Professor talks sex in the Middle Ages


DeVun says attitudes toward intimacy have not changed much since medieval times


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Photo by Tian Li |

Leah DeVun, a professor in the Department of History, connected modern-day sexual notions back to the Middle Ages yesterday at the Institute for Women’s Leadership on Douglass campus.


Through her research, Leah DeVun is going back to the Middle Ages to try and understand how sexual notions are formed in modern times.

The idea that humans are set apart from other animals was an important topic at that time and is still an ongoing debate, said DeVun, a professor in the Department of History.

About 60 people came to hear DeVun’s presentation titled “Cures and Closures: Surgery and Sexual Difference in the Middle Ages” yesterday at the Institute for Women’s Leadership on Douglass campus.

“What qualifies a human as a human?” she asked.

There was a moment in the Middle Ages when scholars began to wonder about this question, she said, between the 12th and 14th centuries.

Newly formed universities became deeply interested in categorizing nature, she said. Religious scholars formed a hierarchical system by sexual differences, where each known animal fit into different places.

Plants were at the bottom of the pyramid, and humans were at the top, she said.

The medieval European ideas that attempted to qualify human beings came primarily from the idea of identifying hermaphrodites, she said.

Hermaphrodites did not meet proper anatomical qualifications, and were grouped with beasts, she said, along with Jews and Muslims.

Biological sex between a male and a female was considered to be distinct among the higher categories, she said. There were restrictions on what was considered socially and religiously acceptable.

Men were given an elevated status toward perfection and intermediaries could not exist, she said. Surgery was sometimes utilized to fix the spots where nature erred.

She said most Europeans imagined and debated the existence of far-off lands at the edge of the known world where monstrous humanoid races roamed in sin. They believed hermaphrodites originated in these places.

Visual images of hermaphrodites were religion-based, she said. Hermaphrodites have been found described in publications from the time as unnatural deviations — breaking the laws of humanity.

DeVun said in the Middle Ages, Jews and Muslims were considered by religious teachings to be beasts, with images suggesting they worshiped demonic idols.

Hermaphrodites were thought to contaminate the social order by being inauthentic, treacherous, unpredictable and dangerous.

Though these ideas seem far-fetched, she said empirical sexology from the Middle Ages is parallel to modern thinking.

Even now, bioethicists have said that present-day humans are subjected to surgeries like those done to hermaphrodites in the Middle Ages, DeVun said.

“I have been really interested in about the history of sex research and surgery in the 20th century but I had never heard anything about how it was done in medieval times,” said Talia Waltzer, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore.

Matthew Watts, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said the subject is something he is interested in, but he never really thought about it in relation to the Middle Ages.

“[It] definitely shows how people haven’t changed that much in how they think — how it’s almost barbaric of people that don’t fit in one gender or another,” he said.

DeVun earned her Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 2004, where her focus was on women and gender studies. She has been with the University as an associate professor since 2004.


By Paul Solin

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