Fradenburg, Louise & Carla Freccero, eds. 1996. Premodern Sexualities. 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.
This case is drawn from a legal document that is almost unique in medieval England in providing a description of male same-sex activity in a context of male cross-dressing. The legal focus emphasizes the importance of gender, and not sexual behavior or sexual “identity” in the context of medieval law.
John (alias Eleanor) Rykener was apprehended in 1394 for committing an act of prostitution with a man while wearing female clothing. Rykener testified to working as a prostitute as well as an embroidress (a female profession that he engaged in while passing as a woman). He named two women who had initiated him into the trade of prostitution and taught him how to dress. He testified that he was paid to have sex with men and that he also had sex with women (when in male clothing) but not for money. [Note: I am following the original article in using male pronouns for Rykener.]
It isn’t clear that there was ever a formal legal proceeding against him. Sexual crimes were in the purview of the church and what would have been the relevant church records for that place and time have not survived. The original investigation seems to have been under the umbrella of public disorder. Prostitution was a civil crime, but gender transgression seems to have been the main concern.
The article considers how Rykener would have been viewed or would have identified in both medieval and modern terms. Did the medieval authorities consider Rykener a sodomite? Or did they evaluate his case as that of a woman? There are differing frameworks of identity versus activity involved. Medieval law treated sodomy as a criminal act rather than recognizing a homosexual orientation. But prostitution was considered a status crime. That is, the law didn’t view a woman as engaging in prostitution but rather as "being" a prostitute.
Could Rykener have been viewed as having this identity, that of being a prostitute? Prostitute was an inherently female-gendered status. To be considered a prostitute Rykener would have needed to be considered a type of woman.
Conversely, although Rykener admitted to engaging in sexual acts with men, the words “sodomite” or “sodomy” do not appear in the record, although related language such as “detestable sin” and the like do. As noted above, sodomy was evaluated as a specific act, not as a status. And discussions of the moral concerns around sodomy indicate that those concerns were not necessarily for the act itself, but for how it affected the gender status of the participant. Men were supposed to be “active” and women “passive”. For a man to be a passive participant in sex with another man was to disrupt the stability of gender categories.
When men had sex with Rykener, the act is described as “as with a woman”, whereas when Rykener had sex with women, it was “as a man.” Rykener’s gender identity was defined by the role he played in specific acts. But that gender wasn’t solely defined in relation to the gender of his sexual partner, but also by the act of dressing as a woman (or a man) and behaving as one. That is, Rykener was not condemned as a sodomite because he was not having sex with men as a man, but as a woman.
The article includes a full transcription of the legal record (in translation from the Latin original).
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.
This is an examination of gender and sexuality in a “transvestite saint” legend from France. Saint Euphrosine wanted to remain a virgin and so ran away from home. To help avoid being tracked down by her father, rather than entering a convent, she disguised herself as a man and claimed to be a eunuch to enter a monastery. Sight of her inflames the lusts of the monks such that the head of the monastery requires her to live secluded to prevent sexual temptation. The article focuses both on Euphrosine’s “erotic” relationships with Jesus and the potentially homoerotic reaction of the monks to the disguised Euphrosine. The question is left open whether this desire is forbidden heterosexual desire (because Euphrosine is “really a woman”) or forbidden homosexual desire, based on surface appearances. One of the conclusions is that even when not overtly female, female saints are still sexualized in medieval literature.
The medieval mystic Margery Kempe wrote her book partly in response to interrogation for suspect religious views. One specific anxiety that was voiced against her was that she would “lead...wives away” to join her in her own personal forms of worship. This article looks at the use of sorrow and compassion for the passion of Christ, but also for the figures of Mary mourning as a form of homoerotic bonding between women. This had the potential to create a female community of religiously-oriented mourning, identified with the Virgin, but with the women’s relationships made acceptable by being mediated through the figure of Christ.