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13.01.09, Simons, The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe

13.01.09, Simons, The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe

In May 2012, ("the hottest, most social content on the web") featured a pair of "penis print leggings" available for 119 Euros in men's or women's sizes, in matte or shiny versions. The author of the item wondered "what kind of women would actually buy these." [1] Since I was reading Patricia Simons's The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe: A Cultural History, a different question came to my mind: why do we call these penises, when each is clearly a penis-and-testicles combination? Simons argues that modern scholarship has identified as phallic premodern representations that are actually testicular. This bit of contemporary ephemeral popular culture reminds us that postmodern as well as premodern testicles often go unmentioned.

Simons, however, makes a strong argument that this was not the case for premodern artists and writers. Rather, she argues for a study of "semenotics" which investigates the meanings accorded "three non-penile factors: semen, testicles, and what was considered the concomitant matter of innately masculine 'heat'" (2). Not all readers will like the coyness of the neologism, but this should not detract from the importance of her argument. Simons draws on a wide range of visual and textual evidence. Most of it comes from Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but her main purpose is not to trace change over time, or difference across geographical space or religious tradition (since all regions and religions drew heavily on classical culture). Rather, she sets out a broad cultural phenomenon in all its glory, while acknowledging the existence of variation. She suggests that the situation changed in the second half of the seventeenth century, after which, she is willing to acknowledge, scholars may be right about the connection of masculine anxiety with the necessity of phallic stability. Her focus, however, is not on this change but on the longue durée that preceded it. [2]

"From ancient Greece to well past the Renaissance," Simons argues, "the standard visual signifier of male sex was the ensemble of testicles, penile shaft, foreskin and glans" (10). She documents this with a wealth of illustrations and texts. She also shows how in modern scholarship the penis has colonized other male organs, with scholars translating obscene words for testicles as "cocks" instead of "balls" and interpreting a statement that the Virgin Mary was unstained by male seed as a statement that she was uncontaminated by contact with a penis. The "members" stolen by the witches of the Malleus Maleficarum, too, have been unproblematically translated as "penises" (14-15). The fundamental difference between men and women as understood by premodern authors, she suggests, is not that women lacked penises, but that they lacked heat. It was this heat that allowed the male seed to be fruitfully projected, and while penetration and the bringing forth of seed were closely connected, she argues, the latter was far more important culturally than we have understood.

Chapter 1 discusses what it meant to be a man in early modern Europe in terms of its physical signs. Simons begins with the well-known case of Elena/o de Céspedes. This case, as she notes, has often been used to indicate the fluidity of sex and gender in premodern Europe. But, as she rightly argues, it shows no such thing. The fact that this body did not fit within "polarized standards" does not mean that those standards did not exist, and "we must be careful about using such evidence in support of a claim for widespread contestation regarding the parameters of male corporeality" (32). She is perhaps stretching a point a bit more when she suggests that "the production and ejaculation of semen symbolized overall virility" more than did the fathering of children (37); semen might be important symbolically, but children stood as public evidence of its production. She concludes the chapter by arguing that the breaking of lances and the flinging of liquids were central symbols of masculinity, more important than the state of erection (the unbroken lance).

Chapter 2 discusses the phallus as sign and argues that to the extent that it was the key signifier of masculinity, "it was as much about a genital whole or just the testicles, as it was focused on the penis" (53), and art works from ancient Greece onward illustrate the point. Indeed, semen itself could be phallic in the Lacanian sense. The idea that masculinity is always in crisis, symbolized by penises that cannot live up to the always-erect ideal phallus, is not, she points out, a historical argument: if it is omnipresent, "anxiety is of little historical value and not a particularly useful heuristic tool" (75). Simons argues that genital jokes, verbal and visual, in the period at hand are not expressions of anxiety but its opposite: bursts of laughter that themselves resembled ejaculation and thus demonstrated masculine potency.

The third chapter turns to material culture. Late medieval pilgrims' badges depicting genitalia were worn publicly, and Simons provides an excellent account of their appearance and ownership. Codpieces, she argues, were intended to signify the testicles rather than the penis, again demonstrating the point with passages from Rabelais and Shakespeare and close attention to the shapes in paintings by Bronzino, Cranach, and others. Horses' testicles, displayed prominently on equestrian statues, made sexual jokes. Pilgrims' long, hard staffs had bags on the end. Even knives and swords, thought of as representing the erect and penetrating penis, often had knobs on the hilt that symbolized the testicles. A bow might signify a penis, but the quiver was a testicle, and arrows were not penetrating penises but scattered semen; even cannonballs are semen in a 1608 drawing by Pieter Isaacz (121).

The second main section focuses more on premodern theory than materiality. Chapter 4 elaborates on physiology and the idea of masculine heat. Simons focuses on what she calls "the unequal two-seed theory" (142), in which the heat of the male seed was far more important than the resemblance of the male and female genitalia to one another as suggested by Thomas Laqueur. She also reiterates an important point made above, that exceptions to gender boundaries do not demonstrate that these boundaries were unstable. Chapter 5 looks at the vocabulary of value and expenditure in relation to semen, including the metaphor of the testicles as moneybags and the golden shower in which Zeus impregnated Danaë, Titian's rendering of which appears on the book's cover.

Chapter 6 takes up the question of pleasure. Simons argues that male pleasure was thought to derive from ejaculation, with which orgasm is mistakenly conflated, and female pleasure resulted from heat in the womb, which was extinguished by the arrival of semen. Women were not thought to be without sexual pleasure, but that pleasure was inevitably connected with receptivity, appetite in a more literal sense. Simons provides several images of dildoes which could hold fluid and simulate ejaculation. The heat and moisture provided by semen, Chapter 7 argues, were seen as important to women's health as well as to men's identity, and the necessity of sexual activity (i.e. the reception of seed) to women was not only a function of the importance of reproduction. Here Simons discusses agricultural metaphors for sex, and points out that while ploughing is a violent penetrative act, it is only preliminary to the sowing of seed. The argument that fecundity imagery is as much about pleasure as it is about reproduction is perhaps the least convincing section of the book, but surely there is evidence for both. Chapter 9 looks at visual metaphors, in which the idea of any long, hard object as a phallic symbol is replaced by a rich variety of images including bagpipes and other musical instruments, flowing barrels, and a variety of repetitive motions routinely performed by both women and men in their daily occupations. Culinary images also emerge as important, although I fear this chapter may have ruined ricotta cheese for me.

Overall the book is highly convincing. Its argument that "masculinity and patriarchy are not immutable and that biology can be rethought in historical terms" (292) is not unique, but the most successful attempt to do so by arguing that early modern masculine anatomy and behavior was symbolized by projecting and flinging rather than by penetrating is highly novel. It may not entirely replace the penetration model, for which much visual and textual evidence could also be put forth, but it certainly takes a prominent place alongside it. Although the author's main concern is not the Middle Ages, anyone interested in medieval sexualities will want to read this book, both for its originality and for its exemplary interweaving of visual and textual material.

The book is beautifully produced, on glossy paper suitable to the 59 illustrations, which no doubt accounts for its price.



1. (accessed 11 June 2012).

2. The identification of the point at which things changed relies on Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), which retains an incomprehensible hold on scholars, but this is not a major part of her argument. Simons cites and endorses some of the refutations of Laqueur's "one-sex theory" (142).