Abstract

This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.

Medieval conjures multiple meanings for contemporary readers: an outmoded or unenlightened viewpoint, a realm of fantasy fairytales, or the medieval S/M aesthetic of torture, dungeons, and chains. Academic scholars of medieval culture (here defined as Europe between 500 and 1400 CE) balance such associations carefully, often relying on the period's otherness to draw readers in but then endeavoring to reverse the readers' expectations. Any characterization of a single gender politics of medieval Europe would necessarily be reductive, ironing out the tensions and contradictions inherent in any historical period. But too few scholars are aware of the rich range of materials that medieval studies can offer to transgender history, from the usual twin poles of feminist inquiry (understanding the roots and mechanisms of oppression but also the moments when it was fought or overcome) to everything in between.

The Middle Ages offers neither an entirely retrograde comparison to our own politics (despite its characterization by the Bilerico Project, a prominent blog, as the period of “The Rise of Hatred” [Allen 2008]) nor an alternative cultural model to strive for. For some scholars, the Middle Ages were a time when anatomical sex was largely disconnected from gender; Thomas Laqueur's “one-sex” model is the most famous instance, arguing that premodern philosophers posited variations on a single sex rather than a binary system, a characterization that could theoretically be formulated as more progressive than our own (Laqueur 1990).1 But for the most part, the violent realities of life as a gender-nonconforming person dominate trans histories of the medieval world. I will briefly sketch a few of the most interesting recent trends in medieval studies that can contribute to transgender histories and point to directions of possible future research. Because sources pointing to “life on the ground” are so difficult to find, in this essay I focus largely on broader theoretical or conceptual issues. An effort will be made to introduce period terms that relate to transgender studies, but I will also use modern terminology that can help identify and explain practices and ideas that certainly existed, though by other names.

Since the concept of the transgender person did not exist in the Middle Ages, scholars instead investigate concrete medieval subjects that relate to the issue, such as intersexuality, cross-dressing, and the medical alteration of the sexed body, all of which are discussed in primary sources. Early Christian exegetes read a hermaphroditic subtext in the biblical creation of man and woman both “in God's image” and in the creation of the female body out of the male (DeVun 2008). That these ideas were later refuted throughout the Middle Ages only suggests that they remained powerful. But the first centuries of Christianity also provide extensive accounts of medieval people leading actual transgender lives. Numerous records describe medieval holy women “becoming male” (apandro in Greek) both in appearance and “in soul,” sometimes in secret and other times quite openly (Anson 1974: 7, 8).2 Medieval conceptions of gender necessitated that such crossings were possible only for women; in becoming male, these women were moving closer to an ideal that was always masculine, while any instances of men becoming women were condemned or met with confusion (Bullough 1999). Most scholars focus on the social, material, or spiritual gains for women who lived as men, but this ignores the accounts' possible transgender subtext; many Christian women would have wanted to climb to higher (male) spiritual and social spheres, but only a few actually donned male clothing, entered monasteries, or married other women. Medieval texts offer admiring accounts of these women (passing FTM [female-to-male] cross-dressers, in modern terms), and these texts constitute one of the most concrete possibilities for seeing the subjectivity and desires of actual medieval transgender people in action. In contrast, such stories in the later Middle Ages were primarily the domain of fiction; the thirteenth-century Roman de Silence tells the story of Silence, a girl raised as a boy so that she could inherit her family's estate (Lurkhur 2010). In a deliciously modern twist, the allegorical characters of “nature” and “nurture” fight for control of her mind and body; she ultimately is revealed as a woman and marries a king (but only after she is seduced by the former queen, who took her for a man). Silence's struggle over her identity offers to the modern reader the possibility of glimpsing “what concepts of transsexuality remain when the surgeon and clinician are eliminated” — a kind of John/Joan case without the doctors and therapists (221).

Anatomical intersexuality was another major interest of medieval philosophers, medical writers, and theologians (who called it “hermaphroditism” in the Ovidian tradition, Hermaphroditus being the mythical child of Hermes and Aphrodite). In some of these texts we find discussions of intersexuality that appear morally neutral, for instance in anatomical descriptions of women's “seven-lobed uterus,” where the three “cells” on the right create boys, the three on the left girls, and the one in the center intersex persons (Cadden 1993: 202–3; see also Jacquart and Thomasset 1988: 22–29; Rubin 1994). Other medieval medical theorists explained the creation of a “masculine woman” or “effeminate man” (femina virago or vir effeminatus) in terms of the relative strength of the male and female seeds that came together at conception (Cadden 1993). But while medical writers often adopted neutral language in describing intersexuality, legal and theological writers were preoccupied with finding ways to assign such people to a discrete gender. Interestingly, intersex persons were sometimes allowed to decide for themselves which sexual/marital role to adopt; the crucial point was that such decisions could not be unmade — the sin was in deviation from or inversion of one's gender, whether it was clear from birth or chosen later (Nederman and True 1996: 513; see also Olsen 2011).

Beyond these practical or medical contexts of intersexuality, medieval authors were also fascinated with an abstract or allegorical sphere, with theorizing a body that is “not only a midpoint between opposites, but … holds contraries in stasis and conversation” (DeVun 2008). The hermaphrodite, alternately described as a true fusion of male and female or as a “doubling” of two people in one body, was used as a metaphor for all kinds of philosophical processes of change, transition, or fusion (most interestingly, perhaps, in writings on alchemy). Such texts return us to a core issue of the historical study of sexual difference — the split between theory and practice. The celebration of fluidly sexual or sexually fused bodies in an alchemical treatise, or the admiration of a religious woman who “became male,” may tell us little about the actual lives of people whose genital sex was either ambiguous or did not align with their gender identity. But these texts are nonetheless a vital record of transgender ideas circulating in the past; we must not conflate them with the experience of actual bodies, but the historical realm of fiction and fantasy is also the domain of contemporary transgender studies.

We have only scratched the surface of the possibilities for a medieval transgender studies — other subjects under investigation include figures like Joan of Arc, fascination with bearded female saints, cross-dressing in the theater, eunuchs, intersexual grammar and language, the gender-crossings of the carnival, and the complex queerness of the Christic body (see Feinberg 1996; Warner 1981; Kuefler 1999; Lochrie 1997). Discussions of the “medieval” can also extend beyond Europe; while the term originated in Europe, one increasingly reads and hears about histories of “medieval Islam” or “medieval Japan,” for example. It is not always clear how many of the rich variety of connotations that the word carries are brought along into these new contexts, but in many cases it is applied to cultural moments that are conceived of as somehow culturally analogous to “medieval” Europe; it is not a purely temporal designation. Future research should continue to flesh out these views of medieval worlds rife with contradiction — between theory and practice, fantasy and reality, violence and play.

1. A number of books have taken up Laqueur's theory, both in support and criticism. The most well-known critiques are Joan Cadden 1993 and Katharine Park and Robert Nye 1991.

2. The key source on the subject is still John Anson 1974. See also Valerie Hotchkiss 1996, Elizabeth Castelli 1991, Margaret Miles 1991 (esp. chap. 2), and Kari Vogt 1993.

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