Intersex in the Middle Ages
In a fascinating article entitled, Hermaphroditism in the Western Middle Ages: Physicians, Lawyers and the Intersexed Person, historian Irina Metzler examined present and medieval views of intersex individuals.
What did the Law say?
The number one concern of medieval churchmen, jurists and the general populace was the risk of social deviance. “Rather than an aberrant physiology, what worried medieval commentators more was the possibility of aberrant sexual, in this case homosexual, behaviour.”
In contrast to modern day intervention where an operation is decided by the parents and health professionals at the time of birth, in the Middle Ages, the intersex individual could choose the sex they felt suited them. However, if they strayed from their choice, they risked being accused of homosexual relations and could run afoul of the law. Whatever their decision, according to scholar Miri Rubin in her article, The Person in the Form: Medieval Challenges to Bodily Order, the choice had ‘a heterosexual orientation imposed on it’. If you chose to be a male, you must pair with a female, and vice versa to avoid accusations of sexual deviance. However, sex could also be assigned at birth. According to Michel Foucault, the Godparent would often assign the sex of the infant at the time of baptism. Once the child had reached the age of majority and they were ready for marriage, they could decide whether they wanted to remain the sex assigned to them at birth. They could switch at this point but then must remain with their final choice to allay any concerns regarding deviance. However, if the intersex individual could not pay the marital debt, the spouse was permitted to dissolve the marriage.
Punishments for deviating could be very severe. In 1281, a female hermaphrodite from Alsace was blinded when she tried to force another woman to have sex. Once again, idea that a female was acting like a male was the abhorrent act, not so much the attack itself.
What did the Church say?
Ecclesiastical concerns centred on the hermaphrodite being unable to consummate marriage. It was important in Canon Law for a married couple to be able to conceive and consummate their union. The concern of sexual deviance and prohibitions against homosexual behaviour by law makers were echoed by canonists. Theologian Peter the Chanter (d. 1197) wrote on hermaphrodites:
“There will not be intercourse of men with men or women with women, but only of men and women and vice versa. For this reason the church allows a hermaphrodite – that is – someone with the organs of both sexes, capable of either active or passive functions – to use the organ by which (s)he is most aroused or the one to which (s)he is more susceptible…If, however, (s)he should fail with one organ, the use of the other one can never be permitted, but (s)he must be perpetually celibate to avoid any similarity to the role of inversion of sodomy, which is detested by God.”
In the eyes of the church as in the eyes of the law, one sex must always prevail. Again, the focus not being on the physical issue so much as the societal problem intersex people posed to public decorum and upholding medieval “norms”.
Intersex: The Medieval View
Rubin also indicated that hermaphrodites were often included in medieval bestiaries, “Such lore was transmitted in medieval bestiaries and in texts based on Isidoran lore, such as the twelfth century, De Monstris, which describes androgynes: ‘It is written and read of a miserable prodigy who is of joint or mixed gender. It reproduces, as father and as mother, bringing forth a single creature which has both male and female members alike’”
Intersex people were viewed as monstrous, and among the general populace, commonly shunned. Any deviation from God was considered a monstrosity. In City of God, Augustine (354-430) included hermaphrodites in his list of monstrosities. Medieval French poet, Eustache Deschamps (1340-1406) went further and wrote a damning piece entitled, Contre les Hermaphrodites:
“A soft chin,son Hermaphrodite
Effeminate, a defect of nature,
Faint in heart, devoid of all virtues,
But full of vice, which tends towards nothing but filth…
A woman out of a man, who should be bearded,
man without hair, this is an insult to everyone.
To meet them is nothing but misfortune,
And their gaze can be pleasing to no one.
They make sexual use of both kinds,
I have known them in my time to be
Untrustworthy, disloyal, evil”
The Medieval Medical Explanation: What Caused Hermaphroditism?
There were several rather curious medieval theories as to the causes for the condition. One popular belief was the seven celled uterus. It was believed that the uterus was two cavities made up of three compartments on each side. One side housed three warmer divisions, which were male, and the other held three colder divisions, which were female. There was one remaining cavity in the centre, neither male nor female, and in this seventh cell, the hermaphrodite was created.
Another explanation by medieval medical practitioners was that the origin of the sperm – either right or left testicle – determined the sex of the baby. If sperm from the left testicle went into the right part of the uterus, this would result in a “manly” woman. If the sperm from the right testicle went into the left side of the uterus, this would produce an effeminate man.
The intersex individual was viewed as a threat to social order and their bodies had to be controlled. Even with “rational” medical explanations, it did not make intersex acceptable as a third sex in the medieval world order. Medieval churchmen, jurists and the populace expected the intersex individual to fit into the appropriate “box” in order to continue functioning in society.
More by Irina Metzler:
Irina Metzler, Hermaphroditism in the Western Middle Ages: Physicians, Lawyers and the Intersexed Person, “Studies in Early Medicine I – Bodies of Knowledge: Cultural Interpretations of Illness and Medicine in Medieval Europe”, BAR International Series 2170 (2010) pp. 27-37
Miri Rubin, The Person in the Form: Medieval Challenges to Bodily Order, “Framing Medieval Bodies”,