Saturday, October 24, 2009

The slipperiness of premodern sex

(For Ginger, to whom I promised anatomical drawings.)
Over the last couple of months, I’ve been following the various discourses swirling around the case of South African athlete Caster Semenya with some interest. The tragedy of her situation makes me wonder whether medieval concepts of sex and gender could offer us an opening to ways of conceptualising biological sex that are more holistic (and realistic) than the strictly male/female binary into which we keep trying to rigidly divide the entire human species in all its marvellous variety and diversity.

Medieval mentalities were coloured by incredibly complex and nuanced perceptions of sexuality, gender and the body*. According to medieval medical theory**, physical sex was not an immutable oppositional binary grounded in biological difference; in fact, one’s biological sex was a very slippery and unstable state indeed. Humoral medicine held that all humans started with a common set of male reproductive organs (the male being the generative first principle). A favourable combination of hotter and drier humors resulted in the penis and testicles becoming fully formed (and reaching a state of perfection) external to the body – et voila, you have a male baby. By contrast, females were the result of a kind of under-cooking in utero, with a combination of less favourable cool and humid humors creating an imperfect internal construction of the penis and testicles as womb and ovaries.

Medical texts and anatomy illustrations from the period*** reflect this conception of the female as inverted (and therefore imperfect) male. At top left is an illustration from a 1523 anatomy by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi. It shows the female reproductive system, but the schematic and labelling clearly indicates it is based on a male model. And below is a beautifully detailed illustration of the female generative organs from the famous 1543 De humani corporis fabrica of Andreas Vesalius. The resemblance to a male penis is marked (right down to a certain suggestion of hairiness).

The fortuitous combination of hot and dry humors that created male physical sex was also believed to produce such superior masculine characteristics as strength, reason, continence and a bent for action. By contrast, cool, damp humors rendered women passive, weak and ruled by emotion or passion rather than reason. Women were also characterised as more lustful and sexually disordered than men, and medieval commentators speculated this was the result of a constant yearning by women to heat themselves up.

Sex as continuum instead of opposition

Within this worldview, physical sex was conceived of as a continuum that may have had ‘clearly male’ and ‘clearly female’ marked at each end, but where there could be slippage between a whole range of men-women and women-men in between. For example, the lactating Christ-as-mother figure, a popular motif of late medieval piety, blurred the boundaries between male and female just as it did between human and god.

With no clearly determined biological binary of male or female sex, sexual difference was grounded in a masculine/feminine gender dichotomy, and it was the individual’s social role, behaviour and character that defined, and could potentially even alter, their physical sex. A trope that appears in the fabliaux of late medieval France is that of the female who presents as male – adopting male clothing and exhibiting such masculine attributes as boisterousness and physical prowess – and in the denouement, has a penis spontaneously spring from her body.

Virago as a strategic performance of gender

In a subtler act of gender-bending, ‘lordly women’ could adopt the self-representation of virago (derived from ‘virgin’, which was also a much more ambiguous state in medieval thinking than it is today). As virago, they overcame to varying degrees their innate female weaknesses in order to lay claim to the masculine virtues of reason, strength and continence that made them fit to wield power. Magistra et Mater recently posted about Kimberly LoPrete’s work on perceptions of ‘lordly women’ in the high Middle Ages. It’s interesting to consider whether they were seen simply as unusually competent women filling a masculine role, or whether they actually became gendered as masculine. A third possibility may be that they occupied an indeterminate position, taking on some aspects of maleness but in other ways remaining female (and this position may have shifted towards more or less masculinity/femininity depending on the context and circumstances).

Gender as the starting point for sex

In medieval thought, then, it was gender – the social and cultural role and behaviour of the individual – that was the starting point for determining physical sex and not the other way around. For those of us living now, there are some obvious problems with this model, with the privileging of the male as first principle being the most glaring. But on the other hand, the fluidity and mutability of medieval conceptualisations of sex seem to me to offer some potential avenues to thinking about sex and gender that could relax our grip on a reductionist and repressive biological opposition. It occurs to me that by questioning the definitions and the limits of this ‘self-evident’ and ‘natural’ binary, what I’m really seeking is to foster some dialogue between the premodern and the postmodern that will eventually enable us to comprehend and accept the rich heterogeneity of the human species.

* For more on this, see for starters the work of Caroline Walker Bynum, Karma Lochrie, Joan Cadden,
Thomas Laqueur, Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset.

** When I say ‘medieval’ here, I’m talking about the eleventh century re-discovery of Galen and the translation of Arabic texts such as Avicenna’s Canon into Latin

*** The two examples here are from early 16thC printed anatomies, but the illustrations are consistent with those in much older manuscripts. Berengario, for example, was heavily influenced by the texts of Mondino dei Luzzi (d. 1326).

Image credits:
Jacopo Berengario da Carpi
Isagogae breues, perlucidae ac uberrimae, in anatomiam humani corporis a communi medicorum academia usitatam. (Bologna: Beneditcus Hector, 1523).
NIH National Library of Medicine

Andreas Vesalius
De humani corporis fabrica. (Basel: Oporinus, 1543).
Wellcome Library

Incidentally, the Wellcome Library has a fantastic store of historical and contemporary images online in categories including illness and wellness, nature, culture and war. They're freely available for download for personal, academic teaching or study use. (Why didn’t they have cool stuff like this when I was at school??)


dgm said...

There was the whole gamut of sexual behaviour in the medieval world, such as in the case of John Rykener - what is more interesting is the way it was both seen as a continuum and people could have different behaviours at different times ...

Bavardess said...

Welcome, dgm. I'm glad you brought up the case of John/Eleanor Rykener, as it's definitely an interesting (if highly unusual, in the sense of surviving records) example of the fluidity of medieval concepts of sex, gender and sexuality. I was recently re-reading the 1996 article on the case by Ruth Karras & David Boyd, which including the transcript you've linked to. I think the phrasing "dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman" is quite significant in terms of indicating the possibilities of shifting sexual subjectivity and gender identity.

For other readers, John Rykener was a man who, dressed in women's clothing and going by the name of Eleanor, worked as a prostitute and was apprehended having sex with a male client in London in 1395. The testimony of his interrogation was recorded in the Corporation of London's Plea and Memoranda Rolls. A transcript, translation, and an image of the original document are available on the link above from dgm (along with some interesting background on how the details of this case were suppressed in an early 20thC print edition of the Rolls). John/Eleanor confesses to having sex with men *as a woman* (not just dressed as one), but he also says he has had sex with many women *as a man*. There is no evidence to show what happened to John/Eleanor after this interview, or if he/she was eventually charged with either prostitution or sodomy.

Digger said...

Great post, thanks!

I've been referencing Nancy Partner's article "No Sex, No Gender" (Speculum, 68(2): 419-443)in class discussions about the differences between sex and gender in my physical anthropology class. To oversimplify (most likely) she suggests that a medieval construction of gender had to do with who one was having sex with, so that celibate clergy, for example, were categorized as a separate gender.

I will have to take some time to read the John/Eleanor case you linked to!

Bavardess said...

And it wasn't just who you had sex with or what you did, but how you did it. Regardless of whether it was male-female, male-male or female-female sex, the 'passive' partner (broadly understood as the one being penetrated) was gendered as feminine. Even in 'straight' male-female sex, any position other than missionary was considered 'against nature', with woman-on-top and other heterosexual practices also being represented as gender transgression.

In their article on the Rykener case, Karras & Boyd say that in the original Latin document, the grammatical gender used by the scribe to refer to John/Eleanor changes between masculine and feminine depending on which acts are being recounted. I think that probably reflects both confusion on the part of the officials as to how to categorise John, and the general medieval privileging of gender performance rather than biological sex.