Aristotele, goats, and double sex (English)


Not troubled by goats too much: Aristotle. Detail from Raffael’s School of Athens (1510/11). Source: WikiCommons . Public domain.

Double-sexed goats may not be the most common topics in scholarly blogs, not even in this blog; but if Aristotle had blogged more on anatomy than he in fact did, things may have taken a different turn. Perhaps also the media would have been less surprised by intersex goats and cows (see here and esp. here). In any case, the goat certainly played a role in Aristotle’s Generation of animals, where several times it is compared to man (e.g.  GA IV.4, 726a: fertility; 779a: eye colour). Now this work is a fundamentally important source for pre-modern concepts of the body, and I have already quoted Aristotle repeatedly (see here, if you like), including some passages from the De generatione (for an English translation, see here). Two more passages in the Generation of animals are particularly relevant for the historian of ambigiously sexed bodies in pre-modern Europe. First, double-sexed men and goats:

A puzzle may be raised about this production of numerous offspring and the redundance of parts, and the production of few or one offspring and the deficiency of parts: sometimes animals are born having too many toes, some having one only; and the same with the other parts: some have too many ; some are mutilated; some actually have two organs of generation, one male and the other female. This happens with human beings, and with goats especially. Goats are born which are called tragainai on account of their possessing both male and female organs of generation. We have also had an instance of a goat being born that had a horn on its leg.

GA IV 4 770b (tr. Peck)


Not troubled by Aristotle at all: goats. Illumination from a 12th c. bestiary, British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, fol. 31v (detail). Image via; public domain.

As the context is comparative anatomy, the treatment of human and animal generative organs together in itself should not confuse us. A certain problem with this passage is that the term he uses (τράγαινα) is quite rare – Liddell/Scott s.v. τράγαινα give ‘hermaphrodite’ as a translation, but alas with Aristotle as the only proof text, and other dictionaries do not even have the term. So yet another rare term for double-sexed beings! Fortunately, though, the context is clear enough: Aristotle indeed asserts that ‘in men and especially in goats’ double genitalia occur. What is perhaps most striking is that Aristotle simply lists it as one of many cases where ‘too little or too much’ generative substance causes bodily parts being missing, ‘too numerous’ or ‘in the wrong place’. So compared to other representations of double-sexed anatomy, this is clearly not charged, no more or less troubeling than a sixth finger, for example.

This passage at least does not suggest that Aristotle had a special interest in double-sexed beings. Contrary to what one might expect given his interest in gender difference, the blurring of bodily sexual difference does not seem to trouble him. The reason for this can be inferred from the second passage in the Generation of animals:

In certain cases we find a double set of generative organs [one male and the other female]. When such duplication occurs the one is always functional but not the other, because it is always insufficiently supplied with nourishment as being contrary to nature; it is attached like a tumour (for such growths also receive nourishment though they are a later development than the body proper and contrary to nature). If the formative power prevails, both are similar; if it is altogether vanquished, both are similar; but if it prevail here and be vanquished there, then the one is female and the other male.

GA IV 4 772b (tr. Platt)

Scholars have often assumed that this referred to two set of different genitalia; the translation just quoted is an example here, as the passage in brackets was indeed inserted by the translator (as duly marked, and explained in a footnote). Strikly speaking, it is possible that the whole passage refers to babies born with two penisses or two vaginas (or two uteruses?). If, on the other hand, Aristotle also referred what most other writers called hermaphrodites (interestingly, neither this term nor any equivalent are used here), it is also clear that in this view they are not ‘true’ hermaphrodites but only appear to be double-sexed. Aristotle believed that in persons with double genitalia (including, it seems, hermaphrodites) one set of genitals always was disfunctional, so both aitiologically (cerated from ‘excess’ seed, see above) and functionally it was ‘superflouus’. It is easy to see how such a view could translate into positions like that of Albucasis, who advised to ‘treat’ hermaphrodites by surgically removing the ‘superfluous growth’ (have a look here).

For medieval Western Europe, this is all the more important, as Arab medicine and Aristotelian natural philosophy were both studied in the same academic milieux; whatever one thinks about the reception of Galen‘s writings on sex and gender in the Middle Ages (I expressed my doubts here and here), the importance of Aristotelian and related works for late medieval universities cannot be doubted. Medieval perceptions of double-sexed bodies were manyfold, and Joan Cadden has rightly stressed that no single ‘model’ was dominant in the Middle Ages; yet for specific milieux and specific times, it should be possible to distinguish between more and less authoritative models; the late medieval university, and specifically the faculties of arts and medicine to me seem likely candidates for milieux where an Aristotelian ‘two sex-model’ (if one wants to adopt Laqueur‘s terminology) was more authoritative than any other model.


Primary sources

Aristotle, Generation of Animals. With an English translation by A. L. Peck (Loeb classical library 366), London und Cambridge, Mass. 1943. []

Aristotle, On the generation of animal, tr. Arthur Platt, in: The works of Aristotle, ed. William D. Ross and John A. Smith, 12 in 26 vols., London 1908–52, here at vol. 5 (1912). []
Secondary literature
Suggested citation: Christof Rolker, Aristotele, goats, and double sex (English), in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 07/12/2015, Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0 []. Letzter Aufruf: 28/09/2023.

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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