Thursday, June 9, 2016

Loca Sancta: Becoming Foreign in Medieval Pilgrimage Narratives


"The journey was bound to introduce the Christian 
to people, places, and things 
that were strange and indeed alien to him"

Diana Webb
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Peregrini

Like many genres of medieval narrative, pilgrimage serves competing impulses. In the first case, pilgrimage has the ability to make the world strange by placing the pilgrim in conflict and contrast to other peoples. Such narratives use the difference of "the other" to further define the sameness of "the self" against them. In the second case, pilgrimage has the ability to make the self into a stranger by undermining their sense of self and home by throwing them into sympathetic relations with other places and peoples. By encountering and honoring the dignity of the elsewheres, the pilgrimage turns the traveler from a local with an established place in society into a peregrini, a foreigner and stranger, a wanderer with a more dynamic relation to space and society. Indeed, the shift  in the worldview of static place to dynamic space, there is a coinciding shift in the view of the self from a static being local into a dynamic becoming foreign. The the prior depends on conservative politics of enforcing divides and withholding resources while the latter emphasizes diversity and sharing gifts. In "Medieval Pilgrimage: an Outline" from her book, Medieval European Pilgrimage, Dianna Webb traces these competing impulses which brought about pilgrimage as a medieval structure of narrative and biocartographic ritual. From this outline of the genre and ritual, the hermaphrodite arises as embodiments of gendered social constructions of place and people as well as critical figures that shaped pilgrimage as a real and imagined engagement with the world.

The history of pilgrimage in Christian traditions evidences how the practice arouse in response to the universalizing of the Church and the centralizing of places as fixed in the cultural mappa mundi.  "Christian pilgrimage, at least over long distances, was probably relatively uncommon before the reign of Constantine," writes Webb (2). "Christians were true peregrini in the original sense of the Latin word, 'strangers' or foreigners' in the midst of sometimes hostile society" (2). As Christians no longer felt like foreigners in their world, they felt called to go on pilgrimages that would unmore them from their sense of place and transform them back into peregrini. Such dislocation from the sense of being at home would prompt a return to being pilgrims amidst social unsettledness, as well as Webb writes, "spiritual pilgrims between earth and heaven, between physical birth into this world and spiritual rebirth into eternal life" (2). In the uncertain and persecuted beginnings of the Christian church, there was less need for rituals of travel or fantasies of narrative to create a sense of contingency and liminality. Many places, even the wider world, was not a secure home for Christians. It is only after Constantine and later when Christianity rise from subjugated to subjugator among the world and its people that pilgrimage was in demand as a way of becoming- or rebecoming-foreigner.

As a social practice of biocartography, the work of pilgrimage narratives and travels was to assert within God's omnicience and created world a distinction between places, marginal and central, which could be used to subordinate peoples and locations under particular authorities. Webb argues that the idea of loca sancta, sacred locations, were not always considered traditional nor orthodox in the Christian worldview. Webb writes, "[t]he concept of 'holy places,' of sanctified earthly locations of peculiar Christian significance, was in important ways at variance with beliefs in which Christians had been schooled fro the first days of the Church." (2) Yet the movement towards the carving up of a unified shared world into distinct and hierachalized places has evident benefits for the centralizing of power around the Church as a physical and spiritual structure. The "first step" towards a Christian conception of place over space, write Webb, "was taken almost as soon as the ecclesia, the assembly of the Christian people, moved out of private houses and clandestine meeting-places into purpose built churches, and the buildings themselves became the ecclesiae" (2). In other words, the physical construction of Churches began the project of organizing space and orienting populations towards centers of Christian authority. From churches arouse shrines which expanded the work of churches to new areas while also clustering around certain topographies such as Rome and Jersualem to cement their centrality in the imagined mappa mundi. As a result pilgrimage began to serve two competing but not mutually exclusive purposes: (1) social biocartographic structuring of power across networks of places and peoples, friend and foreigner; and (2) personal experience of crossing boundaries of place and people in order to become-foreigner.

The twofold work of pilgrimage at once made intersex and trans bodies into foreigners from foreign lands as well as invited travelers to become hermaphroditic foreigners themselves. As will be shown, the holy sites of hermaphrodites were one of many Greco-Roman traditions adopted (if marginalized) within Christian mappa mundi. "The number of holy wells which became and remained associated with Christian saints speaks for itself," writes Webb (4). Beyond those places named for Hermaphroditus, for instance, the features of trans and intersex loca sancta were adapted for Christianity in ways that erased their classical associations. The well of Hermaphroditus that could transform a person's gender exists within a tradition Christianity wholly embraced: waters of baptism where the spirit was changed or waters of healing where the body was changed. Thus even as histories were forgotten, the locations and rituals remained. Change and travel remained linked ritually and narratively from the classical to medieval era. To understand how this works, a brief understanding of the orientating work of loca sancta as destinations and the disorienting work of pilgrimage in drawing people across borders. Because of the allure for strange and wondrous pilgrimage narratives, encounter with trans and intersex bodies were a natural conclusion for the genre. "Most of the more interesting accounts emerged from the Holy Land pilgrimage," writes Webb, "because the journey was bound to introduce the Christian to people, places, and things that were strange and indeed alien to him. Relatively few narratives are totally devoid of reaction to these stimuli" (175). Once the center of the world became domesticated by familiar routes, maps, and narratives, however, the desire for the foreign became fulfilled along the margins. Hermaphrodites on the Hereford Mappa Mundi or the Isle of Amazons in the Book of John Mandeville then are not extraneous to the genre of pilgrimage but the fulfillment of the project of making the world strange. 

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Place

Among medieval genres, pilgrimage is concerned with the narration of place, dissecting space to establish one location as home and another location as foreign then turning the space between them into a road across which travel and narrative can flow. The narration of place is critical to the genre of pilgrimage which functions according to a linear movement (cyclical if the journey is returned) from one point to another. The environment between these locations are then developed in order to serve as the challenges and changes in the plot. Yet these locations (home, road, and destination) are not all equal. For most of Christian pilgrimage narratives, the reason for the tale is teleological. The destination is the moving, attracting, and orienting force of the narrative. Both home and the road become subservient or marginalized in the tale. The movement of pilgrimage towards a loca sancta is the function of setting places as set aside from one another. Places function as calls for narrative just as narratives organize the social space. Introducing the Blessings of Pilgrimage, Robert Ousterhout defines "loca sancta" as the "special places" behind holy travel, "where the powers of heaven were more easily tapped, either for earthly benefit or for aid in salvation" (Ousterhout 1). In her essay, "Loca Sancta," Sabine MacCormack develops the concept further.  "Certain places, objects, or persons were regarded as sacred or venerable for some reason, and the faithful undertook to visit them for devotional purposes" (MacCormack 7). What is evident in the lived tradition and transmission of belief in loca sancta is the critical role of narrative. As a result of hearing or reading these stories, people became filled with the desire to go there. God could appear anywhere and in anything but when God does appear it is always in particular places and particular things. Ironically, this call to pilgrimage arising out of loca sancta depend both on the specificity of a unique encounter and the belief that by taking the place of the sacred figures in the sacred place that the encounter could be somehow repeated. The power of place is at once particular and transferable. The place are hailed as natural or divine wonders but show the construction and commerce that determine what is attractive and what is estranged.

Foreignness in medieval pilgrimage is not a natural given (what happens to be far away) but is an effect of cultural constructs that structure what places offer an attractive affinity and what locations are merely marginal or even repulsive. Much like the physical architecture that maintained loca sancta from forces of entropy, the repetition of narratives about places and paths reinforced their significance. Genre narratives made locations readable just as locations defined the genre by their physical and social particularities. "Pilgrims may be classified, then, by where they went, and by their reason for going" (xiii). In this context, collections of tales such as the Book of John Mandeville has evident story lines wherein not one but two pilgrimages are made. The second which occurs in the latter half seems to break from many normative conventions but in many respects extends and turns many of the moves in the first half of the book. Eccentricities granted, in this first half readers are given a fairly recognizable pilgrimage narrative. Mandeville travels from a place on the margins (England) to a center of Christian life (Jerusalem). Along the way he undergoes trials and encounters that alter him in preparation for arrival at the holy land. Medieval theologians such as Augustine in his City of God note that even as they tore down and discredited many sacred pagan shrines and groves, Christians would rebuild their own holy structures and narratives around those loca sancta. The "Old" holds in in the spirit of the "New" but needs the work of new buildings and narratives to make the hidden essence of the loca sancta as ancient texts readable to new visitors (Augustine, City of God IV.33). Medieval authorities did not leave pilgrims to read a place "like they would read a book," MacCormack writes, "Christians had taken practical steps to hieghten and make clear such meanings" (25). In a very real sense, Augustine predicts both in his critique of the Old and his envisioning of the New encounters and stories awaiting their narrator the cyclical yet centrifugal movement of pilgrimage that draws circles of travels around loca sancta but which grows with each subsequent journey like New Works built on ancient buildings or tales in a growing saga.

The function of sacredness and foreignness is not only in the environment but a product of the repeated cultural movements that follow, change, or cross these boundary lines. Settings require story to bring them to life and transmit their power across distance and generations of pilgrims. Places and pilgrimage gain and sustain their meaning through the telling and retelling of narratives. "If in Christian eyes holiness was not inherent in a place, it could nonetheless be achieved by Christian ritual and by regular worship," writes MacCormack. "Place might be viewed as indifferent but human action could never be" (17). Places may or may not make active calls of their accord but with narrators to hear and give them speech, the stories became how places came into being as distinct and sacred loci. The location needs the story to make it speak to travelers and the story needs to environment to ground it. Yet in this depdency, there is a suggestion that lands, like people, might take on other roles, identities, and shapes if only society changes the stories they tell. Locations can arise as holy as the result of a story. Coleman and Eade writes that they prefer the term "sacrilize" rather than "sacred," "to emphasize the often partial, performative, contested character of appropriating something or something as holy" (18). Narratives constructed meaning for places that places proved the veracity of narratives, including scripture and saints lives. Movements and places were metaphorical as they were real. "Such a capacity for 'doublethink' may be a characteristic of thought patterns in the Middle Ages," writes MacCormack, "the symbol and the prototype were regarded as equal, or at least a part of the same reality" (7). There was not a fundamental different between reading about a pilgrimage and physically going on one. There is a qualitative difference but much of medieval Christianity functioned by way of intermediaries. Reading a story or being touched by a person or object that in turn touched something holy was the best that many people in the Middle Ages could expect. For those confined at home by poverty, disability, gender, or other circumstance, reading pilgrimage narratives could be a way to undergo the travel through a proxy. 

There is a cyclical repetition in travels as bodies and narratives revolve around specific loca sancta, affirming their meaning and centrality while spinning other places and peoples off into the margins. The difference and tension between what and who are central and what and who are foreign are important enough to be contested. The control over loca sancta gave Christian authorities more power over those who traveled to and through the sacred place (MacCormack 18). By encouraging the flow of people and resources from the margins of the world towards these centers of culture, authorities gained a kind of wider dominion over the margins. While the list of loca sancta may be numerous, certain places and authorities who controlled the wider narratives of pilgrimage gained influence over the others. Among these locations, Rome and Jerusalem were among the few places that controlled the many. "Space as perceived by Christians was thus no longer neutral," writes MacCormack, "in Rome and elsewhere, space was ordered in a system of focal points of sacred power" (19). In the medieval conception of the world as imagined in T in O mappa mundi, the world could be considered like a circle with Rome and Jerusalem in the center and the rest of the world on the margins. The marginal places remain worthy of marking but are oriented towards the center that structures their meaning. In effect, the center becomes more central by the marginalization of other locations. This centrality was affirmed through the unfolding of pilgrimage journeys and stories. Walking on pilgrimage and writing a pilgrimage narrative were deeply entwined. A pilgrim was aware of following a script based on other travels and stories. Likewise, they would likely share their journey with those at home or those who would follow. In many respects, pilgrimage was a discourse that fed into a biopolitical loop where social narratives causes movement which in turn causes a social narrative which causes more movement. One had a sense on the road that one is participating in a story that had been told again and again. New pilgrims enter into the tale and carry on the journey in the place of old pilgrims, like the rhythm of walking where foot replaces foot, or how the arrival of new destinations replace the margin from which one departed.
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Space

While the structure of pilgrimage genres creates distinctions and hierarchies between places and peoples, the movement of pilgrims through the story of the road crosses social and physical boundaries that lead toward a wider sense of shared foreignness and space. Indeed, the encounters with other locations and peoples, including the big Other of God, causes a breakdown in bordered off world views. Even as loca sancta worked to structure discourses of place and people around religious ordering, there continued to be critiques that the experience of God in time and space could never be contained or hierarchized into set parameters. "What temple can I build for God seeing that the whole universe, which is his creation, cannot hold him?" writes Minucius Felix in his Octavius (13). One of the defenses that arose was that loca sancta point outward rather than inward for their significance. "In a holy place," writes MacCormack, "spatial and temporal duration were suspended," making a holy place a kind of mini cosmos in itself. By creating a sense of the wider world and history within a circumscribed locus, mappa mundi and pilgrimage texts like John Mandeville's are mini reproductions of the critical work of loca sancta. Yet these suspensions are not the same as annihilation. Space and time continue to flow outward calling readers and travelers to challenge the limits of the world imagined by such compact narratives and locations. One begins to ask upon encountering that which claims to contain all times and places the question: what elsewheres and elsewhens are left out? "Standards were laid down at the highest levels by which sanctity and miracles were to be authenticated, but pilgrimage was never confined to saints and cults that had received the seal of official approval," writes Webb (xv). While seeming to break down the rules by which the genre is defined, the act of crossing and changing boundaries was in integral element of pilgrimage. As creative work, the constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing of walls was the effect of the ongoing tensions of the genre.

While set apart as places of particular significance, loca sancta gained meaning by networking together through narrative and relative distances. In the authorizing of "Christian sacred space," MacCormack argues that Church authorities "were bringing into existence a network of holy places" (18). Certain locations like Rome and Jerusalem may be able to edge out competitors, yet the popularity of pilgrimage was encouraged by have a wider diversity and number of sacred sites. Not every illness would warrant or allow far travel. Likewise, a journey to Rome may encourage further travels out of a desire to cross new ground. As Rome became domesticated, it lost the allure of being foreign. Even to sustain the attractiveness they held, loca sancta needed to invoke elsewheres in contrast. When one arrives at a center of Christianity, what is evident in the crowds is how many other places and peoples there are in the world. While all roads lead to Rome, when in Rome all roads lead elsewhere. Rather than containing meaning and power in specific places, pilgrimage functioned to share sanctification between loca sancta and even the margins which their centrality eschewed. The attraction of loca sancta for those on the margins is that they might share in the sacredness of another place and that the effects of its grace would travel with them back home. Loca sancta turned from close circuits into nodes in a wider network of power. "A complete map of medieval pilgrimage, were such a thing conceivable, would have to consist of a number of maps, on very different scales, superimposed on one another or visualized simultaneously" (Webb xii).  Pilgrimage as a physical journey and as a narrative is sets up networks of power that runs through those who connect the centers with the margins. Each place, even those on the margins, for those who live or travel there becomes a kind of center. As a result, the enactment of pilgrimage as a ritual and narrative creates many maps with many centers. These locations compete for power yet share a common need to encourage the constant flow of matter and meaning, people and power across the many divisions of space.

Not everyone however was equally able to engage in a sense of space. Because of conflicts between the physical and social environment on particular bodies (women, people with disabilities), the road was not as open to them as others (able bodied Christian men). The ability to be a pilgrim, to sacrilize a location, is not socially and even physically allowed for all bodies. Coleman and Eade writes. "pilgrimage can be seen as involving the institutionalization (or even demostication) of mobility" (17). Who is allowed to travel becomes just as critical as how the travel occurs and what costs and changes it enacts on those who go on pilgrimage. As a result certain bodies became synomous with certain places because they lacked the physical and/or social mobility to leave. Amazons and Hermaphrodites become associated with their Isles, while Mandeville is free to travel between them. Likewise, the experience of world and space was a privelege in contrast with those whose world was only as far as the next town. "Different groups disposed of different resources and also different degrees of freedom, both of which affected the capacity to make long journeys. Female participation in pilgrimage was, of course, conditioned by all these variables. All the indiciations are that men considerably outnumbered women as long-distance pilgrims, but there picture at many local shrines was very different" (Webb xiii). In other words, ablebodied cisgender men could afford to become foreign, become perergrini while other bodies could only experience this through narratives brought back.  Thus while Mandeville looks on trans and intersex bodies within his book, can we imagine trans and intersex people looking back at his body or indeed reading his book? Might he and his travels be as much of a marvel to them as they were to him? Often pilgrims would collect and transmit badges, souvenirs, or else stories and their own bodies as evidence of contacting the divine presences in these loca sancta. The narrators came to embody this power by their ability to claim and narrate their contact with loca sancta, making their body and texts transmitters of grace or secondary relics (21). Reading a text or speaking with someone who walked the places where Christ walked may not be as powerful as going there in person, yet these pilgrimage objects carried with them special significance as intermediaries.

Physicists claim that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Each step forward creates a force backwards. Perhaps in a cultural form of this law there ever seems to be an undertow that works against the centralizing of the authority in a few locations. The margins and the marginalized begin to realize that they have a lot more power than they have been made to believe. The drive to divide the world into loca sancta and non-loca sancta, centers and margins, departures and destinations is not always imposed on the people by authorities but adopted willingly. Webb writes that people want to imagine loca sancta out of a desire for a better world, "[t]he apparently deep-seated human tendency to locate the holy at a distance from one's everyday surroundings and to seek solutions to personal problems and the alleviation of suffering (or boredom) in a journey to such a place" (viii). One wants to believe that there is a loca sancta somewhere else like one believes the grass is always greener on the other side of a wall. What such an explanations allows, however, is the possibility that loca sancta might begin to feel too domesticated by those who live there. As a result, as time and repetition goes on, pilgrimage to the usual few centers of authority may no longer excite. In this malaise, the possibility of anti-loca sancta begins to rise. In the later years of a pilgrimage cultures, the wonders of the margins may begin to rise and draw power, travelers, and narratives away from the centers. After Mandeville successfully walks from one edge of the world to its center in Jerusalem, he feels the call to continue his pilgrimage and his story back into the margins. And many readers are glad he did. For the second pilgrimage is in many ways more interesting than the first and fulfills the promise he made in the start of his book and repeats again as the thesis for his second journey, "now wole Y telle of yles and dyverse peple" (Mandeville). By opening up his narrative and inverting the power structure of place, Mandeville and his Book become more and stranger than they were. Mandeville encounters foreign places and peoples, like the Amazons and Hermaphrodites, only to return home with a body and text that reflects the hard work of becoming foreign.


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

New Publication: "Unconfessing Transgender" Featured in Accessus 3.1


"Man / The which, for his complexioun 
Is mad upon divisioun"

John Gower
Confessio Amantis
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by M.W. Bychowski
Accessus: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 3.
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Abstract

On the brink of the twenty-first century, Judith Butler argues in “Undiagnosing Gender” that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) defines the psychiatric condition of “Gender Identity Disorder” (or “Gender Dysphoria”) in ways that control biological diversity and construct “transgender” as a marginalized identity. By turning the study of gender away from vulnerable individuals and towards the broader systems of power, Butler works to liberate bodies from the medical mechanisms managing difference and precluding potentially disruptive innovations in forms of life and embodiment by creating categories of gender and disability.

Turning to the brink of the 15th century, we find that John Gower’s Confessio Amantis narrates the division and dysphoria of gender according to the hermeneutic of the seven deadly sins. The “Tale of Iphis and Ianthe” occurs in the Confessio’s Book IV on “acedia,” or sloth. Iphis, whose story is bordered by a priest’s penitential advice and thereby related to sloth, is a biologically female youth dressed as a boy and later physically transformed into a man. Medieval disability scholars have demonstrated that for premodern thinkers, religion and medicine were so intertwined as to be inseparable, especially in cases such as the management of sloth, where the symptoms of depression, despair, and sluggishness spanned the categorizes of physical and spiritual disease. Gower himself considers the God of Love to be both cause and physician of this ailment.

In “Unconfessing Transgender,” I contend that Gower's text considers the medical definition and control of medieval “trans” bodies under the auspices of sin by presenting both Iphis’s problem and cure as socially constructed. The first part of this article explores “Divisioun and Dysphoria” to establish how Gower prefigures the modern social model of transgender as an experience of living in a world full of change and contradiction. In part two, the particular social forms of “divisioun” identified as “Acedia and Depression” signal Gower’s discussion of the sin of sloth that frames the “Tale of Iphis and Ianthe.” In the third part, I examine how Gower's removal of the dysphoric youth’s voice and agency in the tale emphasizes the systematic character of suffering caused by a dysphoric Nature (represented by Isis) and a subjugating patriarchal Nature (represented by Eros).
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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Eve Salisbury for her indispensable enthusiasm and insights throughout the birthing of this piece, as well as Georgiana Donavin, Jonathan Hsy, Chelsey Faloona, and other readers who helped (like Isis) to midwife this dysphoric work into the world. Furthermore, I would like to extend gratitude to Jenny Boyar, Sarah Gillette, and Pamela Yee, who presented alongside me on the Gower Project panel, “Gower and Medicine,” at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI, in May 2015. For the conviviality and mentorship that has helped in the development of this project, I thank Robert McRuer and David Mitchell, as well as Jeffrey J. Cohen and all members of the George Washington University Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute. Finally, to my partner in all things, the Rev. Rachel J. Bahr, and our children, who every day teach me more about the power of speaking together, the agency of youth, and the radical demands of love, I dedicate this work to you.

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Accessus

Accessus: A Journal of Premodern Literature and New Media is a biannual publication of The Gower Project. In Accessus, The Gower Project publishes theoretically informed readings of premodern literatures, demonstrates the impact of new media on these texts, and provides a venue for innovative work on John Gower's poetry.

The Forward to this issue was written by Georgiana Donavin, bepress (DC Admins), and Eve Salisbury, Western Michigan University. In this Foreword, the editors summarize the articles published in Accessus 3.1 and offer conclusions about their importance for Gower Studies and contemporary medical practice.

The issue also features another Gower Project participant, "Reflection, Interrupted: Material Mirror Work in the Confessio Amantis" by Jenny Boyar, University of Rochester. In the abstract for the article, Boyar writes: The Confessio Amantis concludes with a revelatory scene in which Venus holds up a mirror to Amans, allowing him to recognize John Gower the poet— a moment that is often read as a mimetic and healing counterpoint to the Confessio’s sickness and self-questioning. My intention in this paper is to very slightly modify certain aspects of this narrative, to consider how the materiality of the mirror can inform its metaphoric deployments in the Confessio. I organize my discussion around two seemingly contrasting moments in the poem in which the self is seen and in different ways recognized through a reflective surface: the “Tale of Narcissus,” and the concluding moment in which Amans looks into the mirror to see, eventually, John Gower. Drawing in particular on the production and dissemination of mirrors in the Middle Ages, as well as basic properties of reflection, I point to certain challenges facing the medieval mirror: the hazy reflective properties of the lead mirror, and the impurities of the precariously made, limitedly accessible glass mirror. I ultimately suggest that, more than a revelation through reflective recognition, the Confessio’s ending would have proven most resonant for its portrayal of seeing through a complicated medium.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Sites of Hermaphrodites: Intersex in the Greco-Roman World


“Whoever comes to these fountains as a man, 
let him leave them half a man"

The Tale of Hermaphroditus
Publius Ovidius Naso
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Holy Places in the Classical World

In the Book of John Mandeville, the hermaphrodites play a memorable role in the pilgrimage narrative despite only have a handful of lines devoted to them. The intersex people are pictured in various sketches of Mandeville's travels and the pilgrim directly ties his narrative to illustrative mappa mundi that show the hermaphrodites living on islands along the margins. In a sense, while circumscribed to a small corner of the narrative and the map, the hermaphrodites evidence the wider thesis of Mandeville's second pilgrimage wherein he claims, "now wole Y telle of yles and dyverse peple and bestes" (Ln. 1378-1382). While the first pilgrimage from England to Jerusalem is a fairly conventional travel log and collection of tales on the holy land, the second pilgrimage works to instill a sense of the world on the margins and the world oriented towards the margins. In this work, the Isle of the Hermaphrodites does critical work in demonstrating the allure of alternative sites of travel outside the usual centers of the Christian world and pilgrimage. As an anti-loca sancta, the isle of hermaphrodites functions as a kind of elsewhere holy site that draws travelers from the center to the margins. The role of the hermaphrodites in the pilgrimage narrative could be dismissed as one among many monstrous races imagined on the margins but a brief consideration of the tradition of hermaphrodites in the classical literature informing later medieval thought shows how the children of the moon, the children of Hermes and Aphrodite, and the children of Adam have long functioned to disorient and reorient maps of who lives in the world.

Medieval thinkers and pilgrims inherited their world-views (literally their view of the world and the peoples in it) from classical writers. These traditions are most evident in the ways that medieval travelers continued to regard the world that contrasted with Christian biblical or clerical authorities. Indeed, numerous Christian theologians discouraged pilgrimage not only because it was dangerous and a potential waste of resources but because it encouraged the debatable notion that certain holy sites were more sacred than others. If God is omnipresent, why must we travel from one location to another encounter the divine? If Saints are now in heaven, why barter large sums over who gets to house their remains? These critiques were all the more fervent when such sites and relics were of non-Christian origin. The common habit of regarding certain wells or mountains as sacred or artifacts as imbued with magic without direct or historical ties to the Church challenged the supremacy of Christianity in geopolitics. And yet despite critics, pilgrimage was a booming practice for much of the middle ages and medieval thinkers generally did not disregard the holiness of something because it happened to predate the Christianization of the region. Not only the ruins but the world-view of Plato, Ovid, and Augustine lay foundations for late medieval thinking about sacred places and monstrous peoples.

A significant feature of the hermaphrodite tales is that they are heavily bio-cartographic as discourses of intersex tended to have a strong consideration of the relation between people and environment. Classical thinkers knew (or had heard) that intersex people existed but wanted to know where they came from and where they lived. As a result, various origin stories worked to tell how hermaphrodites were brought into the world and by unpacking these first causes to give a sense of their meaning. Among the traditions that unfolded from Plato's Symposium of Love to Augustin's City of God, the concept of hermaphrodites in the world developed from mythologically distant in time and place to evidence of Creation's diversity in the here and now. Each of these three authors, spanning the start, middle, and end of a thousand years of classical thought represent an ongoing conversation that would continue into medieval conceptions of gender. While hermaphrodites in the Greco-Roman world been examined through art history, medical texts, and archeology, these texts offer a distinct literary quality that share a disciplinary tradition with later medieval pilgrimage narratives. The medical and the artistic understanding of hermaphrodites are undoubtably in conversation but among classical tales there are peculiar literary ways of thinking. The question is not only how did intersex persons live in the classical eras but how did storytellers conceptualize hermaphroditism as a bio-cartographic mode of thinking about place and space, gender and the environment, the sacred and the human. As for some later natural scientists and philosophers, encounters with intersex bodies tells us a lot about our world-views of gender and the world we thought we knew.


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The Mountain 
(Plato c. 380 BCE)

The Mountain looms large in the literary ordering of intersex in order of embodiment and space. For Plato, the mountain represented the divine locus by which the gods controlled the world and towards which we might rise together in order to claim authority over our lives. In fear of our collective power, Plato narrates, the gods on the mountain divide and conquer gender non-binary peoples, forcing them to the margins of the world. In the tale of Aristophanes from Plato's Symposium, the author addresses the forgotten power of hermaphrodites and suggests that this might be rectified if people construct sacred places devoted to hermaphroditic Love. The prompt for Aristophanes's speech is his concern that society neglects and misunderstands Love, "[f]or if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars" (Plato). For Aristophanes, the basic element of faith is the keeping of sacred places and the rituals therein. Framing the following myth of the hermaphrodites, Aristophanes establishes the goal of his narrative as the creation of loca sancta in the honor of hermaphroditic Love. By coming together at these sites, we might remember who we are as trans and intersex peoples. We might reclaim our embodiments and our collective strength so that we might scale and conquer the mountain that sets limits on our access to our bodies and public space.

Unlike binary models of gender, Aristophanes asserts a non-binary model wherein hermaphroditism is a divinely created natural state in humanity. He names three distinct genders which are not as gender is embodied today: children of the sun (a people with double masculine traits who he calls "men"), children of the earth (a people with double feminine traits who he calls "women"), and children of the moon (a people who have both masculine and feminine traits who he calls "hermaphrodites"). Aristophanes acknowledges that in his day, the word "hermaphrodite" is used, "as a term of reproach." This makes evident that just as the term has debatable meanings and connotations in modern culture, the term is no less problematic in a Classical context. Despite the dangerous significance of the word, Aristophanes insists that this disregard for the hermaphrodite was not always the norm, "[o]nce it was a distinct kind, with a bodily shape and a name of its own." Aristophanes is speculative on the current existence of hermaphrodites but sees them as a mythical, foundational, and even divine form of life.

The hermaphrodites are so powerful in Aristophanes's estimation, that they threatened to rise to locations and significance usually held by patriarchal authorities. In their divine unified state, the hermaphrodites threatened to unseat the ruling gendered hierarchies. "Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great," writes Aristophanes. This relation between the power of the body and of the mind is significance, as it ties together how confidence effects the deployment of one's body. If culture celebrates intersex bodies, they become more powerful. Alternatively, if intersex bodies are decried as shameful, they exist in a time of diminished power. And this power is related to the ability to organize the biopolitics of space. Connecting them to Homer's Titans and Giants, Aristophanes writes that they tried to mount Olympus, "to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods" (Plato). Already in Aristophanes there is a danger in the hermaphrodites power to go where they will. This resounding claim echoes in Eli Clare's mythology of the Mountain as the quintessential concept that organizes bodies and space. "The mountain as metaphor looms large in the lives of marginalized people," writes Clare. "How many of us have struggled up the mountain, measured ourselves against it, failed up there, lived its shadow?” The Mountain is the mythical signifier of the order of nature that dictates the place of powerful bodies at the center summit and the marginalized along the borders. While the Mountain of the gods is too hard for a divided community to climb member by member, together they can rise and overthrow the signs of their oppression. 

The gods on the mountain fear the collective strength of the hermaphrodites and so decide to divide them. Together and whole, they have the ability to travel across divisions of space, even into the sacred places of the gods. In response to this disruptive movement, the gods decide to take away the hermaphrodites body and collectivity, in turn effecting their power and ability to move as they will. The gods decide to go with the plan to divide and conquer the children of the moon. "Methinks," says one god, "I have a plan which will enfeeble their strength and so extinguish their turbulence; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us." Together the hermaphrodites are a challenge to those who order the world and assert a hierarchy of embodiment. Yet when their bodies and collective community are taken from them they are weaker. As Plato notes, the work of division is not destruction but subjugation. By isolating hermaphrodites from one another, they don't have control over themselves and cannot strive together. As a result, hermaphrodites will forget who they are and will become more subservient to those on the mountain. This then is the origin of love, explains Aristophanes, and why we need holy sites to remind us to seek after love: alone and separate we are weak but by coming together we are strong enough to shake the orders of the world.
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The Well
(Ovid c. 8 CE)

While named for the protagonists of the story, the focus of the "the Tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus" is the well wherein the merger of the two happens and the child of Hermes and Aphrodite earns his name. "Now you will hear where the pool of Salmacis got its bad reputation from, how its enervating waters weaken, and soften the limbs they touch," claims AlcithoĆ«, the narrator of Ovid's tale. "The cause is hidden, but the fountain’s effect is widely known" (Ovid IV. 274-316). From the onset, this site of hermaphrodites is judged as well known and dangerous. Yet within this danger is the riddle of intersex for the ancient mind: evident in existence but mysterious in cause. In this tale, Ovid works to bridge reality and myth, people and location. While Plato imagines the mountain as a site of the division of hermaphroditic embodiment and community, Ovid imagines a sacred well as a site of creating new hermaphrodites. In Ovid's Tale in Book IV of the Metamorphoses, the birth of the first hermaphrodite is narrated as a boundary crossing of gender that results in a new place and embodiment through which we can change our views of the sexed body (IV.346-388). The tale imagines the site of this gender mixing and crossing as the locus for rape and challenges to the patriarchal order of gender and sexuality. While tied up in violence, the dangerousness of the well of hermaphrodites also signs powerfulness. Ovid imagines that the existence and significance of such as well goes beyond any one story. While the first hermaphrodite's birth may have stemmed from shame and violence, the site as well as the identity of hermaphrodite might be reclaimed sources of power. People may flock to this location to stake their interest in trans or intersex embodiment and community. Through the tale of the well, the Ovidian world-view establishes intersex as grounds for travel. That the well might become a kind of holy site for trans and intersex pilgrimage is not tangential to the story but implicit in the identifying of the space and embodiment of the protagonist with the name "Hermaphroditus."

According to Ovid's tale, hermaphrodites are honored as the children of Hermes, the God of Travel and Language whose name means boundary stone, and Aphrodite, the God of Love and Sex whose name means emergence from water. "The Naiads nursed a child born of Hermes, and a goddess, Cytherean Aphrodite, in Mount Ida’s caves," writes Ovid. "His features were such that, in them, both mother and father could be seen: and from them he took his name, Hermaphroditus" (Ovid IV.274-316). In his tale, Ovid has Hermaphroditus live up to each part of his name. The story begins with a young man traveling alone until he arrives at a special well. There the traveler encounters a nymph who falls under the spell of love, "the nymph’s eyes blazed with passion." The lover assaults the traveler and by the force of her attraction the two merge. The scene is suggestive of a violent sexual encounter, where man and woman come together and produce something new from the intercourse. Brought together so completely, the love and traveler fuse and only then does Ovid name them, Hermaphroditus. The child emerges from the water, like Aphrodite, and speaks in a new voice, like Hermes. Importantly, Ovid also suggests that hermaphrodites might have the honor to make special demands of the gods that created them. “Father and mother, grant this gift to your son, who bears both your names," cries Hermaphroditus. The divine origin of Hermaphroditus signifies that the youth's divinity and by these natures he has authority to change the world. In Hermaphroditus's curse there is a hint of the divine world altering power of Plato's hermaphrodites. Nonetheless, it is not until after merging with a nymph that the child's body reflects the genders of both parents. Like many transgender youths, Hermaphroditus was not himself, able to speak in his own voice and authority, until the momentous gender transition. 

Beyond his own story, Hermaphroditus's emergence from the water, like Aphrodite, tells the story of the well's transformation. As a result of Hermaphroditus's birth, the well becomes a locum sanctum, a place where others may bathe and become intersex. "When he saw now that the clear waters which he had penetrated as a man, had made him a creature of both sexes, and his limbs had been softened there, Hermaphroditus, stretching out his hands, said, but not in a man’s voice, “Father and mother, grant this gift to your son, who bears both your names: whoever comes to these fountains as a man, let him leave them half a man, and weaken suddenly at the touch of these waters!” (IV.346-388). Divine agents like the gods have special authority to order the world. Often their acts cannot be easily unmade even by other gods. In this case, Hermes and Aphrodite are both invoked to enchant the well into a locus of gender boundary crossing and emerging reborn from the water. In a way, the gods turn the well into a shrine to Hermaphroditus. "Both his parents moved by this, granted the prayer of their twin-formed son, and contaminated the pool with a damaging drug," writes Ovid (IV.346-388).  Far from being a divergence in the divine order, Hermaphroditus and intersex bodies who would afterwards carry his name are in fact doubly affirmed by language and gender, travel and attraction. Made and remade, born and reborn under the influence of the gods, Hermaphroditus and his well become boundary stones, markers of a threshold across which lies a new intersexual horizon.Interestingly, Hermaphroditus does not ask for his body to be personally changed or changed back. Rather he asks that the well be held responsible for altering him by becoming a sacred site for other bodies to become intersex. A traveler by accident or pilgrim by intent could travel to this site to become marked in name and form as divine children. 

The boundary marker of Hermaphroditus not only mixes it creates something new. "Now the entwined bodies of the two were joined together, and one form covered both," writes Ovid, "they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either" (IV.346-388). The rape of the man by a woman that birthed Hermaphroditus signals the danger patriarchal cisgender masculinity feels towards intersexuality and the mingling with the feminine. The fear of women inspired by the tale suggests that masculinity fears female desire because it desires his power.  As became painfully evident in later Freudian theory, men fear that women envy the male penis and will attack him for it. The penis is taken the the site on the body where masculine power is concentrated. But beyond the directly phallic, the desire for male flesh also the desire for male embodiment and the power that it affords. This then is the danger of being intimate with women and sharing physical space with them, whether at work, in bathrooms, or simply out in the public sphere: the feminine will mix with the masculine and leave the patriarchal cisgender order forever changed. With women having long been associated with wetness and fluidity, fear of the feminine is located in the female space of the well. The resultant environmental message is that when a man steps into a feminine sphere he might not come out again without being affected by that feminine space.

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The World
(Augustine c. 426 CE)

By the early Christian era of the Roman empire, literary discourses on intersex seem to have opened up in writers such as Augustine of Hippo so that hermaphrodites were not merely outcasts from the mountains of the past nor merely the potential future products of sacred wells but an emergent element of God's living Creation. Like Plato and Ovid, Augustine is concerned with the origin of hermaphrodites. Instead of the gods or heroes, Augustine suggests a likelihood that intersex people are descended from the line of Adam and Eden. Yet the Christian writer is not so much interested in locating a mythical past but in meditating on the diversity of God's creation in the present. Augustine gives the hermaphrodites a special locus of consideration in book sixteen of his meditation on the City of God. "As for the Androgyni, or Hermaphrodites, as they are called," writes Augustine, "though they are rare, yet from time to time there appears persons of sex so doubtful, that it remains uncertain from which sex they take their name" (XVI.viii). Calling them by the combined names of the Greco-Roman gods, Augustine demonstrates that the sacredness of hermaphrodites perpetuates in ways into the Christian era of the classical period. Augustine asserts the sacredness of intersex by locating it as part of the diversity of God's creation which imagines all things and all places together in a great mappa mundi. The worldview of Augustine's Christian God does not locate intersex in an elsewhere or eslewhen but as a dynamism and diversity arising out of human procreation and God's divine Creation. Although rare, he writes, hermaphrodites are the children of men and the children of God.

The idea that hermaphrodites are monsters that signal failures of embodiment that should be eschewed to the margins is condemned by Augustine as heretical and small-minded. Whether or not intersex is a human person on another race of people entirely, they are members of God's world. To call hermaphrodites disordered in their embodiment is to critique God their creators. Augustine writes, "what if God has seen fit to create some races in this way, that we might not suppose that the monstrous births which appear among ourselves are the failures of that wisdom whereby He fashions the human nature, as we speak of the failure of a less perfect workman?" (Augustine XVI.viii). As a Creator, God works in diverse ways to produce diverse forms of life. Yet if Christians are to believe that God creates and names all things according to a divine mappa mindi, then one must admit that the diversity of genders beyond the binary of man and woman are also a key element of God's plane. If hermaphrodites exist then they are a part of God's created world and share in that sacred co-existence with all other embodied lives. 

The seeming flaw in hermaphrodites that social discourse claims in order to compel people to push intersex bodies to the margins of the world is rather a flaw in the social discourse. The problem is not in the true lives of the hermaphrodites but in the environment that misunderstands them and fears sharing the world with them. "But He who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part," writes Augustine, "because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs" (Augustine XVI.viii). By turning from the marginalized to the marginalizers, Augustine effectively flips the script of shame back on itself. Yet even the marginalizers are not flawed because they are "blind" but are flawed insofar as they marginalize. This blindness is not a lack of sign that leads to bad information but an insistence on a certain kind of information, the gender binary, so that people cannot see the world in any other way. It is the boundary lines that inhibit our ability to see those that cross or existence between categories of gender and place. The hermaphrodites are not flawed because they fail to exist within a binary gender, rather the binary gender system is flawed because it fails to account for hermaphrodites. If people can see the world in a hermaphroditic way, they could better see the diversity of gender in creation. Space and gender turn from set defined categories in which bodies exist into a dynamic discourse that changes as the world changes.

The World that Augustine arrives at in the end of his thoughts on hermaphrodites is that the world is too big for humans to fully know in advance. This does not mean that all knowledge of the world is faulty, that there is no truth, but that the fullness of Truth is God's alone. "For God, the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created," writes Augustine, "because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole" (XVI.viii). God's World will always exceed any map humans make of the world, there is always more diversity than any system can contain. Creatures can learn of God's mappa mundi through encounters with the world but cannot possess that knowledge beforehand. The world does not fail because of having hermaphrodites in it but a worldview without hermaphrodite fails. Gender as a form of knowing is not ended because intersex disproves the gender binary. Truth is more complex because new truths are continually added. Creation is bigger because God continues to create new and different forms of life. In a sense, God and the World is most active on the margins of existence and knowledge whereas those who remain rooted in the Mountains will daily become further from the whole Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of Creation. The implicit command then is for pilgrims to travel and on the road have their conceptions of self and society, center and the margin, boundaries and crossings, place and space continually expanded and diversified. If hermaphrodites are monsters on the margins, they point in the direction pilgrims must travel to find the sites that will transform them and the world.