- Monstrous Conceptions: Sex, Madness and Gender in Medieval Medical Texts
The victim of a wound in any nervous tissue, especially a wound penetrating beneath the surface of the skull, should abstain from coitus and from any social contacts and conversations with lascivious women. For in these activities the nervous system is worked hard and highly stressed, and the emotions and humours are stimulated; the result of such stimulation is fever. Similarly, experience tells us that many patients with wounds almost healed have died very quickly and humiliatingly from merely talking, from subsequent stimulation, or from nothing more than imagination as a result of seeing their friends engaged in such activity.1
This fervent advice from the early-fourteenth-century surgeon Henri de Mondeville reveals the surprising extent to which the brain is thought to be affected by sex in medieval thought. Mondeville’s insistence that even the thought of ‘lascivious women’ can have a fatal effect on the male brain, however, does not tell the whole story. The relation between the brain and the female body is far more complex than Mondeville implies. Indeed, in this essay I will argue that the brain, as imagined by medieval writers, bears distinct similarities to the female body, and to the female generative organs in particular. Madness is visualized across medical texts as an inability to correctly conceive thought. I intend to trace this theme of madness as failed conception across a range of medical texts produced in the Middle Ages. I believe that examining this connection between mind and womb is useful for an understanding of both madness and medieval conceptions of gender. That the rational male mind, one of the defining features of masculinity, can be linked to the female body in this way suggests an intriguing level of gender fluidity in medieval medical thought.
This is certainly not apparent at first glance. Medical texts, in describing the pathological body, by default also map out a normative body. This body is male. Medieval medical texts are written by men and about men. Madness, too, is suffered almost entirely by men; female [End Page 153] cases are rarely found in any medieval literature, and in medical texts are almost non-existent. Women’s bodies only enter the text within the context of discussions of sex and reproduction. The female body as represented by medical authors is, in most cases, reduced to the generative organs: the uterus and vagina.
When the female body is mentioned, it is known, like the female character in general, by its difference from (read: inferiority to) the male body. John Trevisa, in his late-fourteenth-century translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s encyclopaedic work De proprietatibus rerum, elaborates:
The male passiþ þe femel in parfite complexion and wirkyng, in wiþ and discrecioun, in mi t and in lordschippe: in parfit complexioun for in comparisoun to þe femel þe male is hoot and drie, and þe femel a enward. In the male beþ vertues formal and of schapinge and werchinge, and in þe femel material, suffringe, and passiue.2
As we can see, this difference is generally constructed on Aristotelian principles: the male is active, and associated with form, the female is passive, and associated with matter. These polarities are especially evident in the Aristotelian theory of conception, in which the sperm, the ‘formal cause’ of conception, shapes the passive matter (the ‘material cause’) provided by the female. The seeds of new life are contained entirely in the sperm; the woman merely provides the matter – menstrual blood – to be fertilized and houses the resulting foetus until birth. As Joan Cadden notes, this theory co-exists with a contradictory belief, stemming from the writings of Galen, that both male and female sperm are needed for conception. The existence of an alternative theory of conception, however, does not seriously challenge the association of women with matter.3 Indeed, Aristotelian gender categories impact directly on medieval notions of physiology. The male body, being superior, is hot, while the female body is cold. And, while the male body is dry and stable, with strictly defined boundaries, the female body is characterized by a superfluity of fluids, an abundance of menstruation, milk...