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The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe

0 Comments 🕔05.Feb 2014

Testicles, semen, and internal heat made a man in early modern Europe, not the penis. Early modern bodies, both male and female, were defined, categorized, and made legible by the ability to produce and project semen, both literally and figuratively. In The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe: A Cultural History, the art historian Patricia Simons draws on premodern texts and objects to examine what she calls the ‘semenotic system’ of premodern European perceptions of sex, sexual action, pleasure, and, emerging from this, gender. Simons expertly rejects the phallus as a universal, always hegemonic, and ahistorical symbol. Instead, her analysis historicizes the phallus and the human body, both physical and cultural. Consequently, Simons shows that the monolithic, penis-centered, and penetrative model of masculinity that often undergirds present-day discussions of sex, gender, and domination is not always a useful tool of historical analysis.

Simons considers medical texts, vernacular literature, artworks, and material culture from Ancient Greece to the late-seventeenth century, with a particular focus on the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries. The Sex of Men contributes to the corporal turn in historical studies, as Simons rejects a divide between experience and discourse. Instead, she argues for multiple feedback loops between medical theory, visual rhetoric, material culture, verbal language, and living bodies that contributed to and constructed the premodern perception of the sexed male body and its behaviors.

In part one of The Sex of Men, subtitled “Witnessing men’s bodies: paradigms old and new,” Simons first analyzes the late sixteenth-century Spanish trial of Elena/o, a mulatto who was born female but later considered male, to introduce the reader to the three main factors that made a body recognizably male for premodern Europeans. These factors comprised genital signs (testicles, production of semen, facial hair), somatic deeds (ejaculation of abundant semen, urination through the penis), and behavioral indicators (assertiveness, vehemence, roguishness). After showing the layered composition of the learned, institutional, and popular premodern perceptions of a male body through her analysis of the trial of Elena/o, Simons moves on to a short genealogy of the phallus. A prominent processional symbol in the Ancient world, the phallus remained an arcane and obscure symbol in early modern Europe, known by its Latin name from Roman texts but lacking vernacular counterparts until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When the phallus was represented in early modern times, it was portrayed in variable terms, always including testicles and glands, and assigned a multitude of functions from comedic to protective. Thus the phallus, Simons successfully argues, is a historically contingent symbol and it cannot be assumed as “a bedrock on which to build a theory of masculinity” (52). The anxieties and desires at the basis of Sigmund Freud’s and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis cannot be transferred from modern times to be used in the study of premodern cultures and bodies.

In the rest of part one, Simons analyzes elements of chivalric culture and Renaissance dress to underscore the multitude of elements that composed and propagated premodern perceptions of masculinity. While historians have often seen penile metaphors in the breaking of lances during jousting or the prominent codpieces in Renaissance male dress, Simons convincingly argues for a more expansive symbolic value of these cultural elements. The moment of the breaking of the lance, the splintering eruption, was at the focus of jousting; and an elaborate codpiece did not highlight the penile shaft alone, but drew attention to virile potency and heat by also portraying the testicles and sometimes even ejaculation. A man had projective capacities, which characterized his sexed body and, arising from it, the normative masculine gendered behavior in premodern Europe.

In the second part of The Sex of Men, subtitled “Projecting male sex: models and metaphors,” Simon’s analysis focuses on further delineating the premodern understanding of the male body, including the difference between male and female bodies. Simons offers an in-depth study of Aristotelian and Galenic medical theories on sex difference, both of which proposed a thermal basis to it. The notions of hot male and cold female bodies remained fundamental in medieval and early modern medicine and culture, and were intertwined with the contemporary understandings of gendered behavior. A sex act permitted the outward projection of a naturally more heated male body that delivered restorative and life-giving fluid – i.e., semen – to the colder female body. Testicles and semen, Simons argues, moving from medical texts to vernacular literature and material culture, were at the center of premodern definitions of the male body and its functions and, through common homologies with coins and moneybags, food, and agricultural work, this understanding of body also informed the premodern perceptions of gender roles inside the house and beyond.

A major scholarly contribution of The Sex of Men, Simons’s examination of the clearly perceived differences between male and female bodies in premodern Europe rejects Thomas Laqueur’s ‘one-sex’ model for the premodern world. The ‘one-sex’ model proposes that, until the eighteenth century, the female sex was regarded as an inversion of the male sex. Building on the scholarship of Joan Cadden, Ruth Karras, and Katharine Park among others, Simons effectively synthesizes the criticism that has mounted against Lacqueur’s model since its first publication in 1990. Drawing on a wealth of premodern medical texts, she then proposes that an ‘unequal two-seed’ theory better characterizes the premodern perceptions of male and female bodies. Rather than the vagina and the uterus being a penis turned inward, a model that, as Simons argues, anachronistically posits the penis as the central male genital organ in premodern Europe, The Sex of Men argues for a clear distinction between male and female bodies in premodern Europe. The penis was a delivery mechanism for the semen and the vagina a channel that allowed delivery of that semen; neither defined the male nor the female body. The bodies were rather defined by their heat, their ability to project, and the quality of the seed they produced, for it was recognized that women also produce semen, albeit lesser quality, due to their cooler, wetter composition.

Another major contribution of The Sex of Men is Simon’s attempt to historicize sexual pleasure. Based on the ‘unequal two-seed’ theory, both men and women experienced sexual pleasure, but each sex experienced it differently. For men, intercourse allowed the release of excess semen. For women, it allowed heat into their cool bodies. These positive outcomes, from the point of view of humoral theory, occurred whether or not the sex act was reproductive. In fact, not all sex acts had to be reproductive, and recreational intercourse was accepted and often even prescribed as a health-giving measure. Nevertheless, Simons is careful to historicize sexual pleasure and rejects any attempt to draw parallels between modern-day notions of orgasm and premodern ones. Indeed, the perceived difference between sexed bodies also connoted gendered differences of pleasure. The normative position of female passivity was reinforced by the medical texts, vernacular literature, and artworks that assumed the female body to be dependent on the superior male seed and receive pleasure from simply receiving male semen. It was not penetration but the receiving of seminal fluid that caused pleasure for women; indeed, premodern dildos included cavities for fluids and pump systems to release those fluids, with warm milk being often used for its white, slightly frothy semen-like appearance.

The Sex of Men is an interdisciplinary study that calls on its reader not only to think about premodern sexed bodies but to also question the construction of sexed bodies today and the cultural, social, political, and economic assumptions such constructions project. Simons aims to make a global argument, moving away from the regional approach that characterizes many cultural histories of premodern Europe. However, as so often occurs, this global Europe does not extend beyond Western Europe. The reader is left to question how Scandinavian and Eastern-European notions of the sexed body would add to or modify the surprisingly universal and homogeneous views of the sexed (male) body that Simons suggestively proposes for premodern Europe. Moreover, despite the wide range of sources used, Simons’s arguments are developed mostly based on sources produced by and for the elites. When following Simon’s analysis of the feedback loops between medical theory, visual rhetoric, material culture, verbal language, and living bodies that constructed the premodern sexed male body, the reader must ask who exactly was included in these feedback loops and whether that could change the universality of the body notion introduced in The Sex of Men. Yet, despite these limitations, Patricia Simons’s book remains a thought-provoking and important study of the premodern European perceptions of the sexed (male) body that provides critical insights on sex and gender not only for the scholars of early modernity but for anyone concerned with bodies and gender, past or present.

Reviewed by Liise Lehtsalu, PhD candidate, History Department, Brown University

The Sex of Premodern Europe: A Cultural History
edited by Patricia Simons
Cambridge University Press
Paperback / 344 pages / 2014
ISBN: 978-0-110-765687-1

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