Men, women and sex change in Diderot’s Rêve de D’Alambert

Diderot reve

Autograph of Diderot’s Rêve: Paris, BnF, nouv.ac.q fr. 13727, fol. 1r (detail). http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53003145h/f11.item Public domain.

Galen’s model of male and female genitalia being homologous has been made famous by Laqueur’s controversial book Making sex (Laqueur 1990). Laqueur’s idea that Galen, and specifically his tract De spermate, were dominant more or less from antiquity to the 18th century, never was well founded and by now should be dismissed as factually wrong. In the Middle Ages, De spermate was apparently unknown in the Latin West, and there is little if any evidence that it ever was a dominant model. Yet even if this claim was wrong, Laqueur was right that many premodern models of bodily sex asserted that sex change was possible, at the least from female to male. Commonly, these models assume that it was rare, but entirely possible that a woman turned into a man as the male genitalia hidden inside her body were brought to light – whether spontaneously, as the result of an accident (as in Montaigne’s famous account) or by surgery (as reported e.g. by Diodor of Sicily).

Now what has this all to do with Denis Diderot? He is often quoted in this context as the editor of the Encyclopédie with its articles on hermaphrodites; he sometimes even is (wrongly) presented as the author of these articles. They contain a radical polemic against the idea of ‚true hermaphrodites‘, and on the whole argue that bodily sex is binary and cannot change.

Yet precisely because the Encyclopédie articles indeed contain a polemic against the ideas found, among many other sources, in Galen’s De spermate, it may be interesting to study other texts by the Encyclopédie authors. As Diderot was obsessed with anatomy, one has not to search for too long before finding several pasages in other works which address the question of bodily sex and the difference of the sexes. The one below is a dialogue in the famous Rêve de D’Alambert between doctor Bordeau and Mme. de L’Espinasse. Commenting on the latter’s remark that men and women may only be ‚monstrous varieties‘ of each other, Bordeu suplies some medical background which is very close to – Galen’s De spermate! But read on yourself:

BORDEU: Who knows? To make a child requires two people, as you know. Perhaps one of these agents fixes the defect in the other and the defective network is not reborn until the moment when the descendant of the family with the monstrosity predominates and determines the formation of the network. The bundle of threads is the basis for the first and original difference in all animal species. The varieties in the bundle for a species create all the monstrous varieties of this species . . . (After a long silence, Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse emerges from her reverie and draws the doctor out of his with the following comments) . . . I’ve just had a ridiculous idea.

BORDEU: What’s that?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Perhaps man is only a monstrous variety of woman or a woman a monstrous variety of man.

BORDEU: This idea would have come to you a lot sooner if you had known that a woman has all the parts of a man and that the only difference is between a pouch which hangs outside and a pouch that is tucked away inside, that a female foetus looks so like a male foetus that one can make a mistake about them, that the part which gives rise to the error grows smaller in the female foetus as the interior pouch enlarges, but it never diminishes to the point of losing its original shape, and it keeps this shape in miniature, undergoes the same movements, and is also the source of feelings of sexual pleasure. It has its glans and prepuce, and we can see at its tip a point which seems to have been the opening to a urinary canal which is closed off. And in a man, from the anus up to the scrotum, there’s a space called the perineum, and from the scrotum to the tip of the penis, a seam which seems to be a repeat of a sealed up vulva. Also women who have an excessively large clitoris have beards, and eunuchs do not, but their thighs build up, their hips widen, and their knees grow rounder. As they lose the organic structure characteristic of one sex, they seem to revert to the arrangements characteristic of the other. Among Arabs, those who have been castrated by constant horse riding lose their beards, acquire a high-pitched voice, dress in women’s clothes, and sit among them in wagons. They crouch down to urinate and take on the customs and habits of women. . . . But we’ve come a long way from our subject. Let’s get back to our bundle of animated and living filaments.

The translation is that of Ian Johnston (http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/diderot/dalembertsdream.htm) – many thanks for this and so many other translations he has produced and made available online! For the original French (text of the Garnier edition), see here: https://intersex.hypotheses.org/486.


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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