There are many philosophical pitfalls in the desire to categorize historic individuals or concepts in western culture as "lesbian" as we moderns understand and use the term--I say this despite my own use of the word as a shorthand in this project. (A shorthand I have no intention in abandoning for a variety of reasons.) Many of those pitfalls revolve around historic shifts in the understanding of the nature of physiological sex, the relationship of sex to performative gender, and the relationship of both of those to erotic and romantic desire.
One of the challenges I encounter regularly in summarizing and discussing research on this topic is the conflict between discussing historic texts and data in a precise and unambiguous way, and the emerging modern social ethics around discussing sex, gender, and sexuality--especially around transgender topics. If I were talking about a contemporary, a statement like, "At age 18, Mary Smith began living as a man under the name John Clark until her physiological sex was discovered ten years later, after which she returned to a female presentation" would contain any number of elements considered to be rude and offensive. But when describing a person living several centuries in the past, not only can we not know that person's motivations and understanding of their life and actions, but we can only guess at what options and categories they had for that understanding. Further, in order to try to understand how sex and gender were constructed in the society that Mary Smith/John Clark lived in, we need to acknowledge and examine those elements of the story.
There are a lot aspects to historical views of sex and gender that are casually offensive to the modern mind. That doesn't mean that they don't provide useful frameworks both for understanding historic societies and people and for finding identification with them. The medieval theory that all bodies were mutable in sexual expression is of great interest to those looking for historic models of the transgender experience--at the same time, the component of that theory that bodies could only change from female to male because male bodies were "more perfect" is deeply misogynistic, and creates a different experience for those looking for models of a transmasculine experience and those looking for a transfeminine one. Similarly, the medieval and Renaissance model of erotic desire that held that one's "true" gender could be identified in opposition to the gender of the person you desire aligns with some modern experiences of a transgender heterosexual experience, but is erasive of the concept (in historic societies) of a cisgender homosexual experience.
It's a terminological dilemma that I struggle with constantly, even within the parameters of this project that explicitly uses the lens of "lesbian potential" as opposed to "lesbian fact". I know I hammer away at this aspect a bit too regularly, but if I didn't do so, it would be too easy to read my commentary as "these persons and experiences were lesbian" rather than as "these persons and experiences provide a basis on which lesbian fictional characters could be built."
Jones, Ann Rosalind & Peter Stallybrass. 1991. “Fetishizing gender : constructing the Hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.
Jones, Ann Rosalind & Peter Stallybrass. “Fetishizing gender : constructing the Hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe”
[Note: the use of the word “hermaphrodite” and its definitions in this article and the texts it examines is in reference to a historic concept--one that reflected a specific social construction. It is acknowledged and emphasized that “hermaphrodite” can be an offensive term in modern language in the context of gender, sexuality, or physiology.]
During the Renaissance, the concept of the “hermaphrodite” became a site of significant anxiety and analysis in European medical and legal discourse. Analysis of this phenomenon has tended to come from two angles. In the first, the hermaphrodite is seen as a definitional problem, an irritant that drives the production and stabilization of a concept of binary gender. In the second, the figure of the hermaphrodite represents the dissolution of absolute binary gender categories. Both approaches assume a pre-existing concept of gender as a known quantity that is destabilized. This article takes a contrary point of view: that the concept of the hermaphrodite was a primary driver in the production of binary gender concepts in the Renaissance.
Although concepts of gender and gender hierarchies are omnipresent in pre-Renaissance thought (even being extended to inanimate objects such as rocks, to explain certain physical propreties), there was no established and definitive means by which male and female gender could be distinguished.
Natural philosophy embraced the possibility of gender fluidity (as for the hyena, which was thought to alternate genders) and assumed a “single gender” system in which male and female were simply polar ends of a gender continuum, with females being “less developed” males. This was the Galenic view of gender, which held that what distinguished male and female (within the humoral system) was a difference of “heat” and that a shift in the internal nature of an individual could cause latent internal female organs to externalize as male organs, resulting in a functional change of gender.
Every child was considered to have hermaphroditic potential, with the gender as expressed being a product of competition between the male and female seed that produced it, as well as the location in the womb where it grew. That is, expressed gender was considered entirely a product of nurture, not of nature. Hermaphrodites were those who fell within the middle range of that continuum such that they expressed an intermediate gender, though potentially falling more to one side than the other. This framing may explain why medical treatises of the Renaissance often placed discussions of hermaphrodites alongside those of “monstrous” births.
Ambroise Paré’s treatise on hermaphrodites recognizes those with some intermediate sexual characteristics (as with women who have facial hair and low voices), though to some extent he conflates “effeminate men” (whose characteristics are presumably innate) with eunuchs (whose characteristics are due to physical alteration). In the middle of the scale were those who “seem to participate of both male and female.” Paré viewed any gender distinction as erasable: “Certainely women have so many and like parts lying in their wombe, as men have hanging forth; onely a strong and lively heat seems to be wanting, which may drive forth that which lyes hid within.” That is, women have the potential to become men at any time via a shift in humoral balance. The only thing preventing men similarly from becoming women was because “nature alwaies intends and goes from the imperfect to the more perfect,” that is, because men were more evolved than women, it was against nature for them to “degenerate” from that state spontaneously.
Case histories were a common feature in discussions of hermaphroditism. In George Sandys’ translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 1632, he provides examples of reported real-life gender transformations that parallel that seen in Ovid’s tale of Iphis and Ianthe. For example, a 16th century report by Pontanus of a fisherman’s wife who had been married for 14 years and then spontaneously became a man.
Montaigne reports a man named German in Vitry, France, who had been a woman until the age of 22 but then had male parts emerge during physical exertion and now in older age wore a beard. The young women of her town made up a humorous song about how girls shouldn’t engage in physical sports lest the same thing happen.
Sandys notes that all these cases were of change from female to male, seeing it as confirmation of a natural law. This concept echoes an earlier position in both myth and religious philosophy that the difference between the genders is not one of kind, but of more perfect and less perfect instances of a single kind. Several Biblical quotations and commentaries are cited, such as the Gospel of Thomas, “For every woman who has become male will enter into the kindom of heaven.” or St. Jerome’s endorsement, “As long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul. But if she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called a man.”
Such a position not only undermined the notion that women were inherently different from and inferior to men, but also established the potential for any man to become “womanish” if he failed to uphold the state of maleness sufficiently. This precariousness of the gender divide led physicians to prescribe strict regimens to prevent the shift of humors in women that might make them more man-like, noting that women who are “robust and of a manly constitution” must be “reduced to a womanly state...that they may become fit for generation.”
Whereas medical theory by the 18th century emphasized an obvious and innate difference between male and female, the earlier Galenic position implied that hermaphroditism was the default state--that the distinction between the genders must be actively produced and maintained.
If physiology could not be relied on to categorize by gender in the Renaissance, how did the law deal with ambiguous cases? The answer seems to have been “with difficulty and inconsistently.” This is illustrated by a French case in 1601. A person named Marie had been sharing her bed (and presumably having a sexual relationship) with a 32 year old widow named Jeane. Marie publicly announced a male identity with a name change to Marin, and declared his intention to marry Jeane. Marin was arrested and sentenced to death. Evidently there were medical examinations of Marin to determine gender that concluded Marin was female, but an additional examination identified a “small concealed penis.” This did not, however, result in a legal judgement that Marin was male. Rather it only resulted in a nullification of the death sentence, on the condition that Marin live as a woman, in female clothing, until the age of 25. The death sentence was on the female Marie, for committing sodomy (with Jeane) and for cross-dressing. But the final outcome was neither a clear judgement that Marie/Marin was male (given the conditional requirements), nor a clear judgement that Marie/Marin was female (which one might expect would have upheld the original penalty). [Note: while the artice doesn't spell this out precisely, if Marie/Marin was legally treated as a hermaphrodite, then sexual realations with a woman was not "sodomy", but as Marie/Marin had originally been presenting as a woman, that was considered to be their official "performative" legal status and the crime was trying to change that status. The time-limit on the requirement to live as a woman is perhaps baffling, but may simply be the time limit on when the court would monitor the situation.]
Neither of the legal charges in Marie/Marin’s case were relevant under English law. Cross-gender dressing was not a legal offence (though it was considered a moral offence), only cross-class dressing fell under the purview of the law. This is not to say that English law couldn’t find a statute under which to prosecute persons who transgressed gender boundaries. The former Mary Hamilton, as Dr. Charles Hamilton, married a woman named Mary Price. A few months later, Price announced that Hamilton was a woman. (The case was semi-fictionalized by Henry Fielding in The Female Husband.) What Hamilton was eventually charged, convicted, and sentenced for was vagrancy, with circumstances of fraud. Despite the sexual context of the Hamilton/Price relationship, neither sexual acts nor even cross-dressing figured in the prosecution. Thus we see that different legal traditions produced radically different definitions and understandings of gender.
In France, the concept of the hermaphrodite began to be subsumed under the category of “sexually deviant woman” in the context of the “rediscovery” of the clitoris, and the development of a model of the tribade as a woman whith an enlarged clitoris (either as cause or effect of her sexual activities). This shift was not complete and immediate, though. Throughout the early part of the 17th century, people classified as “hermaphrodites” continued to be allowed to choose a gender expression and marry, but only within a heteronormative framework and only as long as the choice was not revoked or changed. Under a 1603 case in Paris, a person identified as a hermaphrodite was executed because after assuming the role of a man, they engaged in sex with a man “as a woman”. The offence was not the status of being a hermaphrodite but of refusing to stick to a single permanent gender presentation, expressed according to social norms.
There was an interesting contrast between hermaphrodites and eunuchs, which pointed up the key understanding that the purpose of marriage was understood as procreation. A hermaphrodite (regardless of gender expression) was assumed to be capable of either engendering or bearing a child, and therefore was allowed to engage in marriage. Whereas a eunuch was assumed to be incapable procreation and therefore was not allowed to marry. [I believe the article is still talking about French law here. Note that this presumption of fertility was still rooted in the theory that all bodies had hermaphroditic potential that included the ability to function biologically as male or female.]
Renaissance understandings of the nature of gender can also be extracted from fantastic (or satiric) travelers’ tales involving supposed hermaphroditic individuals or societies displaced from the here-and-now, even when those societies are overtly presented as satires on familiar cultures. A mid-16th century satire on French court life and a ca. 1600 English satire framed as a traveler's tale come at the question of gender blurring from different angles. Thomas Artus is primarily targeting King Henri III’s court favorites, who are presented as engaging in a fashion “arms race” that is framed as essentially feminine, and presented within the text as legally required to be bisexual. This bisexual license is framed as being socially driven rather than innate and, although Artus clearly intends the “mignons du roi” to be understood as a product of a corrupt culture, the in-story result is an expansion of the possibilities for pleasure.
Joseph Hall’s English satire targets women who take on masculine attributes and clothing as inhabiting “Shee-land”, where women dominate men politically and sexually. But offshore from that land is “Double-sex Isle” or “Skrat or Hermaphrodite Island” where people are born with a doubled sexual capacity “just as they have two eyes, two nostrils, and two legs.” The in-story argument is that the hermaphrodites are more perfect human beings because of this additional symmetry, although the author clearly intends to mock this position.
George Sandys, in his commentaries on Ovid, tackles the myth of the creation of Hermaphroditus with an incoherent assortment of interpretations and legend, resulting in no clear understanding or opinion. But he does include citations of reported “hermaphrodites,” jumbling together those with ambiguous physiology and those who practiced bisexuality, as in the case of a person in Burges who had legally elected to live as female but “secretly exercised the male,” presumably in sexual encounters.
The way the Ovidian myth of Hermaphroditus is framed by Renaissance writers uncovers some of the surrounding anxieties: that when the nymph Salmacis was joined bodily with Hermaphroditus to form the mythical half-man/half-woman embodiment, the female component (Salmacis) was erased in identity while the male component (Hermaphroditus) is described as “losing masculinity” rather than gaining femininity. This was reinforced by the myth that any man bathing in Salmacis’ pool would be similarly transformed and become “a half man”. [Note that the classical depiction of Hermaphroditus often involved a bilateral division into a male half and a female half, rather than a blending of characteristics.]
Classical takes on the myth were more likely to associate Hermaphroditus with (heterosexual) marriage and a positive synergy of combining male and female. And this symbol of combining unlike components into a positive whole was sometimes used metaphorically in Renaissance literature, for example in John Donne’s interpretation of religious ministers as being a type of hermaphrodite in joining the “male” perfection of heaven with the “female” imperfection of earthly things. Via this sort of positive allegory, there was a space for Renaissance monarchs to use the image of the hermaphrodite as a positive symbol of perfection.
These abstract philosophical concepts did not impinge much on the popular culture use of the hermaphrodite as a symbol of gender transgression, and especially of women who took on male garments and usurped “male” privileges, as in the polemical pamphlet Hic Mulier (titled with a linguistically hermaphroditic phrase combining masculine hic or “this” with feminine mulier “woman”). In general, though, the male privileges these women were claiming did not involve sexual relations with other women, but rather a masculine approach to sexual assertiveness as well as claiming the right to freely enjoy a public life rather than being limited to the domestic sphere. Some actual women who were considered to embody this hermaphroditic transgression include Long Meg of Westminster and Moll Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse), who both turned their resulting celebrity into professional performance. Such gender transgression was associated in the English mind with sexual transgression, but in the form of accusations of prostitution. [Note: in early modern England, "prostitute" or "whore" could be used to label any woman who engaged in sex outside of marriage, not strictly professional sex workers.]
The accusation of “hermaphroditism” as a slur was thrown at women who dared to enter any sphere presumed to be masculine, not only for gender performance. The French poet Louise Labé was accused by a rival of crossdressing as a man to engage in (heterosexual) orgies. The English poet Mary Wroth satirized a rival’s violent treatment of his daughter by featuring him as a character in a play, which inspired him to attack her in various publications as a hermaphrodite and monster, using an ad feminam attack to try to distract from the original charges against him. (She responded with a parody of his own vituperative poem, attacking him in return.)
Another English example provides a rare (at this time) association of gender transgression with lesbianism, in Ben Jonson’s attack on poet Cecelia Bulstrode (in response to her criticism of him), framing her entry into the masculine sphere of poetry as lesbian rape: “though with Tribade lust she force a Muse, And in an Epicoene fury can write newes...” The traditional image of the poetic muse as female is here used to claim poetry as an inherently masculine endeavor, as any woman engaging in it is then by definition entering into a homosexual relationship.
Thus, the image of the hermaphrodite is employed generally as a weapon to enforce gender boundaries: against women perceived as infringing on male prerogatives, and against men perceived as insufficiently upholding standards of masculinity. One of the things that made gender boundaries so crucial was the ways in which legal and political power were grounded in gender difference, from inheritance to differential application of legal penalties. The stability of society required persons with ambiguous gender to make a choice and stick to it. Legal theorists such as Edward Coke laid out the necessity of this choice “according to that sexe which prevaileth” but could offer no clear framework for how that decision shoud be made. As seen in some of the French legal cases, even medical professionals could differ in specific cases. More than anything else, the Renaissance fixation on the “problem” of the hermaphrodite and the pressure to resolve individuals into a binary framework only emphasizes that arbitrary nature of gender identity and perforemance. In a sense, the author argues, this crisis of categorization created the modern concept of fixed biological gender and providing a philosophical watershed between an earlier view of gender as inherently unstable and mutable.