This article only scratches the surface of the peculiar fascination that emerged in the Renaissance around physiological ambiguity and gender identity. If one picks through the dubious concepts of anatomy and the strong binarist and heteronormative positions of both medicine and the law, there are some interesting developments in attitudes toward subjective gender identity.
Daston, Lorraine & Katharine Park. 1996. “The Hermaphrodite and the Orders of Nature: Sexual Ambiguity in Early Modern France” in Premodern Sexualities ed. by Louise Fradenburg & Carla Freccero. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91258-X
This is a collection of papers looking at issues in the historiography of sexuality, that is: how to study sexuality in historic contexts with consideration of the theoretical frameworks being used. In general, the approach is to dismantle the concepts of universals and essences, by which “history” has been used to define and persecute “others.” The papers are very theory-focused around how the study of the “other” points out the narrow and distorted picture of history in the mainstream tradition. One feature that these papers challenge is a clear dichotomy between a pre-modern understanding of sexuality as “acts” versus a modern understanding as “identity”. The papers cover not only queer sexuality by a broader variety of sexualized themes in history. As usual with general collections like this, I’ve selected the papers that speak to lesbian-like themes, but in this case I’ve included on with a male focus that provides an interesting counterpoint on issues of gender identity.
Daston & Park 1996 “The Hermaphrodite and the Orders of Nature: Sexual Ambiguity in Early Modern France “
The late 16th and 17th century fascination with hermaphrodites would give the impression that such persons were common. As well as the volume of discourse on the topic, the nature is different from previous medieval discussions and later early modern ones. The opinions and positions are contradictory, even when limited to the medical community, and include both formal and informal expertise (e.g., surgeons versus midwives). The focus of this article is specifically on the discussions of learned physicians, in order to narrow the range of variables.
Classical opinions fell in two general camps. Followers of Hippocrates and Galen considered hermaphrodites to be truly intermediate in sex, neither male nor female, although a spectrum was recognized that included effeminate males and masculine females. The Aristotelian view was that hermaphrodites had both male and female genitals but that the “true gender” of the individual would be apparent from temperament and essential personality. (One might summarize these as the “neither” and the “both” models, with reference to binary gender.)
Medieval Arabic medical manuals and the European texts derived from them discuss surgery to “treat” hermaphrodites, but this raised the question of identifying the “true” sex that was to be the output of the surgery. In general, medical literature of the medieval era avoided moral judgments, in contrast to medieval philosophical literature which viewed gender ambiguity more negatively.
Beginning around 1550, medical literature began addressing the theological and moral implications of gender ambiguity. For example, Paré whose discussion of hermaphrodites in the context of birth defects then slides sideways to discuss sex between women and then to examples of women transformed into men.
This shift in the moral tone of the discourse was accompanied by a focus on the Hippocratic model that saw hermaphrodites as a midpoint in a continuum of gender, situated between the effeminate man and the masculine woman. This positioning now linked hermaphrodites to discussions of sodomy and other sexual transgressions, as well as to transvestism. Like those topics, hermaphroditism represented a blurring or destruction of gender boundaries.
The shift to moralizing about hermaphrodites branched out into using biology for titillation. Paré was accused of obscenity by the Paris medical faculty due to his intentional inclusion of prurient material intended to appeal to the growing association of hermaphrodites with lesbians and thus with pornography. Thus, hermaphrodite anatomy became associated with a pointed focus on sex.
The law had no context for taking a neutral approach to the legal status of hermaphrodites. All interpretations required fitting into a strict gender binary. While medieval legal practice assumed there was an “innate” gender identity that could be determined by self-reporting of the individual hermaphrodite, Renaissance practice was deeply concerned with the possibility of deception and fraud and preferred to bring in outside experts to examine the supposed hermaphrodite and proclaim a gender assignment that the law would then impose.
The impact on individual lives of this approach is documented in any number of legal cases. Marie/Marin le Mercis was assigned female at birth but at 21 abandoned female dress, changed to using the masculine name Marin, and announced the intention of marrying a fellow maidservant, a widow named Jeane le Febvre. Marie/Marin was condemned to die for sodomy and cross-dressing, but an expert witness was brought in who testified that Marin had a penis that emerged from the vagina during arousal. The death penalty was avoided, but Marie/Marin was required to live as a woman and not have sex of any kind for two years to determine which gender nature would emerge.
Another case (which may demonstrate class privilege) was that of a lawyer’s daughter who was caught having sex with a woman but then was judged to be a hermaphrodite with a hidden penis. Having been judged to be officially male, the defendant was not only allowed to live as a man but to study philosophy at the university.
Reliance on outside testimony for legal questions of sexual performance (e.g., accusations of impotence relevant to divorce proceedings) was an established practice. However the use of expert testimony for questions of hermaphrodite gender was new and related to concerns about gender fraud. This concern intruded into the lives of physiologically ambiguous people even when no potential crime was involved. Such was the case in 1686 in France of Marguerite Malaure who was declared “predominantly male” and legally required to dress and live as a man (under the name Arnaud). Marguerite was strongly opposed to this judgment but had to petition the king to be allowed to return to a female life.
These are only some of the cases that illustrate this conflict between whether the “truth” of gender was to be found in physiology or subjective personal identity. But arguments from subjective gender identity were highly heteronormative and binary, often concluding that the object of sexual desire was a certain evidence for (heteronormative) gender identity. Physiognomy was also consulted to determine “true gender”, evaluating the subject in relation to gender ideals. Did the person have “feminine” or “masculine” features. But the primary emphasis was on the genitals. This was the context in which we see the evolution of the trope of an enlarged clitoris being associated with lesbianism.
Anxiety about hermaphrodites is also contemporaneous with general social anxiety about gender blurring, as exemplified by tracts such as Hic Mulier.