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Triangulating on the Intersection of Lesbian and Transgender

Monday, April 3, 2017 - 07:15
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Mills is turning out to be a very dense book, though I'll be skimming some chapters that deal primarily with male-related topics. By the way, check out this interview of me on J. Scott Coatsworth's blog!

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Mills, Robert. 2015. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5

Publication summary: 

This is an in-depth study of the visual cues and visual representations of the concept of “sodomy” in medieval manuscripts and art, using the definition of that concept at the time, not the more specific modern sense. Mills looks at how gender and sexuality interact and challenges the perception that there was no coherent framework for understanding gender and sexual dissidence in the middle ages. The topics covered include images associated with the label “sodomite”, gender transformations and sex changes (especially in Ovid), and sexual relations in closed communities (such as religious houses). The analysis includes a consideration of the relevance of modern categories to the study of medieval culture.

Chapter 2 Transgender Time

I really, really like how this chapter addresses issues of the subjectivity of human categories. It is not enough to say, "medieval people didn't have a concept of sexual orientation that corresponds to our modern one." It's also important to note that their concept of gender didn't align with ours either. For that matter, their concept of what constituted "desire" or "sexual activity" didn't align with ours. And those concepts were constantly shifting and changing across history--not in a teleological way. It isn't that we have been "evolving" slowly to some sort of true and proper understanding of sexuality and gender, but rather that the concepts are inherently unstable and responsive to the belief, attitudes, and anxieties of the time. We ourselves live in a time when those concepts have been shifting rapidly and variably in different populations and cultures. Models that are prominent today will be considered quaint and antiquated later in our lifetimes--not because they are quaint and antiquated, but because that's the nature of change.

One reason I'm glad that Mills addresses the contrasting frames of sexual orientation and transgender identity is because it's a topic that feels like an underlying current in much of the material in the LHMP. I've been hesitant to do more than acknowledge and point out its existence myself, but Mills shows how the consideration can be part of a productive analysis. In a previous essay, I took on a very personal and subjective consideration of "who owns queer history?" Mills does something of the same, though on a much more academic level, in looking at the continuing re-interpretations of motifs like Iphis and Ianthe, not only in the medieval period but up through the present.

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).

One of the anxieties around persons categorized as “sodomites” was that they might alternate their performative gender. Not only behavior, but fashion might be targeted as gender-disruptive. Sodomitical identity could be signled by gender performance rather than by sexual activity. Or that performance might itself be a symptom of a underlying vice. Homosexuality, per se, was not required to be a sodomite.

There was, however, an association in the medieval mind between cross-gender performance and homosexual acts, for example in the trial of John/Eleanor Rykener who engaged in prostitution “as a woman”. (The implication is that he engaged in prostitution with both men and women, performing the opposite gender from his client of the moment.) In 15th century Florence, only “passive” partners in m/m sex were associated with performance of feminine gender. Similarly, f/f couples primarily came to legal attention only when one partner performed masculinity, either by cross-dressing or by employing a penis substitute for sexual activity. Literary examples of “female masculinity” included women with an assertive sex drive, or women (such as Amazons) engaged in governance, who were considered sodomitical due to the inversion of assumed gender roles.

Mills uses a transgender framework to discuss these, while acknowledging how medieval topics and attitudes don’t align with the modern use of the terminology and concepts. Modern ideas of “choice” of gender expression don’t apply in the middle ages when options were limited both in terms of modification (i.e., surgery) and expression. Not until the early modern period were there identifiable subcultures such as the 18th century “mollies.”

Use of the term “transgender” risks becoming a normalizing approach rather than a disruptive one. Mills says he considered using a meta-term such as “transgender-like” in parallel to Bennett’s “lesbian-like”, or to the way Traub italicizes her use of “lesbian” to mark a distinction from modern use, but he says he discarded that approach because of the risk that it would imply an “undeveloped” version of transgender, rather than what he intended.

Mills discusses how to approach categories such as transgender where modern concepts don’t align with historic categories, e.g., the impossibility of aligning classical pederasty with modern concepts of homosexual orientation. Per Halperin, under modern homosexuality, the significance of gender and gender roles for categorizing sexual interactions disappears in favor of the choice of sexual partner.

Mills contrasts the concepts of friendship, pederasty, and gender-variance, all of which could be linked to sodomy. He then considers that modern categories of orientation and gender aren’t as clear or stable as they’re often treated. [Note by HRJ: Although Mills doesn’t cite it as an example, the phenomenon of people who had previously identified as butch lesbians coming to understand themselves as trans men might be pertinent here. Medieval people aren’t the only ones whose understanding of their identity is shaped by the concepts that society presents to them.] Also, the historic conceptual frameworks that apply to men don’t necessarily fit women well or at all. Butler’s concept of “gender as performance” can imply that all conformance to gender binaries is dispensable and artificial. Transgender can represent a “proto-homosexuality” imagined as inversion. But it also can represent an ideal of flexibility and liberation from gender binaries.

In medieval texts, the relative priority of gender over sexuality is because sexual sins are understood as a “bad imitation” of approved forms of sex. When sex between nuns is condemned by writers such as Hildegard of Bingen, it is as “fornication” rather than narrowly as homosexuality, although there are also concerns about using “artificial means”. Is sex between nuns simply a violation of celibacy or something more? Gender distinctions mean that women cannot aspire to priestly celibacy, as such. Hildegard notes that cross-dressing is not universally sinful, as such, but could be condoned if, for example a man’s life or a woman’s chastity [note the distinction!] were in danger. “[A woman] should not take on a masculine role, either in her hair or her attire.” Female cross-dressing simply out of “boldness” is not acceptable.

The requirement is that bodily sex and gender role must align and conform to a binary. Anything else is seen as “turning away from God.” Hildegard calls homosexuality “a strange and perverse adultery” whereas Peter Damian calls it “sodomy”. The emphasis is not on specific sexual practices but on having the appropriate partner. But there are distinctions in how the categories are applied to men and women. Circumlocutions about male sodomy often focus on the implication of anal intercourse, while polemics against female sodomy focus on a women usurping a (masculine) active role.

Hildegard’s arguments aren’t entirely coherent, for example in how cross-dressing is judged by purpose rather than by the act itself. And there’s an interesting contrast between Hildegard’s prohibitions on sexual activity between women and her own passionate/romantic attachments with women, recorded in convent records and correspondence. In Hildegard’s hierarchy of sin, women who usurp a masculine gender role are distinct from, and worse than, those who simply have a female sexual partner. And the latter doesn’t distinguish active and passive roles.

Mills now digresses for a discussion of the structures of 1940s-50s butch-femme performance. The medieval gender/sex hierarchy argues against attributing the modern category of “lesbian”, which prioritizes the same-sex aspect over the gender transgression aspect. It also deflects from the medieval focus on transsexual frameworks. The category “lesbian” makes invisible the medieval priority on transgender aspects of sodomy, while the category “transgender” makes invisible the “femme partner” in sex, whom medieval attitudes considered equally culpable.

Mills emphasizes that his use of the terms “lesbian” and “transgender” about medieval examples is not a way of defining or claiming them, but of identifying gaps in the medieval logic and shedding light on how the concepts combined differently in the medieval view.

The focus of this next section is Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe, and medieval interpretations and extrapolations from it. The story has enjoyed recent interpretation as depicting lesbian/same-sex desire via a cross-gender framework. How does it illuminate the medieval world view to consider it instead in a transgender framework?

In Ovid’s story, Iphis was raised by her mother as a boy to protect her from her father's vow to kill girl children. She is betrothed to Ianthe (the literal girl next door) and they fall mutually in love. Iphis laments the “impossibility” of her desire. The conflict is resolved when the goddess Isis miraculously turns Iphis into a man. Iphis dwells on the “non-natural” nature of her desire, listing various animals and claiming that they don’t experience same-sex desire. Included is a reference to the story of Pasiphaë and the bull (in which Pasiphaë concealed herself in a model of a cow in order to have sex with a bull, thereby giving birth to the Minotaur), which Iphis see as less “mad” than her own desire, because at least it involved male and female. Despite all the human pressures to encourage the marriage between Iphis and Ianthe (including the desire of the two women themselves), “nature” is assumed to triumph and make it impossible.

Like many classical stories, this one was picked up and reinterpreted many times in medieval literature, including the several variants of the story in the Yde and Olive group. But Mills looks specifically at French and English version from the 14-15th century in “Ovid moralisé” manuscripts. Like the moralized bibles, these used visual interpretations of the text to comment on and create moral lessons based on the original story. In the process, they often changed the nature of the story to better illustrate the intended moral. This is a loose group of texts, centering around a French verse translation of Ovid from ca. 1328, which had the goal of claiming Ovid as a sort of proto-Christian philosopher by extracting Christianized lessons from the pagan text. The text group also includes two 15th century secular abridgements of the 14th century verse translation that discarded the moralizing commentary but kept the revised story lines. Mills also mentions other related, but not necessarily derivative, versions of the text.

These different versions had different approaches to how the “translation” of the story and the moralizing could diverge. For example, Caxton’s text contradicts Ovid’s claim that the name “Iphis” could be used by either gender--a reason given in the original for Iphis’s mother choosing it. Caxton’s text calls the name inherently masculine, implying that the use of the name is an active gender deceit, rather than a deliberate attempt to avoid making false gender claims in use of the name. Earlier translations followed Ovid in creating a passive allowance of an assumption of (male) gender, and specifically note that it was not a “lie”. Thus Caxton introduces the common trope of transgender status as inherently deceptive.

Conversely, in contrast to Ovid’s version, Caxton’s language attributes masculinity to Iphis before the physical transformation. Ovid emphasizes a “similarity” model of attractiveness and attraction, describing characteristics that are not implied to be inherently gendered. But when the language requires specificity, Ovid’s text identifies Iphis (pre-transformation) as female. Medieval texts often alternate pronouns more by context [HRJ note: see also this protean use of pronoun gender in the medieval romance Silence], and are more likely to discuss physical characteristics as specifically masculine or feminine. Caxton portrays Iphis as masculine even before the introduction of the theme of sexual desire for Ianthe. That is, Caxton’s Iphis is male in an essential way, just not quite male enough to marry a woman. This inherent masculinity is implied to be the basis for Iphis’s desire for Ianthe, but is not sufficient to enable consummation.

Ovid’s text frames Iphis’s desire as “new” and “monstrous”, while Caxton introduces the theme of Iphis being ashamed of desiring someone she isn’t worthy of (because of this monstrosity). In the context of this story, to desire a woman is to desire “as a male”. Caxton’s Iphis contemplates changing gender “by artifice” (like Daedalus) but considers that act impossible. This interpretation echoes Hildegard of Bingen’s opinion that the error is for a woman to desire “as a man”. It cannot be revolved by “nature”--rather the change of sex is miraculous as opposed to natural.

In Ovid, the transformation is narratively signaled by performance: Iphis is described as now having a masculine stride and features, short hair, masculine vigor.

A comparison is made to another Ovidian tale, that of Tiresias who underwent several transformations of sex due to divine action. Tiresias is implied to have experienced sexual desire both as a man and a woman, but the object of Tiresias’s desire was always determined by heterosexual imperative: as a man he desired women, as a woman she desired men. Thus Tiresias’s experience was “natural”.

As another comparison, the trial of John/Eleanor Rykener focused on the transgressive nature of mutable gender performance, even though always in a heterosexual framework. That is, John had sex with women as a man, while Eleanor had sex with men as a woman. In the medieval framework, the changeability was more significant than the specific transgender performance.

Classical sources believed in the occurance of spontaneous female-to-male transformation. These occur in histories, travelers’ tales, and other anecdotes. Pliny claims that some animals can change sex, even repeatedly. The concept of hermaphroditism in part had roots in philosopy and myth, but may also have been an attempt to create a framework for understanding intersex people. There were varying opinions on whether hermaphrodites had a “divinely” double nature (i.e., that it was a natural non-binary state) or fell more in the sodomite category. Some considered a “third sex” concept, where a individual was considered to have both male and female sexual organs, but the conclusion was that one should stick to a single performative gender role.

The version of Iphis and Ianthe in Gower’s Confessio Amantis (1390) includes a framing that is ambivalent about sex between women rather than entirely negative. It describes how, when the two girls lie together in bed as “playmates”, they “use a thing [i.e., object] unknown to them” in a way that is against nature. This version of the story at least implies the possibility of sexual activity between women, as contrasted with other versions that stop at the claim that it’s totally impossible. (Mills now spends a while in meditations on queerness and interpretive theory.)

Whatever the “thing” is in Gower’s text (possibly a dildo?), it can disrupt the definitions of sex, gender, and sexuality in the moralized Ovid. Mills offers a summary of descriptions from the medieval historic record of dildos used in sex between women, such as the legal cases of Bertolina and Katherina Hetzeldorfer. But the interpretation of Gower’s reference as a dildo is far from certain. It could simply be a reference to the female organ (clitoris). Similar language is used by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, which she refers to the genitalia of both sexes as “small things”.

Mills now goes into a discussion of the “discovery” of the clitoris in 16th century medical treatises, and the popular theory at that time of a causal connection between an enlarged clitoris and sexual activity between women. But this 16th century “discovery” is not entirely accurate. William of Saliceto (13th c. Italy) clearly described the clitoris and echoes the claim s that women use it for sexual activity with other women.

In the “moralized Ovid” the general mapping of the story to Christian concepts goes as follows:

  • Ligdus (Iphis’s father) = God
  • Telethusa (Iphis’s mother) = the intercessory church
  • Change of sex = divine grace for sinners

Thus we have the mapping:

  • female Iphis = sinner
  • male Iphis = virtuous Christian

But this equation in the verse Ovid Moralisé is preceded by a portrayal of Iphis as using an “artificial member” on the advice of a procuress to accomplish sex with Ianthe “against law and against nature.” This dildo is identified in French as a “chose” (the word also used by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath), which allows her to pay her “marital debt” by deceit. As in the tale of the Wife of Bath, male privilege is treated as a mobile and transferable object that can be appropriated. F/f eroticism is visible, but mediated by an object, rather than treated as an impossibility.

Mills presents a discussion of penitential manuals that mention “diabolical instruments” (machina) used between women for sex. This theme dates back as far as Hincmar of Rheims (9th c) and Burchard of Worms (10th c).

The verse Ovid Moralisé follows this obsession with dildos. Rather than the original “miraculous” transformation, we get artificial devices used for “deceptive” homosexual activity. Here we have a clearer parallel to the story of Pasiphaë with her artificial cow. The motif of the transferable penis touches back on the original tradition of the goddess Isis, where she creates an artificial penis for Osiris when reconstructing his dismembered body. But note that this tradition may not have been available to the medieval translators who inserted dildos in the story of Iphis.

When the moralized Ovid was abridged to remove the moralizing text, the earliest version removed the “instrument” scene, but other versions kept it and spun it differently. In 15th c. Bruges, where one version was published, there are records of multiple trials and executions of women for sodomy (although the specific acts are not indicated, so we don’t know if “instruments” were involved). The translator uses similar language to these trials in condemning Iphis’s dildo, though the specific word "sodomy" is not used. Similarly, this version retains a non-Ovidian ending where Iphis flees into exile, similar to the typical non-capital punishment for women convicted of sodomy in 15th c. Flanders.

Caxton’s version of the story eliminates the spiritual interpretation of the moralized texts entirely in favor of a misogynistic condemnation of a woman performing “as a man” in bed. His version depicts cross-dressed desire as leading to love, and then to marriage and sex, but when Iphis’s underlying gender is discovered, the result is shame and exile.

The moralized Ovid added illustrations early in the manuscript tradition, which provide additional interpretative information. One version prioritizes illustating the miraculous sex-change, but another features depictions of homoerotic potential. The oldest surviving illustrated version (from the first quarter of the 14th century: Rouen O.4) has the most extensive set of images. There are three illustrations of the Iphis story, plus two illustrations for the moral context.

  • 1. The birth of Iphis
  • 2. Iphis (as a girl) and her mother pray to Isis (while the accompanying text references the sex change)
  • 3. A male Iphis with Ianthe is paired with a matching image of a penitent sinner

In the Paris Bibliotheque Arsenal 5069 ms, dated a few years later, there are some images that correspond to the Rouen manuscript, but most are different:

  • 1. The birth of Iphis
  • 2. Two women (Iphis and Ianthe) embrace. The poses suggest that Iphis is acting assertively, perhaps even agressively. There is a parallel image of a cleric forcing his attentions on a woman.

One theme of these texts is that they position female same-sex desire in “ancient time” while excluding the possibility from the present and future.In a consideration of the “chronology” of gender inversion tropes, the Ovid Moralisé situates Iphis’s sex change in a vanished past. Mills compares this with current scholarship that considers the concept of “sexual inversion” to be an obsolete model (i.e., situated in the past).

Another example of sex-change imagery from this period is Christine de Pizan’s (1403) “Book of Fortune’s Transformation.” The narrative voice of the poem represents a female author who, after the death of her husband, is transformed by “Fortune” into “a natural man”. The poem tells the story of how this happened. It includes a discussion of the story of Iphis. The narrator describes having been born female but feeling gender dysphoria and having always identified with their father, who wanted a son. There is a list of “miracles” of gender transformation from Ovid, but the focus in citing Iphis is on the mother’s regret for raising Iphis as a boy and so creating the context for same-sex desire. The poem presents Fortune as a “second mother” who re-births the narrator as a man, in grief for the husband’s death. The work creates no context for homoeroticism and focuses only on gender identity.

The driving force for the gender change of Christine’s narrator is not sexual, there is no mention of a penis (after transformation) or of desire. As the transformation is miraculous and independent of desire, there are no allusions to potential mechanics of sex between female bodies. This text erases the motif of “femme desire”, unlike in some other versions of Iphis and Ianthe, such as Caxton’s, in which Ianthe too is a desiring participant.

Another parallel is the collection of variants of the Yde and Olive tale. In these, Olive takes a strongly desiring role toward the cross-dressed Yde, desiring sexual consummation and continuing faithful to Yde even after Yde’s physiological sex is revealed. Olive’s father, on the other hand, when contemplating the possibility that he daughter is in a same-sex relationship refers to it as “buggery” and calls for penalties assigned to sodomites.


Mills finishes the chapter with a discussion of modern fictional interpretations of the Iphis and Ianthe story in a contemporary setting with a gender-fluid Iphis.