The Last Days of Taurus – When Hermaphrodites Are Born…
Many contributions to this blog convincingly show that the Middle Ages (or, more generally, the premodern period) were quite familiar with the figure of the «hermaphrodite» as well as with a range of physiological aspects of sexualities that cannot easily and clearly be categorized in a bipolar system of «male» and «female». Less frequently addressed, however, seems to be the question how these phenomena can be explained? How does nature produce individuals who either lack the primary markers of sexual identity or combine elements of both sexes?
Especially historians of medicine will not be surprised, if one answer is: these effects are determined by celestial influence. This idea certainly merits a broader and much more detailed analysis; in this post, I merely want to present a curious passage that I recently encountered: In an inspiring article on the role of astrology as part of a ruler’s knowledge and princely representation, Eric Ramírez-Weaver discussed a well-known astrological miscellany that had been produced for king Wenceslas IV. of Bohemia, the infamous son and successor of emperor Charles IV, who was deposed from the Roman-German throne in 1400. The lavishly illuminated manuscript has been prepared by Wenceslas’ court astrologer Terzysko in cooperation with a gifted artist of the king’s court. Today it is conserved at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (BSB) at Munich under the call-number Clm 826 and the BSB made it available as a digital facsimile. The manuscript shows an intriguing layout, which might have been meant to enable several readers to work with it at the same time. It is a wonderful testament to the importance of astrology, astrological texts, and pertinent objects in the context of princely representation at late-medieval courts, all the while attesting to the outstanding quality of manuscript illumination at the royal court at Prague.
Among the numerous interesting features of this manuscript, one is immediately relevant to the question of hermaphroditism, since the text contains two pertinent passages concerning the influence of the decans on the formation of the human body. The notion «decans» refers in this context to celestial segments of 10o, into which the width of a zodiacal sign can be subdivided. An elaborate presentation of this system can be found in Abū Ma‘shar’s (lat. Albumasar, † 886) Liber introductorius (Kitāb al-madkhal al-Kabīr ‘alā ‘ilm aḥkām al-nujūm), which became one of the most important and widespread texts in late medieval astrology in «Latin Europe». Clm 826 does not only convey the pertinent information in textual form, but it also contains a full-fledged program of illustrations of the individual decans.
A first passage containing an abbreviated description of Taurus (Clm 826, fol. 8r), a «cold and dry» sign, starts with a short outline of the physical appearance of humans who are born under this sign in general. They are described as having a «long face», «wide eyes», a «strong neck» etc. Then the text moves on to the individual decans and their effects: while the first two of them remain quite ordinary, the third concerns the question of hermaphroditism:
Whoever is born under the third decan, will have a beautiful complexion and a beautiful face, and he will have a sign in the left eye; and he will be without luck with women, and a hardworking man. Whoever [is born] in the end of the sign will be a hermaphrodite.
Natus in tertia facie erit pulchri coloris et pulchre faciei, et habebit signum in sinistro oculo, et in mulieribus infortunatus, et vir laboriosus. Natus in fine signi erit hermofroditus [sic].
This first passage being a kind of abridged overview, only a few folios later the text elaborates somewhat on this at once short and surprising observation:
And who will be born in the third decan, will have a beautiful body and a beautiful face, and in his left eye there will be a sign. And he will be a hardworking man but have no luck with the women. But if he will be towards the end of this sign, he will naturally have no testicles, without [being castrated by] iron or be a hermaphrodite.
Et qui in tertia facie natus fuerit, pulchri corporis existet pulchraque faciei, et in oculo sinistro sibi inerit signum. Virque laboriosus erit nec in mulieribus fortunatus existet. Si autem natus fuerit in huius signi fine erit natura ac sine ferro testiculis carens vel hermofronditus [sic].
As can be seen, this second passage still remains quite superficial. Moreover, the illustrator of the manuscript, who generally followed the textual description quite closely, focused entirely on the depiction of the individual figures identified with the decan in question. The additional motifs concerning the physiological effects, however, were not represented.
Innocuous as the text itself might seem, it is extraordinary enough to warrant further investigation: As has been underlined by Ramírez-Weaver, Terzysko’s descriptions are by no means his own original text. Instead, they rely on an older tradition that ultimately goes back to Abū Ma‘shar. The decisive intermediate text, however, is not the work of the 9th century astrologer himself, but the Hebrew erudite Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Sefer Reshit Ḥokhmah (or «Book of the Beginning of Wisdom»), which was finished at Béziers in Southern France in 1148. And indeed, Ibn Ezra’s work contains a passage that can clearly be identified as the model for Terzysko:
One who is born in the third decan will have a handsome body and face, a mark on his left eye; he will be hardworking and will not have luck with women. One born at the end of the degrees of the sign will be a congenital eunuch or androgynous.
Ibn Ezra’s work became an overwhelming success: it survives in 70 manuscripts and parts of it rapidly found their way into works of encyclopaedic character. In addition, it has also been translated in several languages: A first translation, into Old French, has been prepared by a Jew called Hagin in Malines for Henri Bate in 1273. This translation survives in two manuscripts and is available in a critical edition:
- Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 24276, fol. 1r-66r
- Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 1351, fol. 1r-66r
As the colophon in ms. fr. 24276, fol. 66r, precisely indicates, Hagin had prepared the written text in 1273 in cooperation with a certain Obers (or Obert) de Mondidier:
Here ends the Book of the Beginning of Wisdom that had been made by Abraham even Azre or Aezera, which means Master of Help (?), which has been translated by Hagin the Jew from Hebrew to French, and Obers de Mondidier wrote the French; and this was done at Malines in the house of Henri Bate, and completed in the year of the Lord 1273 on the day after the feast of St Thomas the Apostle.
Ci define li livres du Commencement de Sapience que fist Abraham even Azre ou Aezera, qui est interpretés Maistre de Aide, que translata Hagins li Juis de ebrieu en romans, et Obers de Mondidier escrivoit le romans, et fu fait a Malines en la meson sire Henri Bate, et fut finés l’en de grace 1273o lendemein de la Seint Thomas l’apostre.
Concerning the passage that interests us here, Hagin managed to faithfully render the Hebrew text – thereby providing us with one of the earliest known occurrences of the word «hermaphrodite» in a French text (even though he clearly seems to have treated the notion rather as a loanword):
And he who is born in the third face [i.e. decan], he will be beautiful in his body and his appearances [i.e. face], and in his left eye he will have a sign; and he will be a hardworking man and have no luck with women. And he who will be born in the end of this sign will be a eunuch by nature [lit: without testicles without iron] or a hermaphrodite.
Et celi qui est nés es faces tierces il sera biaus en son cors et en ses faces et en son oil senestre ara enseigne, et sera home travaillant et n’ara point de eur avec fames. Et celi qui sera nés en l’emploial de ce signe sera escoulliés sans fer et naturelment ou ermofroditus.
This translation into Old French has later served as basis for Henri Bate’s Latin version of the text, which he prepared at Orvieto in 1292. At roughly the same time (i.e. at Paris, between 1293 and 1307), Pietro d’Abano also prepared a Latin translation, that became quite successful and was printed in the late 15th and early 16th century. In the 1507 edition, printed at Venice, the passage we’re interested in reads as follows:
And who will be born in the third decan, will have a beautiful body and a beautiful face, and in his left eye will be a sign. And he will be a hardworking man, but he will have no luck with women. But if he will be born towards the end of this sign he will by nature or without iron have no testicles or be a hermaphrodite.
Et qui in .3. facie natus fuerit, pulchri corporis existet pulchreque faciei, et in oculo sinistro sibi inerit signum. Virque laboriosus erit, nec in mulieribus fortunatus existet. Si autem natus fuerit in huius signi fine, erit natura ac sine ferro testiculis carens vel hermofroditus.
Ibn Ezra’s text was also translated into Spanish (i.e. Castilian) and Catalan, but I did not yet have the opportunity to have a look at the individual manuscripts. What seems remarkable, however, is the fact that several manuscripts contain marginal glosses at the place where Hagin used the word escouillés: These short glosses comment on the correct interpretation, explaining the word as eunucus, eunuque née, or caponat (in the Catalan translation from 1448).
All these observations attest to the success of Ibn Ezra’s work, but also to the widespread propagation of the idea, that individuals who were born towards the end of Taurus were prone to be either eunuchs or hermaphrodites. On the basis of this observation, it would be interesting to see, where this idea did originate? The general notion of celestial influence on the nature of new-borns can, of course, be traced back to Antiquity. Ptolemy, for example, mentioned hermaphrodites twice in his extremely influential Tetrabiblos – but neither of these passages has anything to do with either the Zodiacal signs, or the decans. Quite on the contrary, Ptolemy generally insisted on the planets’ influence in these matters, as can clearly be seen in the pertinent passages: hermaphrodites make a first appearance in a chapter on monsters, whose different categories Ptolemy explains with specific planetary constellation. As to the hermaphrodites, which he seems to consider as being somewhat «respected monsters», the author explains:
[…] but if Jupiter or Venus bears witness, the type of monster will be honoured and seemly, such as is usually the case with hermaphrodites or the so-called harpocratiacs [i.e. deaf-mute; comm. of the editor], and the like.
Only a little further, he precisely identifies a specific constellation of the Moon in relation to Mars, Mercury, and Saturn, as causing the birth of hermaphrodites and eunuchs:
And if the moon at rising applies to Mars, and if she also bears the same aspect to Mercury that Saturn does, while Mars again is elevated above her or is in opposition, the children born are eunuchs or hermaphrodites or have no ducts and vents. Since this is so, when the sun also is in aspect, if the luminaries and Venus are made masculine, the moon is waning, and the maleficent planets are approaching in the succeeding degrees, the males that are born will be deprived of their sexual organs or injured therein, particularly in Aries, Leo, Scorpio, Capricorn, and Aquarius, and the females will be childless and sterile.
Now the interesting thing is, that none of these ideas can be found in Abū Ma‘shar’s work, which beyond any doubt constituted the central sources for Ibn Ezra’s second chapter, in which he describes the signs of the Zodiac, the decans and their paranatellonta (i.e. the constellations or stars that become visible in these decans). Abū Ma‘shar’s Abbreviatio, which was translated into Latin quite early on by Adelard of Bath, does not contain any indication of hermaphrodites at all. And while the Liber introductorius (or Introductio maior) provides extensive descriptions of the decans, in which the author precisely distinguishes between the «Persian», «Indian», and «Greek» traditions, hermaphrodites still remain conspicuously absent: they can’t be found neither in Herman of Carinthia’s nor in John of Seville’s Latin translation. What is even more, even though Abū Ma‘shar’s text and its Latin translations provide detailed descriptions of the paranatellonta, they don’t mention any specific influence on the formation of the bodies of those who are born under their influence, let alone the generation of hermaphroditism.
And indeed, Shlomo Sela, who edited and commented Ibn Ezra’s text in the original Hebrew, observes that he could not identify any sources for these passages in the «Beginning of Wisdom». So either Ibn Ezra actually invented this idea himself, or the origin of a motif that was to have a great future in later astrological writings, is still to be elucidated.
 Eric Ramírez-Weaver, «Reading the Heavens: Revelation and Reification in the Astronomical Anthology for Wenceslas IV», Gesta 53/1 (2014), 73-94 (accessible via Jstor: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/675418).
 Ramírez-Weaver, «Reading the Heavens», 91-92.
 Ramírez-Weaver, «Reading the Heavens», 87.
 Munich, BSB, Clm 826, fol. 8r, online: http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/bsb00095113/image_19 (30.03.2018); a slightly different transcription can be found in Ramírez-Weaver, “Reading the Heavens”, 93, who also gives an English translation ibid., 83.
 Munich, BSB, Clm 826, fol. 12v, online: http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/bsb00095113/image_30 (30.03.2018); my transcription and translation differ slightly (but decisively) from Ramírez-Weaver, “Reading the Heavens”, 94.
 Munich, BSB, Clm 826, fol. 12r, online: http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/bsb00095113/image_29. (30.03.2018).
 Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Introductions to Astrology. A Parallel Hebrew-English Critical Edition of the Book of the Beginning of Wisdom and the Book of the Judgments of the Zodiacal Signs (Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Astrological Writings, 5), ed. Shlomo Sela, Leiden/Boston: Brill 2017, here 28; according to Sela, Ibn Ezra died c. 1161, see ibid., 1.
 Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Introductions to Astrology, 69 (II ii 30-31); Hebrew orig. ibid., 68.
 Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Introductions to Astrology, 33.
 Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Introductions to Astrology, 36-37.
 Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Introductions to Astrology, 37; for the edition, see The Beginning of Wisdom, an Astrological Treatise by Abraham ibn Ezra (The Johns Hopkins studies in Romance literatures and languages, extra vol. 14), ed. Raphael Levy/Francisco Cantera, Baltimore: J. Hopkins Press / London, H. Milford / Oxford University Press / Paris, Les Belles lettres, 1939. The second manuscript, BnF, ms. fr. 1351, dates to 1477, see ibid., 20.
 Ramírez-Weaver, «Reading the Heavens», 85.
 The Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé (http://atilf.atilf.fr/) refers to a 13th c. French version of the Digests as oldest occurrence of ermefrodis, see http://stella.atilf.fr/Dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/advanced.exe?8;s=4177953150.
 For emploial meaning «end», see Raphael Levy, The Astrological Works of Abraham Ibn Ezra. A literary and linguistic study with special reference to the Old French translation of Hagin (The Johns Hopkins Studies in Romance Literature and Languages, 8), Baltimore MA: The Johns Hopkins Press / Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de France, 1927, 101-102.
 The Beginning of Wisdom, 42; Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 24276, fol. 7v, online http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10032193q/f9.image (30.03.2018).
 Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Introductions to Astrology, 37; Lynn Thorndike, «The Latin Translations of the Astrological Tracts of Abraham Avenezra», Isis 35/4 (1944), 293-302, 293-294, held that Bate worked from the Hebrew original; but in this case, one wonders why he would have ordered the French translation nearly twenty years earlier?
 Abrahe Avenaris Judei Astrologi peritissimi in re iudiciali opera, ab excellentissimo philosopho Petro de Abano post accuratam castigationem in latinum traducta, Venedig 1507, fol. Vv; for a digitized version of the copy at Munich, BSB, Res/4 Astr.p. 26, see http://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/resolve/display/bsb10198584.html (30.03.2018).
 Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Introductions to Astrology, 38.
 El Escorial, Estante j. N. 19; for the different glosses see The Beginning of Wisdom, 42, fn. 7d, 8.
 Le Livre unique de l’astrologie. Le Tétrabible de Ptolémée. Astrologie universelle et thèmes individuels, ed. and transl. Pascal Charvet, with Robert Nadal/Yves Lenoble/Jean-Marie Kowalski, Paris: NiL éditions, 2000, 165 and 168.
 Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos (Loeb Classical Library, 435), ed. and transl. Frank E. Robbins, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press / London: W. Heinemann, 231980, 263 (III 8).
 Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 323-325 (III 12)
 Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Introductions to Astrology, 22-23. For the paranatellonta see briefly Wolfgang Hübner, «Paranatellonta», Brill’s New Pauly, online http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e907920 (30.03.2018).
 Abū Ma‘sar, The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology. Together with the Medieval Latin Translation of Adelard of Bath (Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Science, 15), ed. Charles Burnett/Keiji Yamamoto/Michio Yano, Leiden/New York/Cologne: Brill, 1994.
 Abū Ma‘šar al-Balḥī [Albumasar], Liber introductorii maioris ad scientiam judiciorum astrorum, 9 vols., ed. Richard Lemay, Naples 1995, vol. 8: Traduction de Hermann de Carinthie, here 97-98 (on the decans of Taurus). A new edition of Abū Ma‘sar’s Arabic text by Charles Burnett and Keiji Yamamoto is forthcoming.
 Abū Ma‘šar al-Balḥī, Liber introductorii, vol. 5: Texte latin de Jean de Séville avec la Révision par Gérard de Crémone, here 219 (on the decans of Taurus).
 Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Introductions to Astrology, 314.