigned to their physiology. Medieval theory did not clearly distinguish these concepts. I acknowledge that the use of the word “hermaphrodite” for intersex persons is considered offensive today and apologize for any harm that discussing the historic usage may cause for readers.]

This article looks at the concept of the hermaphrodite and related concepts and categories of sex and gender in 12th century Europe, especially within the context of Thomas Laqueur’s 1990 Making Sex, which questions the very idea of a “natural” or biological basis for sex differentiation. While Laqueur identified a fairly late development for the idea of sex differentiation in the 18th century, Nederman and True identify earlier challenges to the dominant prior “single-sex” model, which held that male and female operated as scalar variants of a single (male) nature.

Applying Laqueur’s approach, we can see that the boundary between male and female has shifted and varied across the ages. Phenomena such as cross-dressing, “masculine" women, and homosexuality challenge and help define how those boundaries are drawn and negotiated. Within this context, the concept of the hermaphrodite is particularly relevant. [Note that in this context, “hermaphrodite” does not necessarily refer to an intersex person in the physiological sense, but to any person who is understood to combine male-coded and female-coded attributes.]

Within the classical tradition (not necessarily reflected strictly in medieval use) the hermaphrodite is distinguished from the androgyne. The androgyne (as in Plato’s Symposium) represents a transcendence of gender in a unified ideal, while the hermaphrodite emphasizes sexual difference in a way that deforms the gendered components in the union. When applied to actual physical bodies, this raised the question of whether hermaphrodites were “poorly formed” intermediates between the two sexes (operating within the two-sex model) or whether they represented an intermediate state in a single (one-sex) continuum between clearly male and clearly female identities. Or should they be treated as an entirely separate “third sex” partaking of male and female elements but standing apart from both?

The authors argue that there is some evidence for this last position in 12th century Europe, as evidenced by medical, philosophical, legal, and literary texts. But the recognition of this third sex, rather than underminine the concept of a gender binary, prompted the need for stricter and more strongly enforced binary gender boundaries.

“Hermaphrodite studies” currently have a disproportionate focus on the period from 1500-1800 that is not entirely supported by the distribution of the evidence. Aristotle held that persons of ambiguous sex (he would not have used the term “hermaphrodite” yet) had an underlying “true” binary sex which could be determined by observation, especially of the genitalia. Isidore of Seville considered hermaphrodites to be a “portent of divine will”. Medieval evidence suggests that hermaphrodites were accepted as long as they conformed consistently to one or the other binary gender role.

The major theoretical works on sex difference [as available at the time of this article] including Jacquart and Thomasset’s Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, Laqueur’s Making Sex, and Cadden’s Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages do not treat intersexuality in any systematic way. Physiological intersexuality is lumped in with behavioral gender transgression (such as cross-dressing or homosexuality). Laqueur notes that, under the one-sex model, the question for an intersex person was not “what sex am I really?” but “which sex does my body best fit into?”

The 12th century is a rich era for examining this (as well as other) philosophical questions due to the eclecticism of the era’s scholarly sources and the rich intellectual growth that was in process. The writings of Aristotle and Avicenna did not yet have the dominance they would soon receive, and views on sexual difference drew on a much wider variety of Classical and Christian sources. This included an interest in hermaphrodites that would dwindle during the 13th and 14th centuries before coming to the fore again in the 16th.

Medical writings often accepted a three-sex model, based on models of procreation associated with Galen. Under this model, competing humoral properties of the uterus and sperm together determined the sex of the offspring, with the possibility for those properties to functionally cancel each other out resulting in a child neither male nor female. The article discusses other related models and theories.

In moral literature of the 12th century, there was a acceptance that a hermaphrodite was apart from male or female, but varying opinions whether a hermaphrodite was a “monstrosity” or simply a natural variant. John of Salisbury, writing moral allegories for courtiers, uses the hermaphrodite as a metaphor for one “who, by a sort of playful error of nature, exhibits the likeness of both sexes, yet retains the true qualities of neither of them.” Using the Ovid’s myth of the Fountain of Salamacis (in which the mythological Hermaphroditus features), he sketches three possible outcomes for a (male) person entering those gender-transforming waters: he may become an effeminate man, he may be transformed entirely into a  woman, or he may become a blended hermaphrodite.

Alan of Lille, writing in The Complaint of Nature, which examines the relation between grammar and gender, expresses anxieties about the proper linguistic engagement with non-binary people. “He is subject and predicate, one and the same term is given a double application. Man here extends too far the laws of grammar. Becoming a barbarian in grammar, he disclaims the manhood given him by nature.” Alan implies that if one accepts the hermaphrodite as a third sex, one must create a whole new grammar (a barbarism!) for reference, resulting in the decay of language itself. [Note: clearly “pronoun panic” is not purely a modern experience!]

Peter the Chanter offers a more theological take on the question, proposing that “The church allows a hermaphrodite--that is, someone with the organs of both sexes, capable of either active or passive functions--to use the organ by which (s)he is most aroused, or the one to which (s)he is most susceptible. If (s)he is more active, (s)he may wed as a man, but if (s)he is more passive, (s)he may marry as a woman. If, however, (s)he should fail with one organ, the use of the other can never be permitted, but (s)he must be perpetually celibate to avoid any similarity to the role inversion of sodomy, which is detested by God.”

[Note: here we see one key aspect of the intersection of gender and sexuality in medieval thought. Rather than gender identity and desire being separate axes, desire is one of the types of evidence used to determine gender identity. Desire for a particular gender necessarily implies belonging to the opposite gender.]

The law was the realm where one no longer had the luxury of philosophical and theological debates. The law recognized only two sexes and enforced clear and drastic differences in what rights the two had. No one could escape the requirement to be legally classified as either male or female. Roman law held that an intersex person would be classified according to the preponderance of their traits, but remained fairly silent on the question of who would make that classification.

Medieval law took up the question in more detail. Azo of Bologna writes of the distinction between male, female, and hermaphrodite as medical phenomena, but then discusses criteria for assigning the hermaphrodite to the legal categories of male and female, invoking the “prevalence of its sexual development.” Gratian similarly judges that whether a hermaphrodite is sufficiently male to be allowed to serve as a witness depends on evaluation of the genitalia, while still recognizing hermaphrodites as a third sex. Rufinus of Bologna takes a similar approach, recognizing that hermaphrodites represented a category neither male nor female, and yet consisting of persons who will be treated legally as male and those who will be treated legally as female, based on anatomy.

Given the intense interest in 12th century writings in hermaphrodites, one might wonder if there had been a rapid increase in the number of intersex individuals. [Note: I think the authors are being tongue-in-cheek here.] But instead, it may be that the topic of hermaphrodites raised an intriguing intellectual problem of the sort beloved by 12th century philosophers. As persons who defied “natural” binary classification and yet needed to be fit into a binary system, they had a symbolic status representing the threat of “social disintegration, moral decline, and linguistic barbarism.” They challenged the ability to understand the world as ordered and logical.

But the recognition of hermaphrodites as a “third sex” in the 12th century doesn’t undermine Laqueur’s position that the “one-sex” model held sway at this time. Rather, they can be fit into the one-sex continuum model by acknowledging that there was a middle territory between “clearly male” and “clearly female.” Medieval people accepted hermaphrodites and by that acceptance undermined their ability to challenge the dominance of the gender binary. Instead, they provided a battleground in which the distinctions between male and female could be explored and ultimately enforced.

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