Sex, Identity, and Hermaphrodites in Iberia, 1500–1800 by Richard Cleminson and Francisco Vázquez García (review)
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Sex, Identity, and Hermaphrodites in Iberia, 1500–1800. By Richard Cleminson and Francisco Vázquez García. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013. Pp. 214. $99.00 (cloth).

In a succinct but dense study, Richard Cleminson and Francisco Vázquez García add a welcome contribution to the growing number of historical studies of hermaphroditism in premodern Europe. Sex, Identity, and Hermaphrodites in Iberia is notable for covering a geographical area that has so far received relatively little attention (aside from François Soyer’s Ambiguous Gender in Early Modern Spain and Portugal, which was published just before the Cleminson and Vázquez García volume).1 Both books function as a complement to studies by Kathleen Long, Ruth Gilbert, and other scholars who have focused mainly on northern Europe and Britain.2 The study at hand explores the ways in which Iberian thinkers evaluated the “rank” of an individual hermaphrodite in order to assign rights and privileges that were accorded differentially to men and women. Cleminson and Vázquez García describe sex in early modern Iberia as an ancien régime that encompassed a variety of identities and behaviors that were contested by juridical, medical, and theological authorities. Sex, for these authorities, was [End Page 358] a “state” comparable to other kinds of social status that could shift abruptly in accordance with a change in an individual’s activities. This notion of sex as “true rank,” the authors argue, was eclipsed in the nineteenth century by the medical category of “true sex.”

The heart of the study is an analysis of four (of twenty extant) cases of hermaphrodites or masculinized women from the period between 1530 and 1688. These examples range from the well-known cases of Eleno/a de Céspedes and Catalina de Erauso, who have been extensively studied by scholars, to the nearly unknown master fencer Esteban/ía de Valdaracete. Through these cases, the authors explore the identities of their subjects, noting how sex intersected with military, religious, and “racial” categories. Individuals, they argue, could ascend from female to male or from “Old Christian” to “New Christian,” both categories of rank, based on their dress, activities, and positions within a matrix of social relations. Parallel declines in status were also possible: flouncy dress, indulgent tastes, and a lack of courteous behavior could cause men to degenerate into the inferior sex. But such transitions were often more complicated than simple ascents and descents. Erauso, for instance, simultaneously embodied both martial virility and chaste femininity; according to the authors, she did not so much become a man “as a legendary symbol of Spanish patriotism” (59). The authors suggest that Erauso exercised a certain degree of agency in her “decision to become a man,” as well as her “aware[ness] that she had to incorporate” into her persona the qualities of a perfect woman (52, 58). Erauso (like Eleno/a and Esteban/ía) is portrayed here as a savvy agent who created and revised his/her sex as circumstances required. These cases are extremely interesting, and it is helpful to see them studied together, yet it is not always clear on the basis of the primary sources treated here to what extent the individuals in question consciously constructed their own sexual identities, as the authors propose. It is possible that individuals’ presentations or claims of sex/gender were deliberate decisions, but they might also have been ad-hoc attempts to navigate corporeal and cultural demands that were beyond their control.

The authors also dedicate much attention to an appraisal of Thomas Laqueur’s so-called one-sex model, as described in his groundbreaking Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.3 To address Laqueur’s narrative, Cleminson and Vázquez García analyze a number of relaciones de sucesos, or involuntary “sex changes,” in which women apparently transformed into men. Cleminson and Vázquez García use these cases in part to demonstrate that at least some early seventeenth-century thinkers rejected aspects of the one-sex model. Much like Helen King’s recent systematic treatment, as well as earlier works by Joan Cadden, Katherine Park, and others...


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