Leah DeVun

The Shape of Sex is a pathbreaking history of nonbinary sex, focusing on ideas and individuals who allegedly combined or crossed sex or gender categories from 200–1400 C.E. Ranging widely across premodern European thought and culture, it reveals how and why efforts to define “the human” so often hinged on ideas about nonbinary sex. In doing so, it shows how premodern thinkers created a system of sex and embodiment that both anticipates and challenges modern beliefs about what it means to be male, female—and human.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about?

Leah DeVun: The Shape of Sex is about sex and gender beyond the male-female binary in Christian Europe from about 200-1400 CE. I look at the cultural world that was navigated by individuals whose sex or gender did not fit the binary, as well as how thinkers used ideas about nonbinary sex to make distinctions between not only men and women, but also humans and animals, Europeans and non-Europeans, and Christians and non-Christians. These distinctions allowed thinkers – lawyers, clerics, physicians, poets, alchemists, and others — to define what it meant to be human, and to make claims about who should be accepted as a member of the human community.

In our own time, when ideas about sex and gender are the subject of so much controversy, I argue that looking to the distant past can give us perspectives on present-day categories like intersex, transgender, and nonbinary gender. While ancient and medieval categories aren’t the same as modern ones, a deep history shows us that sexual binarism isn’t a timeless or natural division of humankind, and that history can help us to imagine different worlds in the future.

NOTCHES: Your book begins with Adam and Eve, who are often cited by defenders of ‘traditional’ ideas about sex and gender. But your research suggests that early Christians sometimes saw the first humans as androgynous figures. How did this idea emerge, and how far was it accepted? 

DeVun: Conservative Christians now often hold up the story of Adam and Eve as clear proof that God intended humans to come in just male and female sexes, but people haven’t always read Genesis that way. A number of Jewish and early Christian thinkers interpreted the language of Genesis (which seemed to at least some of them to describe two different, and difficult to reconcile, creation stories) as showing that God first created humans with an “androgynous” or undifferentiated sex, before later splitting humans into binary-sexed men and women. To these early readers, the original and ideal state of humanity — as it was intended by God — was nonbinary sexed. While some religious authorities tried to stamp out this theory, others continued to find a nonbinary creation story compelling, and we find this interpretation repeated over and over again for roughly a thousand years.

This history is good reminder that sex categories beyond male and female aren’t new: they’ve been with us for a very long time. It also shows us that nonbinary sex wasn’t always viewed negatively, or as something to be erased or corrected. Nonbinary sex could be associated with Adam and Eve — and also with Jesus, angels, and the resurrection. Nonbinary sex could be presented as something ideal, pure, or transformative.

NOTCHES: You identify a shift in attitudes from the twelfth century onwards, with nonbinary individuals and identities presented in increasingly negative terms. Why did this happen, and how did it relate to fears about/ prejudices against other groups?

DeVun: Two important things happened – and they both came from greater Christian European contact with the Muslim political and intellectual worlds during the time of the Christian holy wars (aka the Crusades). First, during that time, “naturalist” (what we might call early scientific) writings from the Muslim world became increasingly accessible in Western Europe. These writings included ancient Greek medical and philosophical ideas, as well as indigenous ones from Muslim intellectuals. Once these works were translated from Arabic into Latin, educated Western Europeans could read them, and their contents became extremely important and trendy. They eventually shaped how certain influential Western European medical and surgical writers thought about sex and the human body. These newly available ideas – especially those associated with the Greek philosopher Aristotle — tended to advocate for a binary model of sex, that is, they argued that all humans were one of two sexes – male or female — with nothing in between. The embrace of this claim by educated Europeans constituted an important change because we can identify a number of “spectrum”-based medical texts from before this period that argued that humans came in multiple sexes between male and female. While the “spectrum” model continued to hold some sway, the binary model became the dominant way of thinking about sex among certain circles for centuries thereafter. Western European surgeons began to argue that humans could not be born as something other than male or female, and some of them argued that intersex individuals should be surgically “corrected” with operations that would reshape their bodies into what surgeons thought men and women should look like.

Second, during this same time period, Christians in parts of Western Europe began to distinguish themselves much more clearly from Jews and Muslims, including through rhetoric designed to disparage non-Christians. During this period, we see a number of Christian images depicting Jews or Muslims as “hermaphrodites” who could allegedly change back and forth between male and female sex. These texts were intended to insult Jews and Muslims and to link their supposed nonbinary sex to foreignness, sexual sin, and proximity to animals. And this wasn’t just a matter of words. These images were related to Crusading propaganda and to polemics encouraging violence against Jews. Of course, Crusaders tried to violently eject Muslims from what they viewed as the Christian holy land, English Christians massacred Jews in English towns, and Jewish communities were ultimately expelled from Christian kingdoms. What we see is a brutal erasure of nonbinary sex (both real and imagined) from individual bodies and the wider community.

NOTCHES: You write, in relation to one of your case studies, that ‘we know far more about Berengaria’s anatomy than she ever likely would have wanted, [but] we know nothing of her own perspective.’ What challenges do histories of this kind- incredibly intimate, yet also very sketchily documented- pose to the historian? How do you feel about the ethics of writing such histories? 

DeVun: The medieval archive, of course (and not uniquely), limits what we can know about marginalized subjects in history, including people with nonbinary bodies or gender practices. Berengaria, a central figure in my book, is never allowed to speak in the archival record. Instead, we read others’ descriptions of Berengaria’s supposed failures as a wife and a mother; we read about Berengaria’s body as it was subjected to an extremely invasive examination to determine whether or not she was “really” female (I use female pronouns in the book because they’re the only ones we have in the record, and I don’t want to impose further categories on Berengaria). Berengaria’s silence in the text is in such poignant contrast to the enormous amount of speech generated by legal, medical, and religious authorities about nonbinary sex during her lifetime, speech that was little concerned with the real lived experiences of people like Berengaria. As far as I can find, no other records about Berengaria exist apart from this very painful, very explicit one, with which I begin my book. It’s a difficult record to read, and I was torn about including the full text in the book because it exposes her body – but it’s the only record like it that we have, and my judgement is that it’s important to engage with such records while acknowledging the ethical problems they create. What happened to Berengaria was likely a terrible experience for her, and I don’t think it’s better to occlude its details. People ask me: what happened to Berengaria? What was the rest of her story? The answer is that we can’t know. We can’t recover what Berengaria thought or wanted for herself. And since I don’t want to presume to speak for her, what I can do is try to address the silence of that record by writing this book – a work that reconstructs the world that she lived in and that imagines what her story might have been.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sex and gender, and why did you decide to write this book?

DeVun: I actually started off as a premed student when I was an undergraduate student – I loved biology and chemistry and I thought I’d be a doctor. But as I moved forward in school, what I found was that I was more interested in the ideas behind medical and scientific developments — the histories and social contexts that surrounded them – than I was in clinical practice. My history and art history classes were my favorite ones, and I started to imagine a career that could combine my interests in science and medicine and history, and one that could also contribute something to the issues of social justice that we were already becoming important to me. At the time, I was doing community outreach for the Northwest AIDS Foundation and for Youthcare, a homeless youth shelter in Seattle, and most of the homeless teens I worked with were queer or trans. I became acutely aware of how the distribution of political and medical power affected the survival of marginalized people, and over time I began to turn my mind toward a deep history of these issues.

Beyond all of this, when I started working on this book, my partner, who is transgender, had “top surgery,” and so questions about identity, bodies, and classification — questions that I’ve struggled with myself – rose to the fore of my thinking. I’ve been strongly invested in the movements for racial justice and for queer and trans liberation over many years, and our recent challenges and possibilities have made me think even more urgently about how history can support our efforts in the present.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

DeVun: I’d like my book to show students that nonbinary figures weren’t rare in history; they weren’t trivial or marginal; and they shouldn’t be only of interest to trans, intersex, and nonbinary people now. Ideas about nonbinary sex and gender were a part of how premodern people defined themselves as Christian, European, male, female, or human. If we leave these nonbinary ideas and people out of our standard histories, then we can’t see a full picture of how any of these other categories developed either.

The primary sources of my final chapter are a good teaching example. These images and texts show Jesus as a physical fusion of male and female qualities. Some of the most striking images appear in late medieval and early Renaissance alchemical manuscripts, but we can find feminized or nonbinary-sexed Jesus imagery in church sculpture and in a range of devotional texts (many available in translation). They show us how nonbinary sex could be a way of thinking about divinity, time, and transformation, as well as gender. The idea that a variety of thinkers imagined Jesus – an inarguably central figure – as something other than simply male is usually a big surprise for students!

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today? What relevance does it have to contemporary discussions about nonbinary experiences and identities?

DeVun: I think people assume that heated debates about gender nonconformity are relatively new. Part of what I try to do in my book is to show that our current conversations have parallels in the distant past, and that the past can be revealing and important to us in many ways. First, what we might think is obvious about sex or gender today wasn’t necessarily so for our predecessors. We can see that common-sense understandings of sex and gender change over time, and hence our current understandings aren’t fixed, and they’re likely to continue to change (and can be pushed to change). On the flip side, the ways that past societies resemble our own are important too. We can find people who transgressed sex and gender categories even a thousand years ago. They show us that nonbinary bodies and practices have a history. For today’s gender-marginalized communities, this history can offer a meaningful sense of kinship across time. And because history is a legitimating force, it can give us the power to assert that these communities must have place in our future, too.

NOTCHES: What are you working on now that this book is published?

DeVun: My first book was about prophecy and medicine during the time of the Black Death. Given my experience this year in New York City, one of the areas worst hit by the covid-19 crisis in the U.S., I can’t help but turn my mind to plagues and our social and medical responses to them. I’m not sure where I’ll go with this yet, but I’m eager to get back into the physical archives and to work through new ideas in conversations that happen in person.

Leah DeVun is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University. DeVun’s research focuses on the history of religion, science and medicine, and gender and sexuality in premodern Europe. DeVun is the author of Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time (Columbia University Press, winner of the 2013 John Nicholas Brown Prize) and co-editor of TSQ: Trans*Historicities (Duke University Press, 2018). DeVun’s new book, The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press in April 2021. She tweets as @DevunLeah.

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