The Shape of Sex
Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance
- ISBN: 9780231195508
- Published By: Columbia University Press
- Published: May 2021
At first glance, the task of Leah DeVun’s book, The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance, seems herculean. For any book, let alone one that clocks in around 200 pages, the goal of covering a topic like nonbinary gender thoroughly from the time period of about 200 to 1400 CE is seemingly impossible. Yet DeVun’s study not only fulfils the topical and periodic promise of its title but far exceeds any expectations. DeVun artfully takes the reader through the complicated, messy, and unstable history of how nonbinary, intersex, and trans* bodies were treated in premodern Europe. The broad arc of the book, as DeVun lays out in the introduction, reveals an initial “embrace of the idea of nonbinary sex among authorities in early Christianity, its rejection at the turn of the thirteenth century, and a new enthusiasm…at the dawn of the Renaissance” (11). While DeVun’s focus rests largely on the Latin West, they frequently bring texts from the classical Greek and Muslim worlds into conversation with those of Catholic England, France, and Germany.
The Shape of Sex is split into six core chapters, bookended by an invaluable introduction and thoughtful conclusion, complete with an appendix of fully illustrated paintings that DeVun references throughout the book. The first chapter, “The Perfect Sexes of Paradise,” opens with the biblical creation stories from Genesis. Here DeVun takes readers through different understandings of the first human as a dually sexed figure in both Jewish and Greek sources. DeVun, however, spends the majority of the chapter lingering over how early Christian thinkers like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa viewed the prelapsarian Adam and Eve as sexually undifferentiated (21). This idea about the “primal androgyne” also affected early Christian ideas about sexual abstinence and the “perfect” state of the resurrected human. This idea, however, was by no means stable or universal within Christianity and by the 12th century we find multiple church authorities who reject the primal androgyne.
The next two chapters delve into how ideas about nonbinary sex could be mapped onto various “others.” Chapter 2, “The Monstrous Races: Mapping the Borders of Sex,” kicks off with the English Hereford mappamundi or “world map.” DeVun shows how this map, by depicting a “hermaphroditic” turbaned figure, emphasized the inferiority of people who were religiously and racially different than western European Christians. In Chapter 3, “The Unclean Hyena: Beasts, Bestiaries, and Jewish Communities,” DeVun turns toward the Aberdeen Bestiary and how its depiction of a hermaphroditic hyena— an animal frequently associated with Judaism—contributed to increased antisemitism and real-world violence against Jewish people. These two chapters powerfully illustrate one of the major threads of DeVun’s study. Time and time again, we see that the definition of what it means to be human largely revolved around a culture’s understanding of sex and gender. As DeVun points out, for many societies, an individual’s humanity frequently revolved around being identifiably “male” or “female,” while those who fell outside of this binary could be seen as an aberration, inhuman or monstrous. In fact, in many cases an intersex individual’s belonging to society was contingent on how neatly they could be understood as either male or female.
This question of defining the human is also addressed in chapter 4, “Sex and Order in Natural Philosophy and Law.” Here DeVun examines how European philosophical and legal literature from the 12th and 13th centuries came to define male and female as the only legitimate human sexes. While “lower species” like plants could sometimes be intersex or hermaphroditic, humans, who were an elevated species, were defined by the sexual binary (123). This idea is foundational for understanding DeVun’s fifth chapter, “The Correction of Nature: Sex and the Science of Surgery.” Chapter 5 examines how the burgeoning field of surgery in 13th-century Europe began to argue that sexual anomalies could be “cured” so that every member of society could be neatly sorted into male or female.
My personal favorite chapter is DeVun’s final one, memorably titled “Jesus the Hermaphrodite.” Here DeVun returns to conversations about the primeval androgyne but shows how in the 14th and 15th centuries “nonbinary sex’s supposed capacity for joining opposites became a productive symbol of physical and spiritual transformation” (164). DeVun outlines how interest in alchemy, specifically the philosopher’s stone, led to comparisons between the stone’s perfect “equality” and Christ’s own perfectly human/divine composition. As DeVun highlights, in the early 15th century German text The Book of the Holy Trinity, the author presents Christ as a perfect and inextricable melding of the human nature of his mother Mary and his own identity as God incarnate. Simultaneously, however, Mary also represents the feminine principle while Jesus represents the masculine. According to this conception, as DeVun states, “Christ is the ultimate nonbinary figure, a unity of contrary parts – the human and the divine, the male and the female…” (186). Yet as DeVun is careful to point out, this combination, though the two parts are inextricable from one another, is not a seamless mixing; instead, each part (the male and the female) retains its respective qualities and are held in in tension (195).
Those of us who work on the premodern world often argue for the modern relevance of our work—or at least many of us wish for it. One of the highest accomplishments, in my humble opinion, is when we can make the stories of our ancient and medieval subjects resonate with modern experiences and issues. DeVun’s book accomplishes this in a stunning manner. Though DeVun brings the history of science, theology, art history, queer, feminist, and trans* theory to bear on their sources, they manage to write in a manner that is not only nuanced but accessible, complex but understandable. This book is, to put it simply, a revelation. In our current moment, when the rights of those of us who do not fit societal bodily, gender, and sexual norms are dwindling, this book feels frighteningly relevant and more important than ever to share with students. I can think of many courses in which this book should be required reading and in fact when going back over my own notes, many of my marginalia read “10/10 would assign this chapter.” While I do hope many instructors of premodern gender, sexuality, and history will be assigning this book, I for one cannot wait to read The Shape of Sex with my own students this Fall.
Jeannie Sellick is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Religion at Bowdoin College.Jeannie SellickDate Of Review:September 30, 2022