Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Infidels, Hermaphrodites, and Other Animals:
On the Boundaries of the Human in the Middle Ages
Leah De Vun, Rutgers University

Friday, February 1
CUNY Graduate Center, English Department Lounge
365 Fifth Avenue, Room 4406

This paper examines hermaphroditism in light of questions about the nature of humanity in the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance. In the late Middle Ages, scholastic natural philosophers – inspired by newly available classical texts – began to construct taxonomies of organisms in which sexual difference played a central role. Scholastics identified the absence of distinct sex, shifting sex, and monstrous genitalia as key characteristics of nonhuman categories of beings, including plants, animals, and demons. The apparent boundaries between male/female and human/nonhuman intersected with other sorts of boundaries: visual art in bestiaries, maps, travel literature, and marginalia indicated that Jews and Muslims too were in some sense hermaphrodites. Sexual difference became a way to distinguish between not only humans and non-humans, but also Christians and non-Christians and Europeans and non-Europeans. If humans were distinct from animals inasmuch as they had only two sexes, then humans who displayed multiple sexes or the attributes of multiple sexes approached the condition of beasts and therefore lost the subjectivity and dignity unique to humanity. I argue that in texts and images from the twelfth to the fifteenth century hermaphrodites operate as pivotal figures that reinforced not only sexual, but also religious and racial difference.