Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Island of the Amazons: the Medieval Place of Transgender


“Amazon: < Latin Amazon, < Greek Ἀμαζών, -όνα; 
explained by the Greeks < ἀ priv. + μαζ-ός a breast” 

Oxford English Dictionary
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A young child is being prepared to have their identity affirmed for the first time in their lives but before this happens, tradition dictates that they will not be recognized as a member of this gender unless they first undergo surgery to alter their sex characteristics. They are expected to go through a form of mastectomy, called by some “top surgery.” After this transition, parts of the body usually marked as feminine are altered to follow normatively masculine forms, giving access to traditionally masculine activities. Such gender transitions are not freely available, or imaginable, in all places in the world. The youth lives in a community that is marginalized, isolated on a kind of island, on the edge of normative society. Certainly this is how John Mandeville described the Amazons.[2]

In this paper, I read John Mandeville’s descriptions of “the Land of Amazons,” focusing on the rhetorical framing of its land and people, through a trans and intersex lens to critique how the text defines forms of embodiment and physical environment through refigured and reinscribed gender systems. I argue that the Isle of the Amazons was imagined as a trans place on the edge of shared space where bodies and the society might be otherwise reconstructed, and that the land-bridges and social histories that connect the normative with alternative suggests potential for integration or rehabilitation of medieval transgender places to a greater extent than the water-locked “Isle of the Hermaphrodites;” which seem less able to be integrated into patriarchal forms of embodiment and power. This project follows in the line of Sandy Stone’s seminal transgender studies text, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-transsexual Manifesto.”[3] I take literally her call: “transsexuals must take responsibility for all of their history, to begin to rearticulate their lives not as a series of erasures… but as a political action begun by reappropriating difference and reclaiming the power of the refigured and reinscribed body.”[4] A critical trans politics requires a medieval transgender history that reclaims bodies that have been refigured and reinscribed, at times—in effect— to un-trans them, and at others with a yearning for other forms of embodiment and other futures than those that existed in a medieval cisgender framework. Just as modern transgender studies must name the struggles of the past, it must take responsibility for the futures imagined and permitted by pre-modern cultural ancestors of transgender, intersex, and other non-binary peoples.

First, I respond to the historical place of transgender in medieval studies, particularly the tendency in feminist and queer scholarship to situate Amazons as and through cisgender womanhood, while admitting to some level of cultural masculinity; deemphasizing the surgical transition as a definitive narrative for Amazons—aspects situating them in histories of transgender and masculinity. Second, while drawing on trans theory looking to reclaim the power of erased histories, I unpack how the “Isle of the Amazons” looks forward, extending to touch, and anticipate cultural descendants in modern transgender communities.[5] This “co-extension” between the Amazons and their environment for trans community signals that pre-modern society was more prepared to integrate refigured and reinscribed embodiments than it was intersex forms of gender.[6] Finally, I mark how Mandeville’s text maneuvers such medieval trans figures for contingent relations and futures with patriarchal and trans exclusive radical feminisms.


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I. Refigured Bodies

Before queer and trans feminists made social (re)constructionist claims on gender, Mandeville knew that one is not born an Amazon but becomes one. His Amazon are social and physical constructs, surgically made by a mastectomy to the right or left breast. Mandeville writes, “þei don awey þat on pappe with an hote hiren” and a child is made an Amazon.[7] The gender designated at birth determines who may become an Amazon and live on the island, or leave to be raised with men, yet it is not until surgery that gender is set. Surgically refigured and reinscribed, a child gains entry into the place of an Amazon. The word “Amazon” comes from the Greeks who explain it as being derived from “a-” (without) –“mazos” (breast); “Amazon” names a person who has undergone top surgery. Thus while Amazons play a role in the history of strong and/or butch cisgender women, they have more genealogical connections with trans men than previously imagined. In the modern cultural imagination and also in the modern medievalist readings, the Amazon has been taken as what Karma Lochrie in her excellent Heterosyncrasies, calls “stone butch” women, embodying concepts of “female masculinity,” which prepare the way for a trans intervention while not yet moving beyond cisgender womanhood.[8] In her study, Lochrie acknowledges the trans-humanism of the Amazon’s embodiment citing “Camilla’s desire for the helmet,” in Lydgate’s Laud Troy Book, as the Amazonian orientation toward a “masculine prosthetic.”[9] This prosthetic impulse points towards the reconstruction of the Amazon’s gender, as physical as well as social forms of life, reflect a kind of trans masculinity that goes beyond merely the drive for power or erotic enjoyment. Amazons enact what Lochrie calls “the breakdown of sexual difference,” yet does more than simply disturb gender; reconstructing as much as they deconstruct.[10]

Yet the reconstruction of gender does not end with being refigured, as Amazons is divided further into two sub-genders: the upper-class knights and the lower-class archers. These subdivisions reflect medieval patriarchal concepts about embodying hierarchies. There must be those born to be rulers and workers in Mandeville’s medieval imagination, even among a gender divergent society. His Amazons illustrate theories of trans politics, even as they create hierarchies within gender variant communities. Mandeville writes, “ȝif it be a womman of gret lynage þei don awey the left pappe.”[11] The surgery has both physical and symbolic effects. Madeville claims that the left breast is removed for material purposes, “þat þei may the better beren a scheeld.”[12] Through this surgical transition, a child is marked as an Amazon in general and as upper class in particular. This further division of society according to artificially constructed embodiments demonstrates the Amazons’ (and Mandeville’s) understanding that gender and class are pliable discourses that can be made and remade, divided and reconnected as desired. The shielded Amazons represent the island's biopower by reflecting figurations of medieval patriarchy, specifically the armored class of knights who ruled much of Europe. The island of England, from where Mandeville supposedly derives, is lorded over by the knights visually distinguished from the other lower orders of troops as armored riders. Furthermore, such shields came to be adorned by the coat-of-arms. These shield symbols sub-divide the knightly class further as these coat-of-arms signified the great families, martial orders, and deeds of its user. Thus, a shielded Amazon might be marked further by "gret lynage," even from those other shielded Amazons. The whole apparatus of the shield functions physically and symbolically to defend the structure of the Amazon's body, as well as the island as a physical and cultural place.

Mandeville goes on of the lower classes, “ȝif it be a womman on fote þei don awey the riȝt pappe.”[13] The description of the second class of Amazons as those "on foot" is telling of their relationship with the first class. Evidently, the reading that those Amazons of “gret lynage " and holding "a scheeld" are indeed a reproduction of medieval mounted knights is confirmed by describing those supposedly not born into privileged families as those in Europe who fight unmounted, on foot. In this respect, these Amazons represent a supposedly less wealthy class, lacking a horse, and thus more likely to be killed in combat. Furthermore, it puts them on a physically lower position than the mounted Amazons, suggesting subordination. Thus, while Amazons as a people evidence what Lochrie calls a “self-determining desire,” the liberation from patriarchal social divides is not complete.[14] Rather, gender and class distinctions between the bodies and social positions of Amazons are reconstructed rather than simply deconstructed. As in patriarchal readings of a woman’s lack of a penis, particularly trans women, the lower order of Amazons becomes signified through physical and social castration. The foot soldier class is first defined by a lack of the right breast and the lack of a horse. Because the removal of the left breast facilitates using a shield, the left breasted Amazons likely do not carry shields or the accompanying coat-of-arms; especially as archers. Likewise, the removal of the right breast is supposed to have a material as well as social function, "for to scheten with bowe turkeys."[15] The tactical role of archers in medieval warfare was as quick and lightly armored attack force drawn from the lower classes. As an enforcer of the physical and social structure of the place of the Amazons in the world, these archers are at once the most vulnerable and the most distant relationship to the shared political space of the battlefield.
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II. Contingent Places

As the surgical refiguring and reinscribing of the Amazon shows the potential for hierarchical divides to be reconstructed in trans embodiments, so too do descriptions of the Amazon’s physical environment suggest ongoing contingent relations to patriarchies. In the Travels of John Mandeville, the author tells of a second pilgrimage to the margins of the world after the pilgrim made to the center of the Christian mappa mundi, Rome. On the margins, Mandeville does what most cannot. He arrives at the Isle of Amazons. “Besyde the lond of Caldee is the lond of Amazoyne,” writes Mandeville. [16]  “This lond of Amazoyne is an Ile aƚƚ envirouned with the see saf in II places where ben II entrees .” [17] Looking upon the isolated place of the Amazons, his descriptions suggest that part of the difficulty of penetrating into the Amazonian world is that it is nearly cut off from the rest of the world by water. Unlike the Isle of Hermaphrodites, which is bordered on all sides by water, by land bridges Amazonia retains a shared space with the continent. In his descriptions Mandeville seems to suggest significance between the Amazon’s relation to patriarchal forms of gender and the Isle’s relation to the continent. Mandeville writes, “ beȝonde þat water duellen the men þat ben here [the Amazons’] paramoures & hire loues, where þei gon to solacen hem whan þei wole.”[18] Using the land bridges, the Amazons continue contingent relations with the patriarchies, keeping them as socially close as they are physically. The physical relations of the island suggests contingency in two ways. First, as points of material coextension, given that contingency comes from the Latin con- (“together with”) and –tangere ("touch"). [19] Second, the contingency of the land bridges reflect how the social relations between Amazons and the patriarchies occur only in highly controlled and limited ways.

The contact between the isle and the continent at land bridges shows a kind of pseudo-symmetrical reflection, even inversion of the patriarchy on the Amazon’s side. “In þat lond þei haue a queen þat gouernetℏ aƚƚ þat lond & aƚƚ þei ben obeyssant to hire,” writes Mandeville, “And alweys þei maken here queen by electioun þat is most worthy in armes.”[20] The land and people of Amazon are oriented towards the governing of one monarch, as in patriarchies. Yet this subordination comes through an act of collective will. This was the ideal in many patriarchies as well but often the realities were otherwise. Such a hierarchal system, especially one based on group agency, demands the constant expression of physical and social power. The Amazons power, as evidenced by their bodies, is predicated on the contingent ability of violent authority, “[f]or þei ben rigℏt gode werryoures & orped & wyse, noble & wortℏi.”[21]

The matriarchy of the Amazons at once replicates the patriarchal and undermines it by revealing its social construction. The place and identity of the Amazons are not as naturalized some patriarchies but must continually constitute itself by enacting its power through war and economic success. “And þei gon often tyme in sowd to help of oþer kynges in here werres for gold & syluer as otℏere sowdyoures don,” writes Mandeville. “And þei meyntenen hemself right vygouresly.”[22] These exercises of physical strength “meyntenen” the embodiment of Amazon's physical power while also reaffirming their social powers and contingent alliances with other lands. These exercises are not radically different from other patriarchies but because of relative newness and seeming artificiality of the Amazon society these performance may be more necessary. This reflects how other trans persons and communities are continually called on to hyper perform binary genders, that trans women enact high femme dress or trans men demonstrate physical butchness.

The emphasis on the Amazon’s replication or ongoing contingent relations with patriarchal ways of life is heightened by the relatively isolated, singular, and abridged descriptions Mandeville gives the Isle of the Hermaphrodites. For the author, intersex bodies seem to contain the multiplicity of gender, disproving the theory that men and women exist in utterly different and incomparable spheres. "In another ile beth peple that beth bothe man and womman, and have membres of bothe," writes Mandeville.[23] The repetition of the words, “beth” and “bothe,” emphasizes how Mandeville is struck by the double-ness of their being. The dangerous power of these bodies seems to fascinate and repulse Mandeville, who examines their bodies in only three sentences over four lines without noting anything of their culture or history, compared to the nearly twenty lines the Amazons are given. In effect, the Hermaphrodites are isolated from the ongoing marking of time as they are imagined on an island, disconnected from public space.

The greater emphasis on the Amazons may be considered a result that just as the land bridges make the place of the Amazons an incomplete island so too the trans figures seem to be more able to be integrated (back) into the patriarchal forms of life. As Lochrie observes, medieval texts often imagine the potential for “the Amazon’s [re]assimilation into courtly femininity, as unstable, even queer, as that assimilation may be.”[24] The act of transition for the Amazon’s body suggest that at one time they were bodies that could have potentially been submitted to normative gender hierarchies. Likewise, contingency of the land provides the means for request of the Amazons. Indeed, the history of ongoing flow of blood, money, and semen from patriarchal lands through the passage of the land bridges into the Amazon’s land seems to reflect how this trans society reproduces itself through the continual intercourse with and replication of the patriarchy. 



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III. Reconstructed Histories, 
Contingent Futures

Just as the Amazons were once in a patriarchal system, they may be again. Unlike the Isle of the Hermaphrodites, imagined as a naturally segregated place and people, the Isle of Amazon is denaturalized by Mandeville providing a history of how the Isle and the form of gender came to be. Mandeville distinctly contradicts certain readers opinions about the Land of the Amazons, “þat reme is aƚƚ wommen & noman, Nogℏt as summe men seyn þat men mowe not lyue þere, but for because þat the wommen wil not suffre no men amonges hem to ben here souereynes.”[25] The Isle did not naturally generated the Amazons. They were socially constructed out of change and political will. “For sum tyme þer was a kyng in þat contrey,” writes Mandeville, until the kingdom was embroiled in a war where most men of power were killed, “kyng higℏte Colepeus… & aƚƚ the gode blood of his reme.”[26] In many senses of word, it was a revolution, a turning of Fortune’s Wheel, which brought the rise of the Amazon as a land and people. Mandeville’s history suggests that it was the undoing of the patriarchy, not simply men, that gave rise of the matriarchy. “And whan the queen & aƚƚ the othere noble ladyes sawen þat þei weren aƚƚ wydewes & þat aƚƚ the riaƚƚ blood was lost,” writes Mandeville, “þei armed hem & as creatures out of wytt þei slowen aƚƚ the men of the contrey þat weren laft.”[27] The bloody birth of the Amazons evidence that it was not a popular movement but the work of matriarchs - led by the queen and noble women - against the remaining men of lower birth. While the rise of the Amazons changed the orientation of space and society, it replicated patriarchal hierarchies. There remained a monarch and a ruling class as well as a lower class, their bodies reflecting the structure of the island as a divided and subjugating space where each body has its place or else is excluded.

Rather than simply being a movement of liberation, breaking down barriers, the Amazons’ power comes through the continual exclusion of genders viewed as too male. Mandeville writes, “fro þat tyme hiderwardes þei neuere wolden suffren man to dweƚƚ amonges hem.”[28] The Amazon’s first self-definition came from expelling men and continues to serve as central to the personal and collective power of the island by allowing men to enter only to send them away again. When the Amazon’s chose, “þei drawen hem towardes the londes marchynge next to hem. And þan þei haue here loues þat vsen hem & þei duellen with hem an .8. dayes or 10 & þanne gon hom aȝen.” [29] The travel of the men into and out of the island reflects the goal of their visit: the penetrative entrance into and out of the body of the Amazon. This sexual intercourse (the movement between gendered places) is instigated and structured by the Amazons as not only an insistence on the need for consent but as an expression of the power to exclude. Mirroring the transition children identified as girls into one of two kinds of Amazon, the island ejects children identified as boys from the Amazon’s body and island. “And ȝif þei haue ony knaue child,” writes Mandeville, “þei kepen it a certeyn tyme & þan senden it to the fadir whan he can gon allone.”[30] The child who would be a boy (like his father) enters the Amazon's body, stays for a time, and leaves. In being birthed and removed, the child becomes a boy. It is a process of unbecoming-Amazon just as his sisters undergo one of two processes of becoming-Amazon. For a moment, before their gender and place in the world is assigned, they occupy the liminal space of the womb, like the Island's land bridge, dwelling for a time at the transition towards one of several possible genders. In a sense, this movement and transformation marks even the boys of the Amazon's with a contingency and transgender relationship to embodiment and space.

There is dangerous power—power even to create something new—in erasing the past and excluding undesired elements of gender, as modern transgender studies knows. Reading personal transgender histories, Stone explains how transitioning “makes the world safe” for the new gender “by erecting and maintaining an impenetrable barrier” between the new and the old, “reinforced again and again.”[31] What Mandeville presents in the Land of Amazon’s history is a vision of the public, collective practice of the same kind of building borders and denying mixture in order to secure the new forms of gender. The power of the patriarchy was to subjugate female bodies and deny access to spaces of influence and if trans movements fall into the groove of change by exclusion, “[t]he highest purpose of the transsexual is to erase his/herself, to fade into the ‘normal’ population as soon as possible.”[32] In effect, the matriarchy becomes a mirror image of the patriarchy. The trans masculine is attained at the cost of the liberation of other genders.

The continued reproduction of patriarchal access, bodies, and social systems is at odds of the Amazon’s movement, meaning that it needs to cover over aspects of its past and operations; making history safe for future politics. “Part of this process is known as constructing a plausible history— learning to lie effectively about one's past,” writes Stone.[33] Transgender studies needs to take responsibility for all of its history and practices of denial, the putting up of walls around the past or around identity only replicate the practices of subjugation and exclusion that has and continues to be used against trans persons by the patriarchy and Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism (TERF).[34] Scholars, feminist utopias, or Isles of Amazons, can set defending turf/TERF against male impurity and rejecting identification with trans bodies at the expense of liberation and histories; be they butch or Amazon, transgender or intersex, modern or medieval.

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[1] "Amazon, n." OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. www.oed.com.
[2] John Mandeville (Cotton) XVIII. 1.103. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/
[3] Sandy Stone. “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. (New York: Routledge 1991).
[4] Stone 14.
[5] “Touch” from Carolyn Dinshaw. “Touching the Past.” Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1999). 1-2.
[6] “Coextensive” from Lynne Huffer. Mad For Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory, (New York: Columbia University, 2010).

[7] John Mandeville. Mandeville's travels : translated from the French of Jean d'Outremeuse, ed. from Ms. Cotton Titus C.XVI. XVIII. 1.103. Ed. P. Hamelius. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, Digital Library Production Service

2003). quod.lib.umich.edu
[8] Karma Lochrie. Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t. (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota 2005). 103-4.
[9] Lochrie 118.
[10] Lochrie 131.
[11] Mandeville 1.103.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Lochrie 121.
[15] Mandeville 1.103.
[16] Ibid. 1.102.
[17] Ibid. 1.103
[18] Ibid.
[19] "contingent, adj." OED Online. Dec 2015. Oxford University Press, www.oed.com.
[20] Mandeville 1.103.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] John Mandeville. The Book of John Mandeville. XIII. 1892-3. Ed. Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson. (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications 2007). d.lib.rochester.edu/
[24] Lochrie 116.
[25] Mandeville 1.103.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Stone 7.
[32] Stone 11.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Cristan Williams. “You Might Be a Terf If…” 24 September 2013. The TransAdvocate.com. www.transadvocate.com/you-might-be-a-terf-if_n_10226.htm

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