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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #110f Borris 2004 - Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance (Chapter 7)

Full citation: 

Borris, Kenneth (ed). 2004. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-1-138-87953-9

Publication summary: 


As indicated by the sub-title, this is a collection of edited texts relevant to same-sex desire in England in the two centuries centered around the 16th. These are not necessarily texts of 16th century England, but texts available to people in that time and place. In covering these chapters, I will tend to give a topical summary of the mentioned works, but may sometimes quote the sources more extensively as my whim takes me. I will also only cover the texts with female relevance. Therefore my coverage of some chapters may much briefer than others.

Chapter 7: Prodigious Monstrosities

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A specialized version of the encyclopedia was the catalog of unnatural or monstrous individuals, encompassing deformities, birth defects, and a great many mythical beings. Of particular relevance to sexuality was the fascination for hermaphrodites. Visual representations often portrayed a bilateral dimorphism, with the right half of the individual portrayed as one sex and the left half as the other.

Accusations of hermaphroditism often focused on behaviors or styles of dress that were considered to belong to the “opposite sex”. But some descriptions seem to fall more in the category of physiologically intersex individuals, where genitalia are ambiguous and some life event draws the appropriate gender assignment into question. Questions of sexual desire were one clear locus where categorization became relevant. Catalogs of monstrosities also overlapped with the genre of “wonders of far away lands”, and some texts asserted the existence of entire races of hermaphrodites who performed alternately as male or female by turns.

In more immediate, local cases, individuals classified as hermaphrodites were generally legally assigned to what medical officials determined to be their predominant sex, and were left in peace to the extent that they conformed to that role, but treated as sodomites or tribades (as appropriate) if they then changed roles. Cases sometimes came to the attention of the law when an individual who had been assigned to one gender wished to gain permission to officially change category, especially in order to engage in a marital relationship with a chosen partner of the “wrong” sex.

For example, in 1601 in Rouen, a person who had been raised as female asked permission to be reclassified as male in order to marry a woman they were having a sexual relationship with. Although the request was controversial, evidently it was successful. Similarly, Eleno de Céspedes in 16th c. Spain, after having lived as a woman and given birth to a child, spent a long period living as a man and received official classification as a “hermaphrodite deemed male” in order to marry a woman. This classification was later reversed.

Ambroise Paré (ca. 1510-1590) discussed his theory that spontaneous changes from female to male were possible, but not the reverse. The passage occurs in a section discussing female genitalia, including the common belief at the time that enlarged female genitals were a cause of female homoeroticism (i.e., “masculine” sexuality) and that excision was a treatment for this (though he seems to focus on the labia minora rather than on the clitoris). Paré discussed a distinction between four types of hermaphrodites, depending on the type and functionality of the external genitalia. In the same section, he quotes Leo Africanus regarding female homoerotic behavior in Mauritania. There is a list of several cases of apparent change from female to male at puberty. [Note: Case histories of this type suggest the possibility of a condition such as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. In a historic context that has no familiarity with genes, enzymes, and hormones, it’s easy to understand how some of the theories and beliefs about hermaphroditism arose.]

The medical treatise of Helkiah Crooke (1576-1635) Microcosmographia: A Description of the Body of Man has a similar catalog of several categories of hermaphroditism, but ascribes the condition to unlawful sexual behavior on the part of the parents.

Time period: 

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