Renée Soulodre-La France, What is in a body? Part II

This is the second of five blog-posts going back to an article which originally appeared online in La Habana Elegante – Revista de literatura y cultura cubana, caribeña, latinoamericana, y de estética. Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V

Cases like that of Martina Parra provide us an opportunity to explore layers of attitudes and thoughts, mentalitées and practices, as different subaltern and dominant groups became involved. By putting the concerns raised by Martina’s sexual and gender ambiguity into the context of late colonial society we can trace some of the processes that were occurring in the early modern period, from the baroque counter-reformation of religious and social anxiety to the enlightened curiosity of the modern elite wherein a growing codification of boundaries were being ‘reasonably’ established. We can also discover more about the ways in which the body became the defining configuration for the experts, the medical men, to map out the sexuality and the gender of individuals with ever increasing claims to legitimacy, and how this affected the possibility of individual identity formation. Instances of physical or anatomical doubt reveal much about fear of irregularities and the growing impulse towards creating order so as to exert control in physical, sexual, and moral realms. Such instances also reveal how ambiguities came to be explained in the didactic terms of enlightened reason. Furthermore, they allow us to re-examine how sexuality is or was socially constructed or biologically ordained.[1] Conformity was a highly valued standard and was socially and legally enforced at the outset of the colonial period, but eventually this could be achieved by the dismissal and ridiculing of unacceptable behavior and being. Through these developments we can trace how the gatekeepers of morality and Christianity were transformed from the priests who sought to enforce Christian monogamous marriage as the only purview for sexuality, to the doctors who would determine who was fit for that marriage. Within these processes, there is also evidence of a growing gap between popular world views, and understandings of the physical and its relationship to the metaphysical, or supernatural, and the lettered elite that viewed such cultural scripts as naïve, ill-informed, and deplorable.

Intriguingly Juana Maria Martines’ accusation against Martina Parra also raised some interesting phantoms of sexual danger for the alcalde and Corregidor. Thus, our inquiry will focus not only upon Martina’s body and other sexualized colonial bodies, but also upon the sexual outlaws whom authorities feared were manifest in these anomalies, whether because of their anatomical ambiguity as in the case of hermaphrodites, or their gender transgressions in the case of lesbians and homosexuals. This work will explore some of the common themes highlighted by the case of Martina Parra and other suspected hermaphrodites in the Hispanic world in order to reflect upon how the dominant cultural mores infused these anomalous situations with sexual danger. As we will see, one of the ways in which that danger was confronted eventually, was by relegating instances of difference to the sphere of folk tales and unsophisticated popular and local culture.

On October 18 1803 the alcalde of Suesca, Bernardo Ecurra, wrote to the corregidor of Zipaquira that Juana Maria Martines had appeared before him with a confession about Martina Parra, saying that she was perturbed because she had been living in a bad state (mala vida) with her for over a year. The judge seemed nonplussed. Why was she worried? Since both of them were women what could be the problem? It was then that Martines told him that Parra was a hermaphrodite, that she had the generative parts of both men and women. This led him immediately to send both Parra and Martines to Zipaquira, so that officials with greater expertise to determine the case might deal with it.[2]

There was a long history of anxiety, fear, recrimination, suspicion, and ultimately denial in Europe and the Americas where hermaphrodites were considered. The hermaphrodite’s body, gender and sexual ambiguity were the focus of much study and preoccupation for reasons that ranged from moral categorization, titillation and speculation, through to the need for control over those wayward bodies. The example of hermaphrodites was also useful in the learned discussions of the one-sex or two-sex models of Western medicine. In their discussion of the Aristotelian and Galenic models of sexuality, Nederman and True argue that for medieval Europeans hermaphrodites made natural and biological sense.[3] The most persuasive model argued for Galen’s spectrum of sexuality, where the one true sex was the male, and the female at the other end of the spectrum could aspire to become male. In that case hermaphrodites simply occupied the middle of the spectrum.

In the hermaphrodite historical literature, analysis of sexual difference versus gender differentiation usually begins with Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the story of the Fountain of Salmacis and the creation of the first hermaphrodite. For 12th century Europe there is much medical, philosophical, legal and literary evidence that suggests a widespread belief in the hermaphrodite as a unique nature.[4] Within that context a three- sex model was a possibility. While medieval authors wrote of the hermaphrodite as a natural phenomenon, even though an anomaly, it was expected that the hermaphrodite should conform to one or another gender role.[5] Meanwhile those who followed Aristotelian logic wrote that the hermaphrodite was really either male or female, depending on the predominance of the male or female sexual organs.[6] In early medieval philosophy there was a tremendous interest in the hermaphrodite as a third and biologically sound sex, though later in the 13th and 14th centuries hermaphroditism tended to be confused with homosexuality. While authors in this period accepted the possibility of the hermaphrodite as a third sex, some did so in nonchalant terms that indicated an ontological truth, while others wrote of the hermaphrodite within the trope of ‘monstrosity.’[7]

The possibility or problematic of the hermaphrodite was inextricably linked to both science and religion among Christian commentators. In medieval European mentality, for example, it was viable to make a direct link between understandings of hermaphrodites and alchemical processes in which the comparison between the properties of the philosopher’s stone, a medium that embodied direct opposites, was symbolically equated to the hermaphrodite. This was a comparison that would eventually lead to a formulation of a parallel between the Philosopher’s stone and Jesus Christ that would “claim Christ him/herself as a hermaphrodite, the perfect combination of contraries-masculine and feminine, human and divine-in one body.”[8] This notion of Christ as hermaphrodite as discussed by Leah DeVun derived from the idea that Christ perfectly reconciled opposites within a being that was both corporeal and incorporeal, of nature and yet divine. Through the claims of authors such as those who wrote the Book of the Holy Trinity, the notion that Christ incorporated into his being his mother, the Virgin Mary, to represent his feminine principle and the principle of humanity, became viable. Such ideas were reinforced by beliefs about the hermaphroditic iconography representing some Catholic saints such as Wilgefortis, depicted as a bearded woman crucified on a cross in imitation of Christ.[9] In some ways then, as the figure of the hermaphrodite provided a metaphor for understanding alchemy and its possible transmutation of materials into gold and silver, it also provided a vehicle for understanding the God made human in Jesus Christ who would provide for the transmutation of human sin into salvation.[10]

The period moving into the 17th century however also saw the rise of an association between hermaphroditism and monstrosity, and of ‘monstrous’ births that were sometimes linked to sexual inequity on the mother’s part, and the retribution of a judgmental God. Interpretations based on monstrosity sought to attribute causal influence based upon what had moved the mother during her pregnancy which then resulted in these birth anomalies.[11] At times such births were seen as portents of bad things to come. However, with the rise of the natural sciences it became more common to associate the hermaphrodite with a medical pathology rather than a sign of “God’s wonder or abstract signs of political, social, or religious corruption.”[12] Park and Daston argue that Francis Bacon’s philosophy sought to include monsters, and with them, hermaphrodites, in his perception of nature and natural history, trying to determine practical questions such as whether or not a hermaphrodite could marry.[13] By the beginning of the 18th century though, the same authors argue that scientists were abandoning Bacon’s notions of the ‘new rare and unusual’ in nature and considered that nature had a uniformity and order.[14]

From a different perspective, Lisa Leibacher’s examination of L’Isle des Hermaphrodites by Artus Thomas (1605) provides us with analysis of French 17th century fears of hermaphroditism and its redefinition as excessive libertinism. In the context of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation, the term Hermaphrodite had become synonymous with “corruption, degradation and contempt.”[15] In this interpretation the hermaphrodite becomes ‘a transgressive blend of epicurean sensualism which ends up turning natural freedom and pleasure seeking into artful and constraining social rituals.”[16] This was a scathing comment upon late 16th century mores or perhaps a critique of baroque mannerism.

In his examination of 17th century Spanish masculinity, Edward Behrend-Martinez argues that ever increasingly the state and its institutions played a role in determining who was and who was not a man. These were cases that depended upon anatomy and how manliness was defined through that anatomy, so that judicial institutions were used to examine doubtful men, “hermaphrodites, castrates and impotent men.”[17] In his interpretation, the church and state sought to order society through anatomy by identifying manhood through medical examinations instead of depending upon masculine behavior.[18] In 17th century Spain the Galenic theory of humors still predominated and according to this framework a man’s body made him a man, “practical, reasonable, and emotionally stable.”[19] By the 18th century physical examinations of sexual organs to determine gender were not unusual as demonstrated by a case from Spain when Juan/a’s sexual ambiguity was resolved. The court physician denied Juan/a any claim to gender at all. The individual was considered a sexual monster and thus denied the rights of being either a man or a woman, the same verdict that was reached by the doctor in Guatemala in 1803 in the case of Juana la Larga which Martha Few has discussed.[20] This trend to classify gender according to the body was evident through the 17th and 18th centuries in Spain and linked to notions of observable physical attributes rather than behavior as defining gender.[21]


[1] See the very stimulating and controversial work by Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex. Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 1990. The most relevant section for our purposes is on pp. 134-142.

[2] AGN, Colombia, Colonia, Criminales, Tomo 96, fl. 218r.

[3] Cary J. Nederman and JacquiTrue, “The Thrid Sex. The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol, 6, no.4 (April 1996), pp. 499-500.

[4] Ibid., p. 500.

[5] Ibid., p. 502.

[6] Ibid, p. 501 and Lorraine Dashton and Katherine Park, “The Hermaphrodite and the Orders of Nature. Sexual ambiguity in Early Modern France,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 1 (4) 1995, p. 421.

[7] Nederman and True, pp. 503-506.

[8] Leah DeVun, “The Jesus Hermaphrodite: Science and Sex Difference in Pre-modern Europe,” The Journal of the History of Ideas, 69-2 (2008), pp. 209 and 194.

[9] Ibid., p. 213 and Daston and Park, The Hermaphrodites, p. 424.

[10] DeVun, p. 218.

[11] See Frida Gorbach, “Mujeres, Monstruos e Impresiones en la medicina Mexicana del siglo XIX, Relaciones 81, invierno 2000, vol. XXI, pp. 41-43.

[12] Jenny C. Mann, “How to Look at a Hermaphrodite in Early Modern England,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Winter 2006, Vol. 46, issue 1, p. 69.

[13]Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston, “Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in 16th and 17th Century France and England,” Past and Present, No. 92 (August 1981), p. 22.

[14] Ibid., p. 24.

[15] Lise Leibacher-Ouvard, “Decadent Dandies and Dystopian Gender-Bending: Artus Thomas’s L’Isle des Hermaphrodites (1605)” Utopian Studies, 2000, vol. 11, Issue 1, p. 126.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Edward Behrend-Martinez, “Manhood and the Neutered Body in Early Modern Spain,” Journal of Social History, 38:4 (2005) p. 1073.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 1076.

[20] Behrend-Martinez, p. 1078 and Martha Few, “That Monster of Nature”: Gender, Sexuality, and the Medicalization of a “Hermaphrodite” in Late Colonial Guatemala,” Ethnohistory, 54:1 (Winter 2007), 159-176.

[21] Behrend-Martinez, p. 1085.


Suggested citation: Renée Soulodre-La France, What is in a body?, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 23/02/2018,

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