„Hermaphrodite sin“ in Dante

For centuries, the figure of the hermaphrodite was dominant in learned discourse on bodies between the sexes. At the same time, the terminology of hermaphroditism was used in many other ways, and these uses are likewise important.

For the medieval use of the Latin hermaphroditus and its vernacular equivalents, one of most difficult questions is whether and in which cases the term was use to refer to sodomy. In this context, a verse from Dante’s Divine Comedy (namely Purgatory, canto XXVI, verse 82) plays a key role, and in this blogpost I want to comment on this passage and its interpretation.

dante

Minitaure showing lustful sinners in a copy of Dante’s Commedia: London, British Library, Yates Thompson 36, fol. 113v (detail). Source: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=56712. Public domain.

In modern scholarship, the passage gained prominence mainly thanks to Boswell’s controversial monograph on gay history. In this influential study, Boswell asserted in quite general terms that both in antiquity and the later Middle Ages hermaphrodites and sodomites were commonly confused (but not the 11th and 12th centuries, which he famously claimed the ‚triumph of Ganymede‘: Boswell 1980, ch. 9). The only primary source Boswell quoted as evidence was Dante’s Divine Comedy (Boswell 1980, 375 n. 50).

Likewise, Daston and Park in the same context quote both Dante and another problematic example (Daston/Park 1995, 423-424):

This association appears in later medieval writing, but only occasionally and in a brief and casual way; the (male) sodomites in Dante’s Purgatory, for example, describe their sin as „hermaphroditic“, while the rubric „hermaphroditus“ was used to refer to a French case of sodomy between women in 1405.

Unlike Boswell, Daston and Park were very careful in their claims, and rightly highlight the rarity of such texts. However, both examples they quote are problematic. Dante’s Purgatory will be discussed below, but the other example is even more problematic as the 1405 document (a lettre de remission) in fact does not mention the term hermaphrodite or anything the like. It does mention sexual relations between women, but the only link to hermaphroditism is a modern comment from the 18th century (see https://intersex.hypotheses.org/919 for details).

So again, all depends on Dante. The passage in question is from the Purgatory, and more specifically is set in the seventh circle of the purgatory where Dante encounters two groups of sinners, whose sin was lussuria (lust) – one of the seven deadly sins. The two groups ar described as follows:

La gente che non vien con noi, offese
di ciò per che già Cesar, trïunfando,
“Regina” contra sé chiamar s’intese:

però si parton ‘Soddoma’ gridando,
rimproverando a sé, com’ hai udito,
e aiutan l’arsura vergognando.

Nostro peccato fu ermafrodito;
ma perché non servammo umana legge,
seguendo come bestie l’appetito,

in obbrobrio di noi, per noi si legge,
quando partinci, il nome di colei
che s’imbestiò ne le ‘mbestiate schegge.

Or sai nostri atti e di che fummo rei:
se forse a nome vuo’ saper chi semo,
tempo non è di dire, e non saprei.

Longfellow’s translation:

The folk that comes not with us have offended
In that for which once Caesar, triumphing,
Heard himself called in contumely, ‘Queen.’

Therefore they separate, exclaiming, ‘ Sodom! ‘
Themselves reproving, even as thou hast heard,
And add unto their burning by their shame.

Our own transgression was hermaphrodite;
But because we observed not human law,
Following like unto beasts our appetite,

In our opprobrium by us is read,
When we part company, the name of her
Who bestialized herself in bestial wood.

Now knowest thou our acts, and what our crime was;
Wouldst thou perchance by name know who we are,
There is not time to tell, nor could I do it.

Purg. XXVI 76-90 (ed. Petrocchi, tr. Longfellow; http://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/purgatorio/purgatorio-26/)

There are two groups; the first, „exclaiming, ‘ Sodom!‘„, is quite clearly a group of sodomites; but what about the other group, describing their sin as „hermaphrodite“? Modern scholarship tends to interpret this as a reference to heterosexual sin; Mandelbaum translates „our sin was with the other sex“ (http://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/purgatorio/purgatorio-26/). Already in 1970, Enrico Malato in the Enciclopedia Dantesca noted that the two groups were presented opposed to each other; the one group had committed homosexual sins, the other heterosexual sin, and ermafrodito was used as an opposite term to „sodomite“. Using Thomas Aquinas‚ termonology, Malato stated that

l’aggettivo e[rmatfrodito] è usato perciò chiaramente con valore di antitesi a ‛sodomita‘, per indicare un peccato commesso tra persone di sesso diverso, che hanno usato „secundum naturam“ ma „non secundum rectam rationem“

http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/ermafrodito_%28Enciclopedia-Dantesca%29/

However, terms like homosexual and heterosexual can be misleading when we are dealing with premodern sexuality; Barolini in her comment rightly points out that ’sodomy‘ should not be translated with ’same-sex desire‘:

Dante features on this terrace not one but two distinct groups of lustful souls. One group is purging excessive heterosexual desire; Dante calls this “hermaphrodite”, desire for the other sex. The second group is purging excessive homosexual desire: technically, same-sex desire, but Dante’s examples of Caesar and Sodom do not suggest the presence of women in this group.

Barolini 2015 (http://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/purgatorio/purgatorio-26/)

Indeed, just like sodomy covered certain heterosexual acts, it often was used in a way ignoring sexual acts between women, and this seems to apply to Dante; the sodomites in Purgatory XXVI are all male. Nonetheless, the contrast between sodomites on the one hand and those comitting „hermaphrodite“ sins holds; I agree with the scholars and translators quoted that the „hermaphrodite sin“ must refer to sexual acts between men and women – fornication, adultery and other acts „against human law“ (Dante’s umana legge) but not „against nature“ (as in the case of sodomy).

So the Divine Comedy should not be quoted as evidence for late medieval „confusion“ of sodomites and hermaphrodites; if anything, the opposite is true – Dante used the terms as opposites. Yet what is true for the Divine Comedy is not true for its reception; from early one, readers of Dante understood the passage indeed the same way Boswell did in 1980.

Already Jacopo della Lana (d. 1365), one of the earliest commentators, understood Dante ‚peccato ermafrodito‘ as referring to what we would call bisexuality (sexual relations with both sexes), and this continued well into modern times (see http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/ermafrodito_%28Enciclopedia-Dantesca%29/). So while Boswell may have been wrong concerning Dante, he may have been right for a tradition that goes back to the 14th c. and continued into Boswell’s lifetime; it would certainly be worthwhile to compare the commentaries to Purg. XXVVI 82 over the centuries.

 

Purg. XXVI 76-90 (ed. Petrocchi) Purg. XXVI 76-90 (tr. Longfellow)
La gente che non vien con noi, offese
di ciò per che già Cesar, trïunfando,
“Regina” contra sé chiamar s’intese:però si parton ‘Soddoma’ gridando,
rimproverando a sé, com’ hai udito,
e aiutan l’arsura vergognando.

 

Nostro peccato fu ermafrodito;
ma perché non servammo umana legge,
seguendo come bestie l’appetito,

 

in obbrobrio di noi, per noi si legge,
quando partinci, il nome di colei
che s’imbestiò ne le ‘mbestiate schegge.

 

Or sai nostri atti e di che fummo rei:
se forse a nome vuo’ saper chi semo,
tempo non è di dire, e non saprei.

The folk that comes not with us have offended
In that for which once Caesar, triumphing,
Heard himself called in contumely,‘Queen.’Therefore they separate, exclaiming, ‘Sodom! ‘
Themselves reproving, even as thou hast heard,
And add unto their burning by their shame.

 

Our own transgression was hermaphrodite;
But because we observed not human law,
Following like unto beasts our appetite,

 

In our opprobrium by us is read,
When we part company, the name of her
Who bestialized herself in bestial wood.

 

Now knowest thou our acts, and what our crime was;
Wouldst thou perchance by name know who we are,
There is not time to tell, nor could I do it.

Primary source

Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (New York, 2015). http://digitaldante.columbia.edu/

Secondary iterature

Teodolinda Barolini, „Purgatorio 26 : Human Sexuality.“ Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (New York, 2015). http://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/purgatorio/purgatorio-26/

John Boswell, Christianity, social tolerance, and homosexuality. Gay people in Western Europe from the beginning of the Christian era to the fourteenth century (Chicago, Ill., 1980).
———, ‚Dante and the Sodomites‘, Dante Studies, (1994), 63–76.
Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and civilization (Cambridge, Mass., 2006).

Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, ‚The hermaphrodite and the orders of nature. Sexual ambiguity in early modern France‘, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1 (1995), 419–438.

Enciclopedia Dantesca s.v. „ermafrodito“ http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/ermafrodito_%28Enciclopedia-Dantesca%29/

Suggested citation: Christof Rolker, „Hermaphrodite sin“ in Dante, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 07/10/2016, http://intersex.hypotheses.org/4040. Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/]. Letzter Aufruf: 18/10/2017.

 


Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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