Double sex, double pleasure? Hermaphrodites and the medieval laws

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Hermaphroditus Double sex, double pleasure? Hermaphrodites and the medieval laws

Christof Rolker (Universität Konstanz, Geschichte)

Paper delivered at the IMC Leeds (2013)


The title of my paper suggests a link between double sex and double pleasure. The link is the idea that hermaphrodites in the Middle Ages were associated with ‘double pleasure’, that is, the possibility to assume both active and passive roles in intercourse, and this association indeed existed. Now, if one consideres how problematic (sexual) pleasure was in the medieval laws, the question presents itself how these laws dealt with hermaphrodites. Or to put it the other way round – the treatment of hermaphrodites in the medieval laws may help to understand what these rules were all about when it came to pleasure.

Hermaphrodites are certainly not a central issue in medieval legal history; elsewhere, they actually are relatively prominent. Thomas Laqueur’s now classic study on Making Sex [PP] is an important point of reference for most historians working in this field; without going into any details, I want to emphasize that in the last ten years or so, the history of intersexuality has seen huge rise. Just to give you an impression [PP]: there was Dreger early on, [PP] Long and Marchetti [PP], Voss engaged with Laqueur in his Making Sex revisited [PP], and most recently Reis and Graille [PP], and that is just a selection. This is remarkable for a field that did hardly exist in the 1990s. Although medievalists so far have not really contributed to this debate, the Middle Ages do play a role in the narrative shared by several of these publications. As the focus is normally on early modern history, the Middle Ages are a conventional starting point, and in most cases, depicted in stark contrast to the modern history of intersexuality.

Click here to read this paper by Christof Rolker

Sharan Newman