The hermaphrodite Adam in the 12th century
The biblical book of Genesis famously includes two very different accounts of the creation of humanity. The first, which appears in Genesis 1:27, tells us that God created Adam and Eve simultaneously: “And God created man to his own image, to the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” In the second, more detailed story, God created Adam from the mud of the earth before shaping Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:7, 21-5). While modern biblical scholars have identified multiple scribal voices within Genesis, medieval theologians believed it to have only one author, and they tried to resolve any apparent contradictions by subjecting the text to careful exegesis.
Early Christian theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa proposed to solve the discrepancy by suggesting that the creation happened in multiple, sequential steps. Before their fall into sin, Adam and Eve experienced a sort of “serene undifferentiation,” in which sexual difference existed only in potential, as Peter Brown put it:
The present division of the sexes into male and female formed part of the present anomalous condition of human beings. This division made sexuality possible. Sexuality was designed for marriage and childbirth: it enabled mankind to continue its forlorn attempt to stem the tide of death by producing progeny.
Brown 1988, 294
Only after sinning did Adam and Eve become resolutely male and female, and only then did true sexual difference enter the world.1 Augustine of Hippo (writing around 400) strongly objected to this view in his On the Trinity, writing that God first created Adam and Eve as distinctly male and female:2
For some have been afraid to say: “God made him male and female,” lest something monstrous, as it were, should be understood, such as those whom they call hermaphrodites, even though in this case the singular number could also be correctly understood of both, because of what was said “two in one flesh.”
As in so many cases, Augustine’s interpretation won the day, and a number of late medieval biblical commentators followed his lead. The twelfth-century Glossa ordinaria, for instance, argued that
Lest it be thought that both sexes were in one human, like those they call hermaphrodites, it is added in the plural form: “[God] created them.”
It goes on to explain that although Eve was created materially after Adam, she existed already in potential: she was pre-begotten along with Adam through prolepsis.3 A number of high medieval scholastic philosophers agreed. The thirteenth-century scholastic Henry of Ghent added that Adam and Eve were created not as one hermaphroditic creature but as two “diverse, divided, and distinct” sexes.4 His contemporary, Thomas Aquinas, offered a similar opinion.
Even in the face of near unanimity among the scholastic theologians, some medieval Christians nevertheless continued to imagine Adam and Eve as beyond simply male and female sex. An illumination in a twelfth-century German copy of Ambrose’s Hexaemeron, for instance, envisions Adam and Eve as two halves of a single bi-sexed body. Rather than emerging from Adam’s rib, Eve here shares with Adam a seamless body featuring both male and female anatomical features. The composition of the two figures – separate yet coherent – makes vivid the juncture of male and female at the moment of creation. This image, in the spirit of Gregory of Nyssa and others indebted to him, seems to defy any simple division of Adam and Eve into “diverse, divided, and distinct” sexes. The illustration also strongly resembles other conventional images of hermaphrodites in monstrous-race literature and alchemical tracts, which also depicted hermaphrodites as split, bi-cephalic figures. The particular iconography of Adam and Eve in this illustration seems designed to evoke the hermaphroditic undercurrents of Genesis. It, along with other similar illuminations and texts, suggests that the problem of Adam’s sex was not so easily resolved.
1 Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 294-5.
2 De trinitate, 12.6; the translation is taken from Augustine, On the Trinity, Books 8-15, ed. Gareth B. Matthews and trans. Stephen McKenna (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 88.
3 Biblia Latina cum Glossa Ordinaria: Facsimile Reprint of the Editio Princeps Adolph Rusch of Strassburg 1480/81, ed. Karlfried Froehlich and Margaret T. Gibson (Turnhout: Brepols, 1992), vol. 1, 15: “Rursus in uno homine uterque sexus deputaretur sicut quos androgenos vocant, pluraliter subiecit, “fecit eos”; quamvis mulier nondum esset a viro divisa sed materialiter praeseminata.”
4 Henry of Ghent, La “Lectura ordinaria super sacram scripturam” attribuée à Henri de Gand, ed. Raymond Macken (Louvain: Éditions universitaires de Louvain, 1972), 167. https://books.google.de/books?id=RA4XAAAAIAAJ