Early Modern Hermaphrodites: Sex and Other Stories by R. Gilbert

By R. Gilbert

From the 16th century to the eighteenth century, hermaphrodites have been mentioned and depicted in a variety of inventive, mythological, medical and erotic contexts. Early glossy Hermaphrodites appears to be like at a few of these representations to discover the tales they inform approximately ambiguous intercourse and gender in early sleek England. Gilbert examines the customarily contradictory ways that hermaphrodites have been represented as either non secular beliefs and sexual grotesques; as freaks, erotic gadgets and scientific curiosities' and as literary metaphors and symptoms of social decay.

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44 The monstrous prodigy was nothing new (Fenton’s text was itself a translation of Pierre Boaistuau’s earlier collection) but, when inflected by a Post-Reformation emphasis on introspection and personal conscience, these stories were more than an external sign from God. They reflected the horrors of the inner self. In their seminal 1980s study of Renaissance monstrous births in France and England, Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park suggested that attitudes towards monsters could be divided into three stages.

Sexual activity therefore drained a man of all his masculine resources. 73 Effeminacy was associated with excess and intemperance. 75 He is criticized not for a lack of heterosexual engagement (he keeps a mistress) but for his social and sexual proximity to femininity. This effeminate ‘man-Childe’ hermaphroditically blurs the boundaries between male and female. 76 Such examples indicate that there was a profound anxiety in early modern culture about the potentially permeable borders between men and women.

36 Commissions of renowned medical authorities were gathered to establish the ‘truth’ in cases of doubtful sex. Where neither sex could be proved to predominate, an adult hermaphrodite was, in theory, allowed to choose their own sexual identification, but having done so was legally bound to stay within the prescribed social and legislative confines of that sex. Faultlines emerged in these legal/sexual taxonomies when individuals were perceived to alternate between sexual positions. 38 In his discussion of ‘perfect’ (equally balanced and functioning) hermaphrodites Ambroise Paré reiterated the legal judgement that those people displaying signs of hermaphroditism must choose to be one sex only and adhere to that choice or risk the death penalty.

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