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A Survey of Medieval Thought on Sex Differences

Monday, October 7, 2019 - 07:00

Cadden  takes a deep dive into the details of some sample texts that illustrate the range of thought on the topic of sex differences--as well as illustrating their internal incoherence at times.

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Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6

Chapter 2 - The emergence of issues

The rise of universities, growing importance of towns, and shifts in the focus of ecclesiastical and secular courts created a new context for discussing sex differences. The rise of universities also inspired translation of vast quantities of Greek and Arabic material on natural philosophy and mediecine, providing access to classical sources that had been altered in the course of Latin transmission. This wealth of detail highlighted problems with the consistency and structure of the body of knowledge. This chapter highlights several texts grappling with this diversity. The very diversity of material meant that no single model of sex difference prevailed.

Constantine the African, an 11th century monk, connected with North Arica, a Moslem converted to Christianity, brought in Arabic medical texts and the influence of the medical school at Salerno. He wrote topic-based treatises intended for practical use, not only philosophical discussion. He took a consistent approach to explanation and treatment that followed humoral theory and consiered sexual desire in the context of procreation as well as discussing female and male roles in conception. He accepted that sex determination was caused by the uterine environment and the balance of the male and female seeds. In addition to the classical hot/cold, wet/dry distinctions, he discussed the bodily importance of a left/right polarity. He was more concerned with male influence on conception than female but accepted the physiological equivalence of the male and female organs and semen. He acknowledged female libido but did not put much focus on it, though he considered sexual pleasure to be an essential part of procreation. He also discussed how to decrease libido, when experiencing it was inappropriate. He considered women to take greater pleasure in intercourse (based on a theory of how sexual activity affected humoral gradients).

Hildegard of Bingen (12th century German abbess and prolific author) is an example of how monastic thought adapted to new learning without a radical transformation of conclusions. Her approach is eclectic and non-systematic. Her writing generally had a conservative context but she was also a visionary and largely self-taught. A collector, not an innovator. Her work mixes traditional remedies with theological explanations. She does not specifically address sex differences and reproduction, but these topics arise in other contexts, shedding light on her thoughts on the nature of male and female. She saw procreation as inherently related to the Fall from Eden and as resulting from physical imperfection. She viewed the female part in conception as more passive, but in the context that “active” conception resulted from bodily imbalances. The key binary properties in her theory were strength/weakness, with a lesser input of hot/cold. Her gender distinctions were not aligned clearly with positive and negative judgments. She viewed the gender binary as strong/soft (not strong/weak). There is an emphasis on difference, but not necessarily on hierarchy. Her discussion on the physical aspects of sexual arousal is incoherent and based on the idea of forces moving through the organs. She distinguishes delectatio (delight, arousal) from libido (lust, with a negative connotation).

Anonymous 12th century dialogue on sex and generation. This text addresses sexual topics openly and argues for them as a respectable subject. The author works from an assumption that the male is the primary influence in conception. The uterus is treated simply as a vessel, but he also follows the idea of right/left influence on conception. [Note: in this theory, the uterus was thought to have multiple chambers aligned on a right-left axis, and the both sex and gender were influenced by which one the fetus developed in.] But the dialogues also place an importance on female orgasm and female seed in the process. Given the belief in the importance of female orgasm to conception, the text debates why prostitutes rarely conceive. Various theories are offered deriving from different philosophical frameworks. He also touches on the question of pregnancy from rape as a contradiction of this principle, but concludes that if a pregnancy resulted, then the woman must have enjoyed the rape at some point. He recognizes that children often resemble their mothers (suggesting more female influence than some theories allowed for) and that even loving marriages might be barren. But these questions are then answered by finding explanations that support the original philosophical premises. Moral concerns in the work tend to be sublimated within the focus on examples of prostitution and rape, and misogynistic assumptions go unquestioned. In general, he turns the subject matter into an intellectual game rather than taking a medical approach.

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