Gender Transition in the Middle Ages

I’m doing some reading on gender change in the Middle Ages, and I thought I’d share some early thoughts on how medieval attitudes and theories could express the idea of gender change or of a difference between genital sex and gender performance.

First, it must be said that in the Middle Ages, God was a given, and so was His omnipotence. God had power of two types: ordained divine power, i.e. the power to create the world with a set of rules ordering it, and absolute divine power, i.e. the power to do whatever He wants, despite His rules for the world. I have no proofs for this, but I would imagine that, to medieval minds, the division between men and women, at least physically, was ordered by God, as suggested by Gen 2: 22-24. The result is a strictly binary gender-system.

However, in medical practice, this malehood and this femalehood ordered by God was defined on the basis of an epistemology completely different from ours. The standard medical theory in the Middle Ages was humourism. Following Ancient Greek doctors, medieval medicine thought physical health and psychological temperament all derived from the specific mix of the four humours in a given person. Accordingly, so were sex and gender: women were colder (i.e. they had more black bile and phlegm) and men were warmer (i.e. they had more yellow bile and blood). Since this mix was highly specific, it was conceivable that there be a continuum between the extremes, as opposed to a strict binary, or even that someone with a vagina but very warm humours be more man than woman in some ways, because the genitals (and possibly other characteristics) were the only female characteristic that didn’t fit. As a result of this definition of sex, achieving a functional amount of masculinity despite a female body possible, at least ideally — Joan of Arc is a milder real life example of wealth of literary characters. In literature, these are all referred to with masculine pronouns (Weisl, 2009).

I must admit I do not know any example of MAAB people living as women in literature or real life, or at least not outside specific ritual practices (Davis, 1979). This may have been the result of the gender-system itself, because the very genre of the chanson de geste was only about men. It makes a lot of sense for a woman-bodied person with warm humours to be represented as a male hero in literature, but why would anyone have written stories or male-bodied being women, i.e. cold-humoured, passive, in the background, subordinated to men? Same thing with historical characters. If there was a reverse Joan of Arc, i.e. a man taking on women’s role, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have heard about it. After all, we barely hear about women in general.

Obviously, assuming male roles and/or identity did not change one’s genital, which were still framing male-identifying people as women, or even “betraying” them and revealing their nature. But here, the medieval imaginary proposed answers from metaphysics, through absolute divine power: God can, by absolute divine power, change someone’s genitals and sexual characteristics (just like modern plastic surgeons can reshape them). Of course, I’m pretty sure the hand of God did not frequently intervene in really life, but this potentiality was exploited in the epic Tristan de Nateuil or the romance Yde et Olive, where divine intervention played the role of a terminal point of gender change, of the achievement of (in this case) masculinity, just as SRS does today (Weisl, 2009). In both case, sex change happens to cancel the danger of same-sex union, which is much more dangerous to patriarchy.

To conclude, I will share a Jewish poem from the 14th century, expressing Qalymos ben Qalymos’s desire to be a woman, despite everything. I find it very touching as a trans woman and medievalist.

Lord in heaven,
who brought forth wondersby fire and water for our Fathers,
cooling Abraham’s Chaldean kiln,
so in its flames he’d not be burned;
who altered Dina’s fate in the womb,
and made a serpent of Moses’ wand;
who whited with illness Miriam’s hands
and turned the Sea of Reeds into land—
transforming the muddy bed of the Jordan
into passable sand,
and making from stone and shale
a pool whose springs would not fail
if only you would make me female!

If that alone might be done,
how wondrous then would be my fortune!
Spared the arduous labor of men,
I’d settle down and raise my children.
But why complain and bitterly whine?
If my Father in heaven is so inclined
as to fashion me with a lasting deformity,
how could I ask that He take it from me?
Worry about what just can’t be
is incurable pain and endless misery;
empty condolence is hardly an answer.
“I’ll just have to bear it, “ I said, “though I’ll suffer
until I wither away and die.”
And since long ago I learned from tradition
that both good and bad deserve benediction,
in the faintest of whispers I’ll mutter each morning;
Blessed art Thou, O Lord—who has not made me a woman.

(Source)

(On a subjective note, I find the ending beautiful. I’m rarely moved by poetry, but this is beautiful.)

Reality does not follow from fiction. Here, Qalymos accepts the situation ordained by God, i.e. that you can’t choose whether you are male or female. However, what he hopes for is divine intervention, the action of the absolute power of God, as in the many miracles God showed the world in the Hebraic historical tradition. If God can split the Red Sea, He could remove the “lasting deformity” from which Qalymos suffers. To medieval minds, God is the most natural recourse for such a change — just as medical science was in the early 20th-century for transsexual people (Stryker, 2008). But he doesn’t ask for that. He accepts God’s will, as he must, even though he will suffer.

Works cited

Davis, Natalie Zemon (1979). Les cultures du peuple : Rituels, savoirs et résistances au 16e siècle, Paris, Aubier-Montaigne.

Stryker, Susan (2008). Transgender History, Berkeley, Seal Press.

Weisl, Angela Jane (2009). “How to be a Man, Though Female: Changing Sex in Medieval Romance”, Medieval Feminist Forum 45 (2), p. 110-137.

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