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A More Complex Look at Medieval Theories of Sex and Gender

Monday, September 30, 2019 - 07:00

In this chapter, Cadden surveys the classical medical and philosophical writers who tackled the questions of the meanings of sex difference and the relationship of male and female (as well as mascuine and feminine). Different schools of thought are examined via a selection of key writers, discussing their basic principles and influences.

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Part I, Chapter 1

Part I

Medieval philosophy rested on classical and theological traditions, but these traditions could be contradictory and their contents were sometimes adapted to new uses and beliefs.

Chapter 1: Prelude to medieval theories and debates

This chapter covers Greek and Latin source materials that would form part of the basis of medieval understanding of sex differences. These philosophers presented both “scientific” and metaphorical explanations for sex difference. Different writers presented different concepts that overlapped and contradicted each other.

Hippocrates covered wide-ranging medical information which was transmitted via Galen’s later framing and commentary. His primary concept was that of balance and imbalance, moderation, and the origins of humoral theory, resting on the concept of polarities that did not have hierarchical relationships. The sexes have different compositions of these attributes and they affect health and reproduction. Sexual activity both affected and was influenced by humoral balance.

[Note: A brief understanding of humoral theory is helpful, especially since I will tend to use this label to cover concepts that aren’t precisely “humoral”. Basically, all things are composed of attributes that exist on binary scales; hot to cold, dry to wet. Health, well-being, and “good life” come from having these properties in the correct balance. Medicine is designed to alter an imbalance, as disease and improper functioning are caused by one’s attributes being out of balance. But some “imbalance” in these qualities is inherent based on one’s nature, and group characteristics may be attributed to a general tendency to try to seek to balance those qualities. Thus, for example, male human beings are, by nature, considered to be “hotter” than female human beings. Certain sexual differences are considered to be a consequence of this “fact.” So, for example, under this theory women experience menstruation and men don’t because menstruation is the female body’s attempt to rid itself of an imbalance of these properties specific to the condition of being female, while in turn that specific imbalance is part of what defines femaleness. “Humoral theory” proper visualizes the two binaries in terms of bodily fluids: blood (hot and wet), phlegm (cold and wet), black bile (cold and dry), and yellow bile (hot and dry). Humoral balance could be affected by diet, by environment, by behavior and activity. Although the rise of experimental science and medical treatments based on it eventually discredited humoral theory in Western medicine, the philosophical underpinnings can be compared to those of various systems of traditional medicine elsewhere in the world.]

Aristotle also subscribed to this balance/humoral theory but took a more systematic approach. His theory of form and matter sought to understand the causes of things and events. He took a more teleological approach (i.e., that things act to achieve a predestined goal). He applied value judgments to polar attributes that reflected an assumption of female inferiority.

The writings of Soranus (2nd century Greek) on gynecology brought in Greco-Egyptian thought. By his thinking, health related to concepts of laxness/tension, but still with the goal of balance. His philosophy treated female and male bodies as largely similar in function.

Galen (2nd century Greek) was also familiar with the Egyptian (Alexandrian) school of medical thinking, as well as other conflicting medical doctinres. He often rejected earlier writings while adopting specific elements of them. Like Aristotle, he preferred a philosophical framework for the practical medical knowledge he discussed. He ascribed purpose to nature (again: teleological thinking). His work didn’t focus on gender and reproduction. He embraced humoral theory and the principle of balance, focusing on binary oppositions but with less emphasis on sex differences, simply on contrasts. With respect to reproduction, he treated the uterus as having special importance, not simply as an analog of male anatomy and function.

Medieval philosophers might draw on these authors but often used their work to address questions that the classical authors hadn’t considered important, e.g., the role of sexual pleasure. The process by which classical texts were transmitted, translated, and assimilated was complicated as later authors added their own interpretation to the classical material.

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