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  • Nothing Natural Is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe by Joan Cadden
  • Dyan Elliott
Joan Cadden. Nothing Natural Is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe. Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 327 pp. Ill. $85.00 (978-0-8122-4537-0).

Cadden’s magisterial Nothing Natural Is Shameful takes its title from the efforts of Walter Burley (d. 1344) to justify his engagement with Aristotle’s many sexually forthright treatments of nature in all its permutations, including sodomy. From Cadden’s perspective, this comment encapsulates the spirit of optimism that allowed scholars to examine a subject so at odds with Christian ideology. But the terms of engagement were hardly simple: the book is an intricate delineation of the requisite balancing act between scientific inquiry and contemporaneous social sanctions.

At the center of this enterprise are a series of late medieval commentaries on Aristotle’s Problemata IV.26—a question asking why certain men receive pleasure through anal intercourse. This becomes a catalyst for issues resonating in the fields of science, medicine, and philosophy and affecting conceptions of gender. First there are physiological considerations: how certain males are born with a crucial blockage of the seminal pores, necessitating that seed be expelled anally, resulting in pleasure. Though indicative of a monstrous, even unnatural, nature, it is nevertheless a condition that occurs in nature, which implicitly challenges the very nature of nature (chapter 1). Then there is the etiology of habit to consider: the males who were not born this way, but were introduced to sodomy when they were young and impressionable. Thus habituated, sodomy becomes second nature, rendering them virtually indistinguishable from others who were born this way (chapter 2). The tendency to conflate so-called sodomites with women is omnipresent in this discourse. This is partially grounded in their shared sexual passivity: hence indictments of the “sin against nature” are often based on the view that the sodomite “makes himself into a woman” (p. 108). But there are also deeper biological rationales. Aristotle had famously declared women to be deformed men; these men are likewise seen as defective. Female deficiency in conception engenders monsters; sodomites are themselves monstrosities (chapter 3). But to what extent can someone of a monstrous nature be held responsible for his monstrous acts? The issue of accountability is discerned through the complicated interplay between various factors: sickness, habit, and nature; reason and appetite; and the possibility of “heroic virtue” overcoming habitual vice (chapter 4).

Clearly many of the commentators felt obliged to voice their disapprobation of sodomy, peppering their discussions with deprecations and outright condemnations. The final chapter, however, demonstrates that a more common strategy was to omit Problemata IV.26 altogether. Despite his bold contention that “nothing is shameful,” even Burley recuses himself, which suggests that there are indeed some subjects considered so pernicious that they could actually harm those rash enough to engage them. From this perspective, Cadden’s title is rendered deeply ironic, while the concluding chapter demonstrates how the most powerful censorship is often self-imposed. [End Page 749]

The commentators themselves constitute a disparate group spanning the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, bound together by their common interest in Aristotle’s problema and an affiliation with the University of Paris. Certain characters, such as Pietro d’Abano, author of not only the first Latin but also the most detailed commentary on the Problemata, receive pride of place throughout the work. (Cadden provides an invaluable edition of Pietro’s treatment of Problemata IV.26 in an appendix.) But many of Cadden’s intellectual protagonists are anonymous, including readers and their marginalia. Cadden’s mastery of the manuscript tradition especially comes to the fore in her readings of these often cryptic marks, imaginatively discerning possible meanings from vestiges like a crudely drawn set of testicles or a timely nota bene.

The book as a whole is an elegant and meticulous megacommentary that both chronicles and emulates the work of the glossators. With ingenuity and patience, Cadden teases out meaning and intonation against a larger intellectual landscape that accommodates contingent areas like medicine and astrology. Because Cadden’s intellectuals do not avail themselves of theological rationales...