sex & gender trouble addressed with medieval creativity and tolerance

Adults now teach children the complexities of properly identifying girls and boys. That’s a crucial life skill, because if you wrongly gender a person today, you could be demonized and ostracized forever. Controversial journals publish casuistic articles such as “Lesbians Aren’t Attracted to a Female ‘Gender Identity.’ We’re Attracted to Women.” Amid intense concern for gender equality, a woman has fought against British Columbia courts requiring persons to state their preferred pronouns. This gender activist supports the moral crusade to “protect against male encroachment on female spaces” such as women-only golf courses and women-only colleges. If it’s discovered that in a best-selling creative book you disparaged persons identified as women, you could be instantly fired. Ordinary life was much less morally perilous in medieval Europe. In that relatively enlightened time, realities of biological sex were openly acknowledged, and gender diversity was humanely, tolerantly, and creatively embraced.

Medieval European poetry frankly expressed the joy of sex. Rather than being understood as problematic, sex between women and men was then thought to be natural. An exquisite thirteenth-century poem associated sex and sleep. It depicted these activities as natural bodily functions:

After pleasurable exchanges of love,
the brain’s substance becomes languid.
Then with a wonderful strangeness the eyes
mist over, floating on the eyelids as a raft.
Ah, how happy is the transition from love to sleep,
but sweeter and more welcome is the return to love.

{ Post blanda Veneris commercia
lassatur cerebri substantia.
Hinc caligant mira novitate
oculi nantes in palpebrarum rate.
Hei, quam felix transitus amoris ad soporem;
sed suavior <et gratior> regressus ad amorem. }[1]

Benefiting from much study, the learned, twelfth-century Parisian master-teacher Alan of Lille understood that young women and men tend to be sexually attracted to each other. Appreciating young’s women’s strong, independent sexuality and figuring it as a raging fire, Alan exhorted young men:

It’s better to come close to a raging fire than to a young woman, when you yourself are a young man.

{ magis approxima igni ardenti quam mulieri iuveni, cum et ipse sis iuvenis. }[2]

Sex has risks. Christian authorities have long taught doctrinally that sex is licit only between heterosexual spouses. In a more pastoral mode, medieval church leaders instructed that if one cannot be chaste, one must be careful.

Medieval thinkers understood that some aspects of sex and gender are complicated and confusing. Building upon Alan of Lille’s twelfth-century writings, in the twilight of medieval Europe Janus Secundus represented revered grammarians resolving gender trouble. In Latin, nouns have grammatical gender. But “cunt {cunnus}” and “cock {mentula}” have surprising grammatical gender:

“Tell us, Grammarians, why is ‘cunt’ a masculine noun,
and why is ‘cock’ considered a feminine noun?”
Thus I asked. Thus a more senior one among that respected clan
responded, raising his bushy eyebrows:
“The cock carries the business of the feminine across the sexes.
Therefore its gender is properly claimed for itself.
Untiringly performing without end the affairs of men,
the cunt is not thoughtlessly considered a feminine noun.”

{ Dicite, Grammatici, cur mascula nomina cunnus,
Et cur femineum mentula nomen habet?
Sic ego: sic aliquis senior de gente verenda
Retulit, attollens longa supercilia:
Mentula feminei gerit usque negotia sexus;
Inde genus merito vindicat illa sibi.
Indefessus agit res qui sine fine virorum,
Mascula non temere nomina cunnus habet. }[3]

Some grammarians themselves had gender trouble. Using today’s popular terms, one grammarian wasn’t cis-gendered, but was gender-fluid.

So a certain poet reported to me
that a grammarian of well-known strictness
was painfully tormented night and day.
He couldn’t call himself a learned masculine grammarian
nor could he call himself a learned feminine grammarian
in the title of his elegant book
since he himself was of neither gender.
My inspired poet, so as to lighten
now the heavy labor of this pitiful old man,
said, “Father, you will enunciate carelessly
if the masculine grammarians,
together with you and the feminine grammarians,
and with those of common gender and with those of neuter gender,
you will call all together the grammarian herd.”

{ Nam quidam mihi retulit poeta,
Notae Grammaticum severitatis
Noctes atque dies dolenter angi.
Quod nee Grammaticum vocare doctum,
Nee se Grammaticam vocare doctam
In libri titulo sui venusti
Possit, cum generis sit ipse neutri:
Cui vates meus, ut gravi labore
Iam tandem miserum senem levaret,
Secure pater, inquit, eloqueris.
Si te Grammaticosque masculinos
Tecum, Grammaticosque femininos,
Communesque simul, simulque neutros,
Omnes, Grammaticum pecus vocabis. }[4]

Inclusion and togetherness thus solved the grammarian’s gender trouble. Inclusion, togetherness, and fearless poetic creativity can also alleviate gender trouble today.

Douglas Galbi against the plague

Asking persons what pronouns they prefer can be a simple courtesy. According to Théodore de Bèze, who followed John Calvin to became the spiritual leader of the Calvinists in sixteenth-century Geneva, a priest conducting a queer marriage asked a similar question:

That little curly-haired guy, whose wavy
hair weighs down upon his shoulders,
who has smooth skin and a small lisping voice,
who has flirty, winking eyes, and a soft walk,
and painted lips like a young woman —
yesterday, Posthumus, he was preparing for marriage,
when the most vile priest of all,
certainly very urbane and witty,
asked, “Among you women, which is going to be the groom?”

{ Cincinnatulus ille, cui undulati
Propexique humeros gravant capilli,
Qui tersa cute, blaesulaque voce,
Qui paetis oculis, graduque molli,
Et pictis simulat labris puellam,
Heri, Posthume, nuptias parabat,
Cum nequissimus omnium sacerdos,
Urbanus tamen et facetus hercle,
Utra sponsus foret rogare coepit. }[5]

Bèze’s disparaging characterization of the priest suggests that the priest knew, or should have known, which of the spouses identified as a man. Authorities today teach that the gender identities of spouses cannot be taken for granted. This early sixteenth-century priest anticipated current normative practice of asking persons for their pronouns. Yet this poem indicates a significant change in moral fervor. Neither Bèze and nor the priest was interested in demon-hunting dissenters from prevailing gender-identity orthodoxy. Such demon-hunting is pervasively practiced today.

Public attention to sex and gender should be directed to the most publicly important issues of gender equality. A fundamental good for human beings is life. A public health priority should be to eliminate men’s life expectancy shortfall relative to women. Another fundamental good is personal freedom. Public policy should reduce the massive gender disparity in men incarcerated relative to women. Public policy should also eliminate forced financial fatherhood and enact legal reproductive choice for men. A third fundamental good is having children. Public policy should ensure gender equality for men in parental knowledge and eliminate acute gender discrimination against men in child custody and child support decisions. Progress on these vitally important gender-equality imperatives doesn’t depend on choices of pronouns, who uses what bathroom, or who has the advantage of participating in “women’s” sports.[6]

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[1] Carmina Burana 62, “When Diana’s crystal lamp {Dum Dianae vitrea},” st. 6, Latin text from Traill (2018) vol. 1, p. 244, English translation (modified slightly) from id. p. 245. Here’s an online Latin text of “Dum Dianae vitrea.” This poem, which has survived only in the Carmina Burana, has a variety of textual difficulties. On these issues, Traill (1988). Traill observed: “This is generally reckoned to be one of the finest poems in the Carmina Burana.” Traill (2018) vol. 1, p. 524.

[2] Alan of Lille {Alanus de Insulis}, The Art of Preaching {Ars praedicandi}, Chapter 5, “Against Dissipation {Contra luxuriam},” Latin text from Patrilogia Latina vol. 210, col. 121D, my English translation, benefiting from that of Evans (1981).

[3] Janus Secundus, Epigrams 1.73, Latin text from Price (1996), p. 86, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. For an earlier Latin text, Burmannus & Bosscha (1821) vol. 1, p. 356. On sexual ambiguity in medieval literature, Murphy (2018). On the significance of grammar and sex in Alan of Lille’s thinking, Ziolkowski (1985). On grammatical gender and sex in ancient Rome, Corbeill (2008) and Corbeill (2015). Corbeill analyzed “the imagined development of sex and gender in ancient Rome.” Id. 19. One might also consider the actual development of sexually reproducing organisms that have inhabited the earth for approximately 1.2 billion years.

In Venice about 1733, Giacomo Casanova reportedly was given a different answer to this query about the genders of cunnus and mentula: “It’s said that a slave always bears the name of his master {Disce quod a domino nomina servus habet}.” Giacomo Casanova, The Story of My Life {Histoire de ma vie}, via Kluth (2008). That answer apparently drew upon marginalized analysis of gynocentrism going back to classical Greece and Rome.

[4] Janus Secundus, Epigrams 1.18.32-45, Latin text from Price (1996), p. 85, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. For an earlier Latin text of the full epigram, Burmannus & Bosscha (1821) vol. 1, pp. 303-6.

An earlier epigram expressed concern about the effect of castration on grammatical gender:

His genitals removed, the boy’s sex shifted from settled to unsettled —
he whom the hand grasping for profit cut.
Since the eunuch moves with a feminine sway,
you would doubt what it is, man or more of a woman.
The castrator has removed the entire art of grammar,
he who has taught that “human” has a neuter gender.

{ Incertum ex certo sexum fert pube recisa,
quem tenerum secuit mercis avara manus.
Namque ita femineo eunuchus clune movetur,
ut dubites quid sit, vir <magis> an mulier.
Omnem grammaticam castrator sustulit artem,
qui docuit neutri esse hominem generis. }

Anthologia Latina 97 (108R), Latin text from Kay (2006) p. 43, my English translation, benefiting from those of id. p. 43 and Corbeill (2015) p. 152. In effects on human welfare, castration culture is surely much more significant than problems of grammatical gender.

[5] Théodore de Bèze, Iuvenilia (first edition, 1548), Epigrams 96, “To Posthumus about a certain man {in quendam, ad Posthumum},” Latin text from Summers (2001) p. 312, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. p. 313. For a freely available Latin text, Machard (1879).

A more feminine appearance probably makes men more appealing to woman tending toward self-absorption. In one of Lucian’s Dialogues of the Gods, Zeus complains that he has to make major transformational efforts to have women fall in love with him. Eros in response counsels Zeus:

If you want women to fall in love with you, you shouldn’t go shaking that shield of yours or carrying your thunderbolt around with you. Instead, make yourself as attractive as you can and tender to behold. Let your hair grow long in curls and do your hair up with a ribbon like Bacchus. Wear a purple robe and golden slippers, and come in dancing to the music of pipes and timbrels. Then you’ll find you have more women running after you than all of Apollo’s Bacchantes put together.

{ εἰ δ᾿ ἐθέλεις ἐπέραστος εἶναι, μὴ ἐπίσειε τὴν αἰγίδα μηδὲ τὸν κεραυνὸν φέρε, ἀλλ᾿ ὡς ἥδιστον ποίει σεαυτὸν, ἁπαλὸν ὀφθῆναι, καθειμένος βοστρύχους, τῇ μίτρᾳ τούτους ἀνειλημμένος, πορφυρίδα ἔχε, ὑποδέου χρυσίδας, ὑπ᾿ αὐλῷ καὶ τυμπάνοις εὔρυθμα βαῖνε, καὶ ὄψει ὅτι πλείους ἀκολουθήσουσί σοι τῶν Διονύσου Μαινάδων. }

Lucian, Dialogues of the Gods 6(2), “Eros and Zeus {Ερωτοσ και Διοσ},” ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from MacLeod (1961).

[6] Corbeill ominously observed:

Grammatical gender may have originated as an innocent accident of morphology. In practice, however, its system provided Latin speakers a means of organizing, categorizing, delineating — and in many cases marginalizing — features of the world around them.

Corbeill (2015) p. 19. The grotesque marginalization of injustices against men doesn’t seem to be an effect of grammatical gender. The marginalization of acute injustices against men seems to be related to real social and biological processes.

[image] Selfie by Douglas Galbi, May 21, 2021.


Burmannus, Petrus, and Petrus Bosscha, eds. 1821. Ioannis Nicolaii Secundi Hagani Opera omnia. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. Lugduni Batavorum: Apud S. et J. Luchtmans.

Corbeill, Anthony. 2008. “Genus quid est?: Roman Scholars on Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 138 (1): 75-105.

Corbeill, Anthony. 2015. Sexing the World: Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex in Ancient Rome. Princeton University Press.(review by Matthew P. Loar, by Sarah Rey)

Evans, Gillian R., trans. 1981. Alan of Lille. The Art of Preaching. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Kay, N. M. 2006. Epigrams from the Anthologia Latina: text, translation and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Kluth, Andreas. 2008. “Casanova, aged 11, discovers wit.” Hannibal and Me: life lessons from history. Online.

MacLeod, M. D., ed. and trans. 1961. Lucian. Dialogues of the Dead. Dialogues of the Sea-Gods. Dialogues of the Gods. Dialogues of the Courtesans. Loeb Classical Library 431. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Machard, Alexandre. 1879. Les Juvenilia de Théodore de Bèze. Paris: I. Liseux.

Murphy, Kevin M. 2018. Vile Affections: Medieval Literature in Reprobum Sensus Traditus. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Chicago.

Price, David. 1996. Janus Secundus. Tempe, Arizona: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Summers, Kirk M., ed. and trans. 2001. A View from the Palatine: the Iuvenilia of Théodore de Bèze. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, v. 237. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Traill, David A. 1988. “Notes on ‘Dum Diane vitrea’ (CB 62) and ‘A globo veteri’ (CB 67).” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 23: 143-151.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1985. Alan of Lille’s Grammar of Sex: the meaning of grammar to a twelfth-century intellectual. Cambridge, Mass: Medieval Academy of America.

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