INTERSEXUALITY IN PICTURES: HERMAPHRODITES AND GENDER FLUIDITY IN MEDIEVAL ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS
(project conceived by Prof. Carla Rossi, to be submitted to public and/or private funding institutions for possible grants aimed at forming a team working under the guidance of Prof. Rossi)
link to an initial sample database of what the collection will look like
Despite what one might think, Middle Ages or, more generally, the premodern period, were quite familiar with the idea of ‘gender fluidity’ and with hermaphrodite and androgynous figures, as well as with a range of physiological aspects of sexualities that cannot easily and clearly be categorized in a bipolar system of male and female. Examining the concept of ‘gender fluidity’ during the Middle Ages means delving deep into the history of a fundamental notion in the Judeo-Christian society, in which our culture is embedded, i. e. the idea of intersex.
Decoration in medieval manuscripts was not only for the purpose of embellishing the book object, it was also intended to aid literacy by offering a visual support, to help the reader find his/her way around and into the book.
The project aims: 1. creating an image database, in order 2. to analyse a series of illuminated manuscripts containing disparate texts in which ‘gender fluidity’ is depicted in images, from legal writings, such as the Decretum Gratiani to courtly novels (the Roman de la Rose, a medieval best-seller, among others), from philosophical to astrological or even alchemical texts, such as, to give just a few examples, the De Plancu Naturae, the Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit or the Liber introductorius (Kitāb al-madkhal al-Kabīr ‘alā ‘ilm aḥkām al-nujūm), which became one of the most important and widespread texts in late medieval astrology in Latin Europe.
The primary aim of the research is to collect a sufficiently large number of images (in a dedicated database of annotated miniatures) to allow a series of in-depth studies from various aspects, in order to analyse ‘gender fluidity’ from a variety of sources and in considerable detail. The secondary aim of the research is to stimulate a series of synchronic and diachronic reflections, in order to understand how the theme of ‘gender fluidity’ is by no means a novelty of our century.
 אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס in Hebrew means "intersex" and refers to someone who possesses both male and female sexual characteristics. The Mishnah explains: «The androgynos in some ways is like men, and in some ways is like women, and in some ways is like both men and women, and in some ways is like neither men nor women» (Bikkurim 4: 1). In the Mishnah, Rabbi Yosi makes the radical statement: «androgynos bria bifnei atzma hu / the androgynos he is a created being of her own». This Hebrew phrase blends male and female pronouns to poetically express the complexity of the androgynos’ identity.
The proposed scheme for cataloguing manuscripts is as follows: legal, literary, philosophical, astrological and alchemical codices.
A. Ambiguous bodies in canon law and Roman law
From a purely legal point of view, it was commonly assumed that hermaphrodites, even if constituting a separate sex, in practice could be assigned either male or female gender according to the «sex which prevailed».
In the learned laws (Roman law and canon law), hermaphrodites were relatively prominent from the 12th century on. Hermaphrodites could marry, inherit, act as witness, enter holy orders etc. according to the gender assigned to them. The legal status of ‘predominantly male’ hermaphrodites was clearly better than that of women and with only few qualifications equalled that of men; unlike women, for example, they could be ordained, but unlike men, dispensation was needed for such an ordination. Lawyers discussed various criteria (body and behaviour) as indicating the ‘prevailing’ sex; following Hostiensis, both laws finally adopted the solution that in doubtful cases, the ‘perfect’ hermaphrodite should swear an oath which gender s/he belonged to. This at least in theory left some choice to the individual; in practice, much depended on the social environment.
All miniatures from legal manuscripts will be collected in this section in order to understand how such a legal problem was represented iconographically.
The graphic illustration of these text passages will be investigated in particular:
1. Decretum Gratiani, C. 4, q. 2 et 3, c. 3 § 22
Hermafroditus an ad testamentum adhiberi possit, qualitas sexus incalescentis ostendit.
2. Summa Parisiensis 2.4, q. 2/3 s.v. hermaphroditus
Hermaphroditus: In terra enim calida plures nascuntur utriusque generis qui, si magis adjungant viris, tamquam viri dabunt testimonium. Hermes interpres, i.e. mercurius, frodis spuma, i.e. venus. Inde hermaphroditus qui ex his natus utriusque formam gerit.
3a. Huguccio, C. 27, q. 1, c. 23 ad v. ordinari
Quid si est ermafroditus? Distinguitur circa ordinem recipiendum sicut circa testimonium faciendum in testamento, ut IIII. q. III. Item ermafroditus (c. 3 § 22). Si ergo magis calet in feminam quam in virum, non recipit ordinem, si secontra [sic], recipere potest, set non debet ordinari propter deformitatem et menstruositam [sic], arg. di. XXXVI. Illiteratos (c. 1), et di. XLVIIII. c. ult. Quid si equaliter calet in utrumque? Non recipit ordinem.
3b. Huguccio, C. 4 q. 2 et 3 c. 3 § 22 ad v. sexus incalescentis
Si quidem habet barbam et semper vult exercere virilia et non feminea et semper vult conversare cum viris et non cum feminis, signum est, quod virilis sexus in eo prevalet et tunc potest esse testis, ubi mulier non admittitur, scil. in testamento et in ultimis voluntatibus, tunc etiam ordinari potest. Si vero caret barba et semper vult esse cum feminis et exercere feminea opera, indicium est, quod feminius sexus in eo prevalet, et tunc non admittitur ad testimonium, ubi femina non admittitur, scil. in testamento, set nec tunc ordinari potest, quia femina ordinem non recipit.
4. Hostiensis, Summa aurea
Quid si utriusque membri officio uti potest, secundum quid de facto fuit in villa mea, scilicet Secusiae? Respondeo: eligat cui se dicat, secundum quid episcopus Tauriensis diocesanus noster de ipso fecit et iuret quod de caetero alio non utetur, quia nec fungi debet duplici officio, maxime tam diverso.
B. Literary figures
Late Medieval vernacular poets, including Dante, Chaucer, Chrestien de Troyes, Guillaume de Lorris, Jean de Meun, Christine de Pizan, and Boccaccio, among others, all made extensive use of Ovidian material on the story of Hermaphrodite narrated in Metamorphoses in their writings. The myth of the hermaphrodite, in particular, found a number of admirers and interprets. In this section, images of both hermaphrodites and other gender fluid literary figures will be collected, such as Bell'Accueil in RdlaR.
C. Ars imitatur naturam in ejus modo operationis
Fundamental to this research are philosophical and theological reflections on Nature, in general, and on the nature of Christ in particular. Analysing Christ’s isolated side wound in Books of Hours, it is arguable that these images destabilise Christ’s gender by drawing the focus on Christ’s body to a prominent bleeding vulva. An entire section of the research and image collection will be devoted to the sex of Christ, which is discussed more extensively in the section on alchemy.
A noted polymath, Alan wrote during the 1160s or possibly 1170s a work entitled De planctu naturae (The Complaint of Nature), which examines the relation between grammar and gender. While there has been much debate about Alan's intentions in composing De planctu, it is clear that he is responding both to the perceived degeneration of con- temporary moral values and to the poor and unsystematic structure of Latin grammar. Because of the overlapping quality of his complaints, which weave together moral condemnation and grammatical judgments, as well as the obscurity of his Latin, Alan's arguments are notoriously difficult to follow. Nonetheless, one ought not to be deterred from exploring his primary fear of the transgression of the gender boundaries set by language.
In the opening section of De planctu, Alan laments the fact that Venus wars with Venus and changes 'hes' into 'shes' and with her witchcraft unmans man. This is commonly read as an accusation that homosexual conduct and/or effeminate practices were on the rise in Alan's time. But Alan in fact says more. He upholds the view that some men are so womanly that they can be classified for purposes of grammar as neither one nor the other. They have lost their masculine identity but are unable to take on entirely feminine qualities: A man turned woman blackens the fair name of his sex. The witchcraft of Venus turns him into a hermaphrodite. He is subject and predicate: one and the same term is given a double application. Man here extends too far the laws of grammar. Becoming a barbarian in grammar, he disclaims the manhood given him by nature. Latin is a gendered language; even the two most common Latin nouns for the intersexed person, androgynous and hermaphroditus, are both gendered masculine. Hence, if one takes seriously the distinctive nature of the hermaphrodite, as a not-he/not-she, it is necessary to create a barbarism, a whole new grammatical dimension. For Alan, the creation of such a neologism reflects the decay of the language itself. it will therefore be interesting to collect images illustrating these passages from De planctu.
D. Alchemical gender fluidity, the Mercurial hermaphrodite
By the turn of the fourteenth century, Latin alchemy was in the process of changing from a self-consciously scholastic discipline, wedded to the language of Aristotelian natural philosophy, to a field of study that was increasingly religious in its sentiments and vocabulary. The image of the hermaphrodite became crucial to these new writings, as can be seen from the text and manuscript illuminations of the undated Aurora consurgens and the early fifteenth-century Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit (Book of the Holy Trinity).
This is one of the earliest alchemical manuscripts containing emblematic symbolism. It is also of importance as its text used the Trinity and Christ's passion to allegorise alchemical content. This became very influential upon the alchemy that developed in the 16th century and later. About 23 manuscripts have survived, not all from the early period, and many of them contain the series of alchemical emblems, some with high quality coloured drawings, others somewhat less competent, though in general the symbolism is preserved with only a few relatively minor variations. The manuscripts are complex and fall into three groups, which scholars have investigated. We will look at a number of these images in this discussion forum over the coming months, but initially it would be interesting to consider the two images of the hermaphrodite that appear in these manuscripts. The Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit is not only an alchemical treatise using medical metaphors of regeneration and rejuvenation, but also contains elements of Christian prophecy. It is thought to have been written by a Frater Ulmannus who may have been of the Franciscan Order.
While the precise date of the Aurora consurgens' composition remains uncertain, the earliest exemplar of the Aurora consurgens is a lushly illustrated manuscript produced in the 1420s and now housed at the Zentralbibliothek of Zürich (Codex Rhenoviensis 172). both books confront us with the problem of Christ's sexual identity, of his gender fluidity, and so miniatures from these codices will be collected.