The Zurich hermaphrodite (English translation)

The Zurich hermaphrodite

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, and other unusual births attracted much attention, and were depicted and discussed in various media, including medical tracts, popular songs and broadsheets. One of the earliest examples of the latter (perhaps the earliest) is that depicting the so-called Zurich Hermaphrodite.

Edition (with comment): Die Sammlung der Zentralbibliothek Zürich. Kommentierte Ausgabe. T. 1 Die Wickiania I (1500–1569), ed. Wolfgang Harms and Michael Schilling (Tübingen, 2005), at 12–13. For a transcription, see here, for a detailed comment (in German), see here.

Translation: Christof Rolker.

Literature: Alan W. Bates, Emblematic monsters: unnatural conceptions and deformed births in early modern Europe (Amsterdam and New York, 2005).

Young and old, all wonder, and rightly so,

about this child and strange figure

born in the flesh in the year

one-thousand fifehundred and nineteen,

on the first of January

when everyone is merry

to welcome the New Year in jolly mood

then this child was born.

This occurred in Zurich

honest people have wittnessed it

talking about it, without anger,

that because of feebleness it was born

with members, fine and whole,1

but below it has a man’s rod,

a woman’s private parts, as well

as a piece of red flesh.

While this figure is born

only this New Year

it already has a name; in Greek:

Andrognyes, and also in Latin,

called a Hermaphrodite.

Ovid (Metamorphoses, book four2) writes

that the child of Venus and Mercury

was raised by the gods of water.3

From this one might understand

that there is gross debauchery among us,

including drinking, over-eating, whoring

with young girls and married women,

pimping, showing off the arse, and the like

This is talked about (?) everywhere these days

We have become a strange order

four capital sins rule,

as debauchery and gluttony

and great haughtiness

these are not punished as capital sins anymore

by no-one, knight, vassel or lord.

Our fathers never had done so;

rather, they held piety and honour in high esteem.

These days, however, no-one seek manliness,

But only glotttony and dishonesty.

To seek after an honest man’s wife and daughter – such are the ‘manly’ deeds in our days.

This indeed clearly shows this figure:

the female privy parts are above the rod.

This is because the great debauchery

has oppressed all manliness

and won a complete victory over it.

The like one finds in Macrobius (Saturnalia, book three):4

Hannibal was thus seduces and

with him, all his people destroyed and overcome

in Campania (Valerius Maximus, book nine5);

all this Valerius reports of him.

Female debauchery was the cause of all this.

Holofernes is yet another example;6

he lost the war because of debauchery.

The same may well be saif about ourselves,

that our manliness these days is directed

towards splorging, gluttony and debauchery.

By this, we have become half like women,

who have their lewd ways in confusion,7

as Pliny (book seven8) writes about them;

they are called androgyne.

I fear, nothing good will spring from this

God has shown nature that debauchery is

an abomination to him (Augustine, On Christian doctrine9),

as Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities,

were burnt by fire from heaven,

because of their gross uncleansiness.

Therefore, God will not pardon us –

this is, what this figure means,

just as once, in the times of the Romans,

it occurred that a baby, six month old,

foretold the destruction of the Roman Empire,

as Livy relates us (Livy, book 21, Bellum Punicum, first book10).

As no misdeed remains unpunished,

I have to report one more thing:

people saw in heaven,

this New Year’s day

something (?) you should not ignore.

For Lucius Junius, it was his doom (Val., book 1)11

to have ignored miraclous signs;

sonn after, all his good perished,

and he himself was drown.

Thus, if you want to prevent harm and grief

flee the sin of debauchery!

Insist on virtue and manliness –

this will bring good luck and salvation

both in this world and in eternity;

this God may grant us all,

Amen. Printed in Zurich.

1 In the original, lines 1–13 are an acrostic for Baltiser Spros, which seems to point to the humanist Balthasar Sproß as the author.

2 Ovid, Metamorphoses iv, 285–388 (Loeb Classical Library 42, 198–205).

3 I.e. the Naiad nymphs (see Ovid).

4 Reference not identified. Macrobius, Saturnalia iii does not mention Hannibal, and Saturnalia ii, 3 (Loeb Classical Library 510, 328) on Hannibal does not fit the above reference.

5 Reference not identified. Valerius Maximus in his Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX. (ed. K. Kempf, Berlin 1854) depicts Hannibal in an extremely negative way (stressing his cruelty and arrogance), but does not specifically link his fall to being seduced by a woman.

6 Holofernes, seduced and beheaded by Judith according to the Book of Judith, was a common theme in medieval and early modern literature and art (e.g. Chaucer, Dante, Lucas Cranach, Caravaggio).

7 Confusion (Latin confusio) in medieval usage referred to the confusion of the sexes (i.e. intersexuality), but could also imply sexual sins. In the King James Version, the Biblical scelus (for incest and bestiality) is rendered confusion, e.g. in Lev. 18, 23 [KJV]: ‘neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion’.

8 See Pliny, Naturalis historia VII, iii, 35–iv, 37 (Loeb Classical Library 352, 528–531).

9 Augustine, De doctrina christiana (CSEL 80) famously deals with signs, including God’s revelation in nature. De doctrina iii, 36 briefly mentions the destruction of Sodom.

10 Livy, Ab urbe condita libri xxi, 62, 2 (Loeb Classical Library 233, 184). Book xxi is the first book of the so-called Third Decade, i.e. the books on the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC).

11 Reference not identified.

Quellenpapier hier als pdf.


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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