My paper, “Becoming Gendered: Two Medieval Approaches to Intersex Gender Assignment,” was published in Prandium: The Journal of Historical Studies 7:1 (2018) published by the University of Toronto Mississauga.
How sex and gender are constructed informs how we have understood human bodies and the relationships between them. In medieval Europe, assigning a gender to an intersex person served a legitimizing function that made certain behaviours and codes appear more legible. However, sex designations were not always set at birth, and medieval people seemed less interested in categorizing women, men, and intersex people by their genitals, as much as by the roles they played within society.
Legal and social sex designation could take place at various stages in the lifecycle depending on what physical attributes were present, or which “opposite” sex one preferred, and these differed between Christian and Muslim contexts. Scholars in the medieval world relied on theological and philosophical texts, and drew on Roman law. When an initial sex designation was deemed to be incorrect, the interesx person could assume a new gender role with minimal fuss. Whereas in a Muslim context, once assigned, a person’s gender was considered fixed and unchangeable. The methods for determining gender differed between the two, and a comparison reveals the varied ways that gender was constructed and the social functions it served.
In adopting a binary gender assignment, intersex people became recognizable members of society that could be securely placed within the cultural hierarchy, and thus they took on an identity that was more readily understood by their contemporaries.
This paper was originally written for Professor Mairi Cowan’s fourth-year seminar on life cycles in medieval and early modern Europe. Her comments were immensely helpful in shaping this paper.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the First Annual Prandium Conference in 2017.