No one expects the Spanish … Enlightenment

spanish i

The “Spanish i” … like “Inquisition”, helpfully suggests.

Whether or not you learnt your history with Monty Python, you do expect the Spanish Inquisition; even today, ‘Spain’ is associated with ‘Inquisition’, as every search engine knows; on the contrary, one does not normally associate ‘Spain’ and ‘Enlightenment’. Why is this? In the end, it reflects the Leyenda Negra, a tradition of anti-Spanish historiography which started in the sixteenth century, and also the view of Spain in French Enlightenment literature. For example, the Encyclopédie méthodique (a much-enlarged version and follow-up of the famous Encyclopédie by Diderot and d’Alambert) contains an article ‘Espagne’ which depicts Spain as the archetypical pre-enlightenment regime which was simply on the wrong side of history. The Spanish contribution to history was null at best according to Nicolas Masson de Morvilliers, the author of this (in)famous article; many countries had their merits, ‘mais que doit on à l’Espagne?’, he asked rhetorically (Masson de Morvilliers 1783).

Of course, there is a substantial body of modern historiography which has corrected these clichés; but as with all clichés, they are rather long-lived ansd not easily replaced whatever the scholarly consensus might be. Even today, the Enlightenment is largely seen as a French project, with perhaps some contributions from London or Königsberg, but certainly not the Iberian peninsula.

screenshot-duckduckgo com 2016-02-16 19-02-12

Who said ‘inquisition’? Not me, but search engines know better:

What does this all have to do with hermaphrodites? Well, scholarly literature on hermaphrodites in history is, if indirectly, influenced by French englightenment literature (not least Diderot and the Encyclopédie), and the most visible expression of this is the overrepresentation of French ‘cases’ and authors in almost all accounts of hermaphrodites in modern history. Time and again, Paré, Duval, Riolan, Montaigne and their opinions on Marie/Germain, Marie/Marin Lemarcis and Anne/Jean-Baptiste Grandjean are quoted.

Much of this goes back to the article(s) on hermaphrodites in the Encyclopédie and the cases and authorities quoted there; another reason why these very materials are so prominent in scholarly literature are the writings of Michel Foucault, who almost exclusively worked with French literature, and specifically with the Encyclopédie, Pitaval‘s Causes célèbres and Martin’s Histoire des monstres (itself drawing heavily on the former two works of reference).

Therefore, I was quite happy to see a book out on Hermaphrodites in Iberia, 1500-1800 and when writing my review, I read quite a bit of early modern Spanish sources. One work I would like to draw attentio to today is the Cirugía forense by Juan Fernández del Valle. In my opinion, it is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it is a fine example of Enlightenment rhetorics when it comes to the supposed inexistence of hermaphrodite. Just like the Encyclopédie authors, the question of hermaphrodites allowed del Valle to call into question the authority of a rather large body of received scholarship, and to assert his own modern self-image:

Los hermafroditas, ó sean las hermafroditas, han sido el objeto de várias tareas literarias, entre Autores de todas clases, y de grande sabiduría y santidad. Sin faltar, pues, al respeto de estos hombres grande, digo con el mayor número de los mejores y mas modernos Anaómicos, que nunca ha exîstido semejante clase de sugetos, en los que realmente se vean juntas las partes de la generacion, que pertenecen á la hembra y al varon, pues esto significa hermafroditas, sugetos que tienen los dos sexôs.

Hermaphrodites, or rather she-hermaphrodites, have been the subject of many learned theories of all kinds of authors of great erudition and reason. Yet with all due respect to these great men I say, with the majority of the best and most recent anatomists, the this class of subject never has existed […].
(Cirugía forense, vol. 1, 88;; my translation)

All ‘she-hermaphrodites’ – see here on the Spanish term hermafrodita (as opposed to hermafrodito) – were in fact women with an enlarged clitoris, the Cirugía forense asserted (ibid.). The ‘fable’ that there were ‘true’ hermaphrodites was the result of pure ignorance:

La ignorancia de todas estas propriedades del clitoris, y su poca longitude ordinaria y natural, ha dado origen á la fábula de los hermafroditas. Los Anatómicos de bufete […] confirm el error, y ha hecho incurir en él á muchos hombres santos y sabios. El Derecho Canónico y el Civil, nos presentan abundantes testimonies […]. No hay un solo Anatómico práctico y doctor de nunguna epoca, ni Nacion, que afirme haber visito ni disecado un solo hermafrodita.

Ignorance of all these properties of the clitoris, of its normal and natural shortness, have given rise to the fable of hermaphrodites. Charlatan anatomists have confirmed the error, and have led many holy and sound men in error. Canon law and civil law provide an abundance of examples […]. There is no practising anatomist or physician of any time or any nation who ever claimed to have seen a single hermaphrodite or to have dissected one.

(Cirugía forense, Bd. 1, 261-262;; own translation)

This not only is a polemic that seems to target mainly earler (‘charlatan’) anatomists but indeed declares a very large body of learned traditions, including the learned laws, as irrelevant when it comes to hermaphrodites. Only anatomists, and only real (i.e. modern) ones can decide whether hermaphrdites exists, and the most important technique to reveal the truth about them is dissection. Denis Diderot could not have articulated any better the programme of criticizing ancient lore to establish new knowledge, new techniques and of course new experts.


Primary sources

Nicolas Masson de Morvilliers, ‘Espagne’, in: Encyclopédie méthodique: Géographie, Paris 1783, 554-569. []

Juan Fernández del Valle, Cirugía forense, general y particular: dividida en quatro partes, que son, cirugía forense civil-política, militar, canónica y criminal, 3 vols., Madrid 1796/97. []


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Christof Rolker (2016, 27. März). No one expects the Spanish … Enlightenment. Männlich-weiblich-zwischen. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von

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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2 Antworten

  1. 09/06/2016

    […] A cliché: the Spanish Inquisition as we all know it (see […]

  2. 27/09/2016

    […] thought Spain was a an unlikely place to look for Enlightenement discourse on hermaphrodites? Then think Guatemala. Or, read the posts on Spain first, and then the article on […]

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