Medieval canon law on hermaphrodites

"Gratian is the only lawyer authoritatively known to be in Paradise.", schreibt Anders Winroth mit Blick auf Dante (Paradiso X, 104)

“Gratian is the only lawyer authoritatively known to be in Paradise.”, as Anders Winroth put it (with Dante in mind: Paradiso X, 104).

As some readers of this blog know, I’ve been a canon law historian long before I began to think about hermaphrodites or intersex in history. On the whole, (medieval) canon law is largely silent on hermaphrodites. In particular, the extensive canon law on marriage for centuries was appareantly not concerned with questions of doubtful or double sex. The only occurence of the topic in the Decretum Gratiani (compiled ca. 1140) is a quotation from Roman law on witnesses for last wills; from this, later canonists inferred that the ordination of hermaphrodites, while not legal, was in some cases valid.  Huguccio’s comment on the legal status of hermaphrodites for centuries was quoted in cases of ‘doubtful sex’, in particular in marriage cases.

Sources: 1. Decretum magistri Gratiani, ed. Emil Friedberg (Leipzig, 1879), here at col. 540; 2. The Summa Parisiensis on the Decretum Gratiani , ed. Terence P. McLaughlin, Toronto 1952, here at 126; 3. Huguccio as quoted from the manuscripts by Ida Raming, Priesteramt der Frau – Geschenk Gottes für eine erneuerte Kirche (Münster, 2002), 105 n. 159; 4. Decretum D. Gratiani, […] una cum glosis […], Lyon 1559, 520.
Translation: Christof Rolker.
Literature: Maaike van der Lugt, ‘Sex difference in medieval theology and canon law: a tribute to Joan Cadden’, Medieval feminist forum, 46 (2010), 101–21 []; 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 [].

Decretum Gratiani, C. 4, q. 2 et 3, c. 3 § 22 with gloss (and glosses on the gloss). Manuscript of the 14th century: Frankfurt, Universitätsbibliothek Ms. Barth. 7, fol. 125r (detail). Source: UB Frankfurt; public domain


1. Decretum Gratiani, C. 4, q. 2 et 3, c. 3 § 22

Whether an hermaphrodite may witness a testament, depends on which sex prevails.

Hermafroditus an ad testamentum adhiberi possit, qualitas sexus incalescentis ostendit.

2. Summa Parisiensis 2.4, q. 2/3 s.v. hermaphroditus

Hermaprodite: In hot regions, many are born double-sexed; of they are closer to men, they give testimony like men. Hermes is translated Mercury, frodis foam, that is, Venus. Thus, hermaphroditus, the one born from the two [Mercury and Venus] acts in both forms.

Hermaphroditus: In terra enim calida plures nascuntur utriusque generis qui, si magis adjungant viris, tamquam viri dabunt testimonium. Hermes interpres, i.e. mercurius, frodis spuma, i.e. venus. Inde hermaphroditus qui ex his natus utriusque formam gerit.

3a. Huguccio, C. 27, q. 1, c. 23 ad v. ordinari

What, if the [candidate for ordination] is a hermaphrodite? For ordinations, the same distinction is made as for giving testimony (for which see [Gratian’s Decretum at] C. 4, q. 3, c. 3 § 22). Thus, if [the hermaphrodite] is more female than male, he is not to be ordained; in the opposite case, he is able to receive holy orders, but not allowed to be ordained because of deformity and monstrosity (see [Gratian’s Decretum at] D. 36, c. 1 and D. 49, last canon). What if he/she equally tends to both sexes? Then he/she does not receive holy orders.

Quid si est ermafroditus? Distinguitur circa ordinem recipiendum sicut circa testimonium faciendum in testamento, ut IIII. q. III. Item ermafroditus (c. 3 § 22). Si ergo magis calet in feminam quam in virum, non recipit ordinem, si secontra [sic], recipere potest, set non debet ordinari propter deformitatem et menstruositam [sic], arg. di. XXXVI. Illiteratos (c. 1), et di. XLVIIII. c. ult.[1] Quid si equaliter calet in utrumque? Non recipit ordinem.

3b. Huguccio, C. 4 q. 2 et 3 c. 3 § 22 ad v. sexus incalescentis

If [a hermaphrodite] has a beard, prefers doing manly tasks to doing females ones, and always prefers to keep company with men, not women, this is a sign that the male sex prevails in him and that he thus can give testimony in cases where women are excluded, i.e. in witnessing testaments and last wills, and therefore can  be ordained. If, however, [the hermaphrodite] lacks a beard, always wants to be with women and to do female tasks, this is a sign that the female sex prevails in her, that she is not allowed to witness, where women are excluded, i.e. in witnessing testaments, and therefore cannot be ordained, because woman does not receive holy orders.

Si quidem habet barbam et semper vult exercere virilia et non feminea et semper vult conversare cum viris et non cum feminis, signum est, quod virilis sexus in eo prevalet et tunc potest esse testis, ubi mulier non admittitur, scil. in testamento et in ultimis voluntatibus, tunc etiam ordinari potest. Si vero caret barba et semper vult esse cum feminis et exercere feminea opera, indicium est, quod feminius sexus in eo prevalet, et tunc non admittitur ad testimonium, ubi femina non admittitur, scil. in testamento, set nec tunc ordinari potest, quia femina ordinem non recipit.

[The Latin text contains some errors only partly corrected by the writer. In the text above the errors are emended drawing on other manuscripts; for more details, see Rolker 2014, ]

4. Hostiensis, Summa aurea

It is asked whether a hermaphrodite, that is, someone having the sexual organs of man and woman, can be witness for a testament? […] What if there is perfect equality [of the sexes]? Can s/he never be ordained? May s/he marry a man or a woman, and if s/he first contracts marriage with a man, can s/he contract marriage with a woman after his death? Certainly, in all these matters the sex which prevails has to be respected. (Johannes Teutonicus.) On monsters, one can ask monstrous questions.

Quid si utriusque membri officio uti potest, secundum quid de facto fuit in villa mea, scilicet Secusiae? Respondeo: eligat cui se dicat, secundum quid episcopus Tauriensis diocesanus noster de ipso fecit et iuret quod de caetero alio non utetur, quia nec fungi debet duplici officio, maxime tam diverso.


[1] In D. 36, c. 1 and D. 49, c. 2  the Decretum Gratiani treats the impediment of deformity [deformitas], but not ‘monstrosity’.


For a pdf version see here.


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Christof Rolker (2016, 10. September). Medieval canon law on hermaphrodites. Männlich-weiblich-zwischen. Abgerufen am 23. Mai 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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4 Antworten

  1. Dear colleague,
    A short message to tell you that I’ve been following your blog for some months now and that I’ve found it very interesting. Thank you also for writing some of your texts in english ; it allows non german speaker to understand them.
    I especially very much liked this post on canon law since I’ve been wondering for a while what was the position of canon law about intersex. While reading french legal cases from the 16-18th century, I had the impression that canon law only recognized man and women, but I’ve recently been shown some other source from medieval times that where less categoric on this subject.
    This subject is also of interest nowadays, since I know that some catholic intersex people are right now considering to ask the church to correct the catholical register of baptism in order to correct the sex mentionned in their act of baptism.

    Best regards.

    – BMP

    • Dear Benjamin,
      thanks for your feedback. I am not familiar with contemporary canon law; but at least well into the 19th century, the medieval authroties on canon law I dealt with in my recent blogpost were quoted in marriage cases brought to the Rota at Rome. As for early modern cases, Brendan Roeder has brought to light some interesting examples:
      As for the baptismal registers, I’d be very keen to learn more about the corrections you mention, as it is indeed a very similar question as the question of civil registers brought to the German high courts these days!
      Best wishes,

  1. 27/09/2016

    […] ‚wise legislators‘, Esparragosa is referring to the treatment of hermaphrodites in both canon law and Roman […]

  2. 29/01/2023

    […] Rolker, C. (2016, September 10). Medieval canon law on hermaphrodites. Männlich-weiblich-zwischen. […]

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