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hermaphroditism

 

This was a persistant concept in European history, either indicating an individual who had both male and female sexual characteristics (the Classical model) or as someone with genitalia indeterminate between male and female (most likely inspired by intersex individuals, but perhaps also by unfamiliarity with the range of normal genitalia). Hermaphroditism was often suspected or claimed in cases of apparent female homosexuality in order to resolve the relationship into heterosexuality.

LHMP entry

The chapter opens with a tantalizing personal history that suggests, but never clearly demonstrates, lesbian possibilities. In 1722, Ann Carrack, a 30-year-old spinster set up in business as a milliner in London with Mary Erick. They rented a shop together and lived together above the shop. Several years later, they moved together to another location. After 7 years sharing a business and living quarters, they parted: Ann to work as a needlewoman and Mary to set up a shop in Chelsea. But 10 years after that, Ann resumed the partnership, moving in with Mary in Chesea.

Two figures provide a lens for the complexity of British systems of gender and sexuality in the mid 18th century: John Cleland (most famous for his novel Fanny Hill, or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) and Mary Wortley Montagu (poet and correspondent, most commonly mentioned in the LHMP for her descriptions of life in Ottoman Turkey as the wife of the British ambassador there).

The general topic of this article is the ways in which women who had sex with women in 17-18th century Britain were marginalized from the category of “women” via the imagined figure of the hermaphrodite, combining in the image of the tribade who was endowed with a penis-equivalent, either in the form of an enlarged clitoris or sometimes a prolapsed vagina capable of performing penetration. This article traces that image through various genres of literature, both popular and professional.

Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme (commonly referred to as “Brantôme”) was a French writer of the 16th century. He was a soldier and courier and wrote several volumes of memoirs and biography, but the most well-known (or at least, notorious) section is known as Vies des Dames Galantes (The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies) which, contrary to the rather positive title, is a scurrilous gossip-rag focusing on women’s sexual escapades and especially on the topic of wo

This is an excerpt from a German family chronicle about the Counts of Zimmern. All material transcribed from the published original will be in bold type. My translation will be in plain type, and my commentary will be in italics. I’ll be interleaving my translation and discussion with several separate sections and noting where I’ve omitted material that wasn’t relevant to the interests of the Project. The German text is a transcription of the original 16th century manuscript, reflecting 16th century spelling conventions.

[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article.

[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.]

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.

This chapter focuses on three specific individuals whose gender and sexuality brought them celebrity status in 16-17th century Spain: Catalina de Erauso, Queen Christina of Sweden, and Elena/Eleno de Céspedes. In comparing them, we can see the influence of race and class on how gender transgression was received.

Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).

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