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The Practical Uses of Gender Theory in the Middle Ages

Monday, October 21, 2019 - 09:00

The blog goes on, even when I'm posting it from an airport boarding lounge. This week will be the Sirens conference on women in fantasy literature. Next week will be a family get-together for my father's 90th birthday. So this past weekend I was scrambling to make sure that everything was set up for the blog and podcast for the next several weeks so I can pretend to be on an actual "vacation". The only time the LHMP has been on posting-vacation since the start back in June 2014 was when I was migrating the Project from my old Live Journal to this site and my webmasteres forbade me from creating new content during the process.

Chapter 4 of Cadden cuts directly to the more fascinating aspects of medieval gender theory: the layers of conflicting and even contradictory models, and the ways in which authors justified or dismissed those apparent contradictions, or the places where their theories led to observably false conclusions. In the end, despite the appearance of logical argument and observation-based theory, medieval philosophers had a fixed notion of How The World Worked and their goal was to create a systematic explanation of those pre-existing conclusions. This applied to gender and sexuality just as much as it did to all the astronomers who designed ever more elaborate orbital epicycles to support a geocentric cosmology. Individual authors might challenge those sex/gender models but overall there was a center of theoretic gravity that resisted such challenges.

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Full citation: 

Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6

Part II, Chapter 4: Feminine and mascuilne types

Introduction

Discussions about sex difference became more detailed and complex from the 11th through 14th century. This included defining male and female natures and functions. There was expanded interest in the role of and differences in sexual pleasure and other experiential factors. These discussions give us evidence of medieval people’s notions of men and women, masculine and feminine. The context of production affected how such discussions were presented, e.g., the monastic view of women as dangerous temptresses. But these systems of thought were never simple and straightforward. The gendered nature of the institutions discussing the topics affected the content and conclusions. And even though intermediate case studies might be discussed, the conclusions always returned to the binary.

Chapter 4

Medieval thought assigned many traits to women and men, but these did not neatly align with the philosophic theories. The assignment of gendered traits was founded on both observation and mythic lore, while some gendered characteristics can be easily contradicted by human observation. These assigned gendered characteristics created a bridge between theories of reproduction and societal roles, e.g., symbolic domination during sex based on relative position. Contradictions presented by intersex, cross-gender, or homophile instances needed to be forced into the binary.

The theory of qualities/humoral theory were used to justify gendered conclusions, but these qualities were interpreted as being metaphoric (e.g., “heat”) when direct observation contradicted a literal understanding. “Heat” was considered a definatively masculine quality that both caused and was a consequence of masculinity. But the manifestations of this metaphorical “heat” were defined according to pre-determined conclusions about sex differences.

Menstruation was a particular focus of theories about humoral differences between the sexes. Why did menstruation exist? What purpose did it serve? Anatomy was an obvious focus of discussion on sex differences. Women’s physiology was often considered “child-like” in these discussions. Hair was strongly gendered, both when discussing body/facial hair as inherently masculine, and the hair of the head as feminine. These associations were once more justified via humoral theory.

In addition to hot/cold, moist/dry binaries, gendered characteristics included details of physiognomy (the interpretation of facial features, hair, eyes, etc.), though the field of physiognomy was much broader than simply interpreting gender traits.

Sex difference is inherent in ideas about the process of sexual differentiation during conception. Many ideas were examined about the conditions that would influence an embryo to one sex or another, and thus how to cause a particular sex. Theories needed to explain indeterminate types, either of physiology or by a presumed conflict between body and personality categories. Environmental factors might cause someone to deviate from the gender characteristics associated with their (physical) sex.

When considering “masculine” character traits, the “virago” (i.e., a female-bodied person with male-assigned traits) was originally a term of praise for a female with “manly” qualities. This was a consequence of the theory that women were “imperfect men”. To achieve manliness was therefore an elevation of state, a matter of “rising above” one’s nature. Only later did “virago” become a derogatory term, indicating an appropriation of male social status.

In parallel, physically male people might sometimes be praised for positive “feminine” traits, especially in specific Christian contexts (e.g., Christ as nurturing mother, believers as “brides” of Christ), though this was less common. This imagery did not imply a positive value for women as people, as contrasted with specific idealized feminine traits.

This abstraction of gender could be applied to entire species/kinds in the natural world. Panthers were considered feminine, lions masculine. Planets were masculine or feminine and influenced these qualities in humans. Alchemy involved manipulating these symbolic gender qualities in physical substances to cause transformation.

This gender systematicity relied heavily on binary oppositions, even when it allowd for indeterminate/ambiguous states between the binary. Abstract gender metaphors were embraced even when their consequences for the material world were rejected, as with the acceptance of allegorical understandings of Zeus and Ganymede, or the figure of Hermaphroditus, while at the same time condemning sodomites and requiring intersex persons to adhere to a binary. Males with feminine traits or females with masculine traits disrupted the social and even the political order. It was either a usurpation of authority (for masculine females) or a degradation (for feminine males).

If “sodomy”--loosely defined as any type of sexual activity other than penis-in-vagina--could be given a physiological explanation, this implied that it was in some sense “natural.” This approach tended to appear in medical texts, and conflicted with the moral explanation of sodomy as a spiritual failure to perform the appropriate gender role. Even when a medical explanation was offered (i.e., that a tendency toward sodomy might be innate) the position was that it should still be resisted. For a man to commit sodomy made him “womanly” not simply as a receptive sexual partner, but because it showed moral weakness in the face of temptation, and weakness was categorized as feminine.

Medical texts tended not to condemn variant sexual behavior or anatomical ambiguity. The condemnation was left to theological writings. This can sometimes be seen in a single author’s works in both genres. Starting in the mid-13th century, there was a shift in theological writings to a focus on the control of sexual behavior in general: who, how, why. This coincided with ecclesiastical reform movements, the establishment of marriage as a sacrament, and concern with defining distinctions between celibacy, abstinence, and marital fidelity. Another set of co-occuring factors was the rise of heretical movements, such as the Cathars, that challenged orthodox thought on sex.

Prohibitions on homosexual acts usually framed the problem as gender reversal (i.e., one partner taking on the sexual role of the other gender), which also manifested in concern about transvestism, especially if done in the context of women usurping male social privileges, such as the right to celebrate Mass. At the same time, there was more space given in the texts to concern about males taking on feminine roles, possibly because the audience was presumed to be men, possibly because the “degradation” of taking on feminine roles was considered less understandable. Viewing homosexual acts as gender transgression simultaneously reinforced and undermined binary gender categories. Legal condemnation of homosexual acts focused more on men than women. The earliest known court case involving a sex act between women is from 1405.

The ambiguous space between the binary poles of masculine men and feminine women held a number of concepts (homosexuals, intersex people, eunuchs, etc.) which might all be lumped under the term “hermaphrodites”. Because there was not a clear distinction between how this term applied to sex characteristics (physiology) versus gender characteristics (sociology), the use of the term hermaphrodite for a specific person cannot always be clearly interpreted.

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historical