Sex change in the (medieval) city

Hermaphrodites in the pre-modern West were normally understood as people ‘having both natures’, that is, both male and female genitalia and/or other unusual combinations of male and female attributes (facial hair, breast, voice, etc.). At the same time, ‘hermaphrodites’ were closely linked to the idea that bodily sex could change over time, and specifically that women could turn into men (see already Pliny for this linking of the two phenomena). Therefore, pre-modern accounts of such changes are of particular relevance for me, and I contiue to make available primary sources in translation. Today, I would like to present in translation two short narrative accounts, both taken from late-medieval chronicles reporting of women-turned-men. (See here and here for my earlier blogposts in German on the two cases, including comments on the transmission and the editions.) The ‘sex change’ (to use the slightly anachronistic term) in both cases is successful, and it is striking to see that both persons continued to live in the places where they were apparently born, and successfully (re-)married there. Short as both accounts may be, this indicates not only that both successfully claimed male status, but that they did so with in the relatively small communities where they had grown up, lived as girls and (in the second case) also had been married as a woman. According to the sources quoted below, they both turned into men, married, and one is almost tempted to add ‘… and lived happy ever after.’

1. Catherina aka John and his wife

According to the late-medieval Constance Chronicle, a certain Catherine (native to Rottweil in the Black Forest) turned into a man, re-named herself ‘John’ and married a local girl; some time later, as both spouses grew breasts, the neighbours sent the couple to the ecclesiastical court at Constance to have a legal opinion on this marriage; a bodily inspection reveals that John has both a penis and a vagina. The court asserts that the marriage is valid, sending the couple home together. Here we go:

In the year of the Lord 1388, at St Martin’s day [11 November], a strange case was brought before the ecclesiastical court at Constance by honorable men [sent by] the city council of Rottweil. At Rottweil, a daughter was born to one of the burghers, named Hell, and she was named Catherine in baptism. When she grew up, she put on men’s clothes, declared herself to be a man, and called herself John. Next, this John took a wife, a beautiful young woman; both were around the age of twenty. And John grew breasts just as his wife. Then the citizens of Rottweil sent these the married couple to the ecclesiastical court at Constance, to enquire whether this was a proper marriage. So John was looked at; he had a penis and a vulva. Thus, the couple was sent home again together.

See here for a pdf with both the Early High German text and an English translation; the text is taken from the only extant manuscript (Konstanz, Stadtarchiv A I 1, fol. 127va); the translation is my own.

2. A woman-turned-man remarries (AD 1300)

The other account is found in the Annales Colmariensis; it relates how an unnamed woman from a village near Bern (the modern capital of Switzerland) is separated from her husband on accounts of female impotence, as the court involved would have called it; she travels to Rome, but in Bologna is turned into a man by a surgeon; he returns to his native village, marries again (this time as a man), end of story:

A woman turned into a man. [AD] 1300. In a village near Bern, a woman lived together with her husband for ten years. As she could not [carnally] be known, the ecclesiastical court separates her from her husband. On her way to Rome, a surgeon at Bologna cut open her vulva, and a penis together with testicles appeared. Back home, he took a wife, did rural work, and had legitimate and sufficient intercourse with his wife.

See here for a pdf with both the Latin text and an English translation; the text is taken from the only extant manuscript of this version of the chronicle (Stuttgart WLB cod. hist. 4° 145, fol. 135r); the translation is my own.


Impotence was (and is) a marriage impediment in canon law. Late medieval courts in such trials sometimes had the genitalia of the accused inspected by expert witnesses (midwifes, doctors, and sometimes prostitutes; see Murray 1990 and McVaugh 1993). A similar procedure seems to have used in the case of Catherina aka John at Konstanz, and the unnamed woman from the vicinity of Bern was almost certainly separated from her husband on grounds of female impotence. – The illustration is taken from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum: Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, W.133, hier fol. 277r. Source: The Digital Walters. Licence: PD.

3. They did WHAT? If you can’t believe all this, read on here

For today, I simply wanted to make the texts available in English translation. If you want to learn more, have a look at my earlier blogposts (here and here, and surely more to follow); for English-language literature, see Miri Rubin’s excellent article (briefly mentioning the mulier in virum mutata: Rubin 1994, 100-102). If you simply can’t imagine that the Church in the fourteenth century allowed such (re-)marriages, have a look at my own article on hermaphrodites in canon law (Rolker 2014); if you find it hard to believe that there were surgeons in fourteenth-century Bologna performing sex-changing surgery, have a look at the relevant works of Haly Abbas, Avicenna and Albucasis, to use the Latin names of those scholars who provided the Latin West (including the famous schools of medicine at Bologna) with their most important textbooks.

Primary sources

For pdfs of both passages (original Early High German/Latin with facing translations), see here and here, respectively.

Secondary literature

Jacqueline Murray, ‘On the origins and role of ‘wise women’ in causes for annulment on the grounds of male impotence’, Journal of Medieval History, 16 (1990), 235–249.

Michael Rogers McVaugh, Medicine before the Plague: practitioners and their patients in the Crown of Aragon, 1285–1345 (Cambridge Studies in the History of Medicine,  Cambridge, 1993). []

Christof Rolker, ‘The two laws and the three sexes: ambiguous bodies in canon law and Roman law (12th to 16th centuries)’, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, kanonistische Abteilung, 100 (2014), 178–222.

Miri Rubin, ‘The person in the form. Medieval challenges to bodily ‘order’’, in Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (eds.), Framing medieval bodies (Manchester, 1994), 100–122. []

Suggested citation: Christof Rolker, Sex change in the (medieval) city, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 01/03/2016, Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0 []. Letzter Aufruf: 01/12/2023.

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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2 Antworten

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    […] of women-turned-men (Diodor of Sicily [English translation], the 14th c. Annales Colmariensis [English translation], Straparola [English […]

  2. 27/09/2016

    […] sex assigned at birth was, and whether or not the person had been married as a woman before (see In many similar cases of the 16th to 18th centuries, including that of Juana la Larga, this would […]

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