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22.03.03 DeVun, The Shape of Sex

22.03.03 DeVun, The Shape of Sex

Leah DeVun’s The Shape of Sex is the book that all scholars should strive to write at least once in their lifetime: timely, accessible, and highly readable; diligently researched, meticulously conceptualized, and expansively impactful. Already, its mark is palpable both within the field of Medieval Studies and across a popular readership, particularly one invested in the histories of queer and trans peoples.

In many ways, this is a book about the thirteenth century and the radical transformations that occurred in this period, which came to define and articulate matters of gender variance for centuries to come. Yet, by taking on an expansive cultural history, spanning from antiquity to the early modern period, DeVun is able to put these evolutions and transformations in striking context. The effect of this is that while we come to recognize the invention and formulation of anxieties around intersex and other gender-variant peoples, the longer history demonstrates that this was not always the perspective at hand. This book is not only a history of nonbinary sex, but also an intellectual history of the radical transformations in learning, access to Greek and Arabic sources, and their foundational shift in western European thought.

In the first chapter, DeVun starts the investigation at the beginning, by looking at articulations of the Genesis story across medieval thought, but also within the context of late antiquity. It is here that the reader is introduced to the concept of “primal androgyny” (17), leading to questions about the sex of Adam in relation to the creation of Eve. Here, we confront the richness of late antique and early Christian thought, working through authors such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, who subscribed to an understanding of the first-created human as an androgynous being, containing both the masculine and the feminine (21-22). In this formulation, it was the absence of binary sex that allowed humanity to enjoy its most elevated state, one that would be restored at the end of time. In as much as this chapter engages the beginning of time, it also sketches out how these elements were conceived in the context of the resurrection of the perfect body in the eschaton. These are issues that come to a contestation in Chapter Five, when natural philosophers, reading Aristotle and others, begin to emphasize the sex binary as the most inherent and elevated aspect of humankind. But, already, this chapter sketches out how in later centuries this androgyny was literalized, reframed within the context and imaginary of the “Hermaphrodite” and thus seen as an aberration of nature and a deformity, which was not only incongruent with lofty ideations of humanity, but also at odds with that perfected body of the end times.

In the second chapter, the momentum established around matters of vilification and deformity leads the reader to an expected, albeit necessary, discussion of the so-called “monstrous races.” Here, we see how the myth of the “hermaphrodite” and, more broadly, the figuration of intersex figures were used, as DeVun succinctly puts it, “to draw boundaries between spatial, species, religious, and racial categories.” (41) In this chapter, familiar objects populate the analysis, including the Hereford Map, the Marvels of the East, and the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which provide the reader with a thorough grounding in sources for thinking through questions of alterity, othering, and boundary-making in regard to persons and geographies. Here, the necessary questions of monstrosity and racialization appear with a specific interest on their intersections with ideas about intersex bodies. One of the most useful aspects of this chapter, however, is its desire to understand what iconographic types were used to represent the mythic figure of the “hermaphrodite” or other intersex figures--matters that become critical in the final chapter on the “Jesus Hermaphrodite.” Here, DeVun demonstrates how depictions of conjoined bodies and faces were used to capture this idea of a double-sexed figure. Quite usefully, DeVun follows the polyvalent appearances of united figures, understanding how they simultaneously depicted the two-faced Janus or conjoined twins, which alerts us once again to the representation of boundaries (temporal, spatial, and bodily) and of other physical traits and congenital features classified as deformities.

In Chapter Three, DeVun homes in on these articulations of alterity and quasi-mythical figurations of beings by looking at the Hyena in bestiaries, which often depicted this animal as having both a penis and a vagina. Here, we see how nonbinary sex was deployed in this text to articulate “uncleanness” and was used in anti-Jewish rhetoric of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries in England, and continuing in the subsequent century in France as well. This chapter uses the figure of the hyena to understand how its intersex depiction articulated not only a transgression of boundaries, but a formulation of mixing and confusion that staged it as unclean and threatening. This line of investigation leads DeVun to consider a series of interrelated discourses, such as the representation of shape-shifting demons that could readily change their sex and seek out demon-human sexual encounters that further violated the bounds of cleanliness and propriety. The chapter closes with reflections on how these conversations mounted not only to considerations of the bounds of propriety, but also to an understanding and definition of what constituted “the human” in medieval thought, as opposed to the deformed monstrous or the heretically subhuman (100).

In Chapter Four, the book critically turns to understand how natural philosophy and legal discourse came to define a sex binary as the inalienable condition that defined the human being as human, in contrast to lower species. Here, we witness how articulations of sex are deeply structured by conceptions of gender. As DeVun writes at the end of the chapter,

“some historians have explicitly distinguished between the body (identifying its physical category) and the body (identifying its social role). But, as feminist and queer studies scholars have argued, our bodies are never really sexed outside of considerations of gender” (132).

Throughout, we witness the impact that access to ancient Greek and ‘Abbāsid sources had on western European conceptions of sex. Shattering the complexity and dynamism of the embrace of nonbinary sex that we witnessed in earlier periods, this moment sees a transition in the conceptualization of a sex binary. Particularly, by confronting the writings of Aristotle, western European writers began to claim that humans existed in only two forms (male or female) and that any indeterminacy was a confusion of a true and underlying sex (104-109). This point is placed in relief through the sections that follow, where DeVun looks at ideas of sex differentiation in the previous centuries (112-16). There, for example, the influx of Galenic-Arabic theories led to conceptualizations of sex on a spectrum, which often relied on ideas about the virility of sperm, time of conception, and the chambers of the uterus where the fetus was conceived. But, from there, we see a focus on the transmission and articulation of the primacy of a sex binary in late-medieval thought, leading us to a consideration of Roman and canon law (124-29). This focus on the legal towards the end of a chapter largely devoted to intellectual history is critical because it shows the ways in which the law is entangled in these loftier conversations in natural philosophy. Here, we effectively witness how moralized notions of the sex binary as definitive of humankind lead to legal definitions that have their own parallel but enmeshed histories, particularly when dealing with intersex persons and their rights. What is clear here is that by the thirteenth century, to be human is to be male or female, not both and not neither (152).

In Chapter Five, the book pivots toward the connection between sex and surgical science. This chapter’s placement works particularly well since the intersection of science, law, and medicine aptly coalesce for modern readers the presumptions and associations about how sex is defined today. In fact, in this chapter, we witness some of the most crucial and sensitive work done in the volume, as DeVun works hard to not reduce sex to medical and surgical articulations, while meticulously considering how this literature was used to think through such matters across history. Returning to the introduction’s opening exemplar, the discussion of a trial around an intersex person’s contested marriage in fourteenth-century Perelada, the chapter looks at how in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century a newfound articulation of the science of surgery came to restage sex-variant anatomies as elite surgeons structured their elite knowledge and expertise around a myriad of “cures” and “corrective” surgical procedures, aimed at aiding the faults of nature (143). As DeVun writes, “this history has the power to offer new perspectives on our current practices, revealing the ways we manipulate bodies to suit shifting ideas about sex and gender” (135). The chapter takes an expansive view of the subject, considering bodies that challenged conceptions of binary sex, including intersex persons, eunuchs, impotent men, and women with an enlarged clitoris. Beginning with a useful survey of how these late medieval surgeons articulated their level of expertise against other surgical practitioners, we witness again a thirteenth-century turning point where medical elites began asserting authority over the assessment and alteration of sex-variant bodies (137). Over the sections that follow then, we witness the meticulous intersection of gendered, social expectations on how the body is approached and structured through medical interventions. This is particularly clear in the sections on male impotence and women with enlarged sexual organs, which depicted how the body is intervened upon due to a presumed failure to procreate and a failure to adhere to gender norms (145-51).

The closing pages of Chapter Five are a tour de force (154-62). A hallmark of DeVun’s writing is its ability to build a complex argument that crescendos in its implications. At times, you do not quite notice what DeVun has achieved until you realize that the entire landscape has changed around you without you noticing it. Through the surgical, DeVun is able to push back against some of the most well-known pillars in the history of gender and sexuality, from Thomas Laqueur’s “one-sex model” to Michel Foucault’s ideation of a medieval “free choice” to one’s sex (155-56). Rather than seeking to make the past modern, DeVun goes on to show us how medieval our present is, demonstrating how modern surgical science is as dominated by stereotypical considerations of binary sex and how such bodies should look and behave. This leads into a sustained consideration of the importance of “transgender” as an analytic framework to access premodern gender variance, moving from Robert Mill’s definition of the term as a “strategic anachronism” to Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura’s own call for its use as an “analytical method,” among the work of many others (159). This section brilliantly unifies scholarly discourses with important popular conversations, moving seamlessly from Laverne Cox to Dean Spade in a single breath, all while recognizing that the medieval stories told here are constrained and defined by the premodern archive and its limitations (161). In these pages, DeVun creates a powerful argument for the use of transgender through a model of resonance that approaches the medieval/modern connections through the inherent varieties of gender experience in the past and in the present. But this section does not read as a plea, but rather as the capstone for a proposition that has already been convincingly argued throughout this book. There is an undeniable maturity to this section, which almost feels like a later addition, a studied reflection on what the book has done and why it matters so much. DeVun’s book reads like a knowing companion that always speaks far more about the present and its dialogues than it explicitly states.

In the book’s final chapter, DeVun turns to the role that nonbinary sex played in late medieval articulations of alchemy. This is a wonderful chapter for those familiar with DeVun’s earlier work since it nicely ties into the author’s first book, Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupescissa in the Late Middle Ages (Columbia University Press, 2009), which places DeVun’s intellectual trajectory insightfully in relief. Here, we return to many of the themes seen earlier in the book, particularly early Christianity’s embrace of nonbinary sex. The goal here is explicitly to see how at the end of the Middle Ages, despite all the articulations of binary sex, nonbinary sex is placed as an alchemical metaphor for the philosopher’s stone, which is likened to the figure of Christ. The chapter follows how this “two thing” material of transformation was imagined as a “hermaphrodite,” as a “new substance that was outside the bounds of binary division” (168). In subsequent sections we see how artists visualized this by alluding to the Genesis cycle, playing on the “primal androgyny” of Adam, and thinking through the twinning of Adam and Eve as well as of the zodiac’s Gemini. The chapter embraces the promiscuity of iconographies, as in Chapter Two, to capture the conceptual and lateral thinking that was present in the minds of medieval artists and thinkers.

In the conclusion, DeVun’s book closes by defining a new direction for Medieval Studies, one that is matched by the exemplary work being done across the field in medieval trans studies. [1] As DeVun points out,

“Of course, when medieval Europeans theorized sex, gender, and embodiment, they didn’t do so in the terms we use now, not in the language of critical race, transgender, or intersex studies. They talked, instead, about Adam and Eve, about beasts and monsters, about the (to them) faraway lands of Africa and Asia,” (202)

capturing a different language, but parallel interest and consideration about the complexities of gender variance, embodiment, and experience. This demonstrates, as DeVun points out, that our medieval authors “were engaged in serious theorizations of sex, gender, and humanity,” and that, at times, “they were in some cases more accepting of nonbinary sex categories than our own modern medieval and legal institutions are” (203).

In these final pages of the book, we find a studied and agonized reflection on the absences of our archives and the utility of this history for the present. DeVun reflects on the dangers of utilizing transgender people “instrumentally--that is, as mere bodies ‘to think with’,” and reflecting on their own potential complicity with this here, DeVun hopes instead that this work can be done in service of these communities (205). Here, as elsewhere, we see the mark of a queer scholar working sensitively and agonizingly toward representation in what is an imperfect and difficult project. I was first struck by this sensibility in DeVun’s disclaimer about the use of pronouns for the book’s opening case study, by stating in a footnote that they have used the source’s pronouns because, “I do not wish to impose further pronouns on Berengaria” (2). In a scholarly moment where so many medievalists are quick to attack the use of transgender as a valid historical term, advocate against the use of inclusive, affirming pronouns, or insist on deadnaming medieval figures, DeVun’s approach bears the distinguishable mark of queer scholars who approach their archive through the pain of erasure and partiality, seeking out their own particular approach to dealing with the carnage and trauma that the archive presents us with. Not all queer and trans scholars will have the same approach, but it is this desire to do no harm that speaks so differently from the work of those who privilege ideations of rigor and fears of anachronism over the sufferings of queer and trans figures in history.

This agonizing care finds its most poignant articulation in DeVun’s words, “Perhaps this history can kindle not only disappointment in what we cannot know about the past but also a better sense of how that past might lead to unexpected outcomes in the future” (206). This, to me, is a provocative imaginary, one that regards the Middle Ages not to prove or validate our existence in the past, but to imagine new and unforeseen futures. Both these tenses of historical writing are urgently necessary, however, and DeVun showcases for us one very good and powerful model for doing this type of history.



1. For works that appeared simultaneously alongside DeVun’s book, see Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski and Dorothy Kim (eds.), “Visions of Medieval Trans Feminism” for the Medieval Feminist Forum 55:1(2019); Roland Betancourt, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020); Alicia Spencer-Hall and Blake Gutt (eds.), Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021); Greta LaFleur, Masha Raskolnikov, and Anna Kłosowska (eds.), Trans Historical: Gender Plurality Before the Modern (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021).