- Shaping Bodies, Reimagining the World:Sartorial Prosthesis in L'isle des hermaphrodites (1605)
FOR THE PEOPLE OF FRANCE at the dawn of the seventeenth century, the world must have seemed like a bleak place. For four decades the country had been ravaged by chronic religious wars, which lasted from 1559 until 1629, ending only after the destruction of the last large Protestant stronghold in France, La Rochelle.1 Between two and four million people died during this period as a result of war, massacre, disease, and famine.2 The impact of this violence might be best understood in relation to Jasbir Puar's concept of debility, which "maintains the precarity of certain bodies and populations precisely through making them available for maiming."3 Injuries that we now might think of as disabilities were the result of a deliberate othering of a population targeted for debilitation, individually and collectively, based on a religious affiliation that marked them as insufficiently obedient to the king in his capacity as the representative of the Catholic Church. As a consequence, Protestants were represented as diseased or defective in some way.4 In the context of the French religious wars, the everyday reality of maimed bodies haunts the metaphors of disability found throughout literature and reflects a state damaged by the abrogation of rights for a portion of its citizens.
As multiple royal edicts forbade publishing on or speaking about these wars as historical events,5 authors turned to new and renewed literary forms such as the bloody histoires tragiques and neoclassical tragedy. These works often used images of disabled bodies to reflect on the state of the nation, evoking the violence incurred by the imposition of political order.6 This article will focus on one such work, a satirical novel about the late sixteenth-century French court, L'isle des hermaphrodites, published in 1605.
Most scholarship on this novel presents it as a satire about the court of Henri III (1574–1589). The novel is understood as purely dystopian, with the nonbinary inhabitants of the island used as negative examples for the purpose of reinforcing gender norms and other normative forms of behavior.7 Recent scholarship presents the novel as more ambivalent,8 and this complexity has been analyzed in depth by Teodoro Patera, who demonstrates that the aestheticism of the 'hermaphrodites' serves as a counterpoint to the moralizing commentary [End Page 127] that runs through the novel. This aestheticism can be read as complicating the distinction between stereotypically masculine and feminine roles, creating an ethics of alterity that can allow the novel to be read as a new, less normative, form of utopia.9
The following analysis builds on the interpretations that underscore this ambivalence in the narrative, focusing on its representation of clothing and makeup both as normative practices that regularize or 'correct' the body to make it fit the aesthetic demands of the court and as practices that can damage the body in this process. An examination of the clothing from the perspective of critical disability studies, and particularly recent work on disability in early modern contexts, reveals that it is often a prosthetic device that shapes, covers or reveals non-normative aspects of the body, in various performances of perfection, of passing as non-disabled, and of disability as a superable hardship that becomes the mark of admirable masculine character. The eponymous 'hermaphrodites' of the novel unite the crip and the queer by means of their clothing, calling into question the society and its political structures that are both based on and seek to impose norms of binary gender and stereotypically masculine bodily perfection (strength, bodily integrity). Gender is evoked, only to be rendered mutable. Similarly, non-normative bodies that we call disabled reveal natural variation among human beings and in one person over time. As Katherine Schaap Williams suggests, "a deformity evinces fixed particularity and unfixing multiplicity; it is a site of limitation and scope for limitless variation."10 Disability is not the same from one person to another, or even for one person under different circumstances; like gender, disability is not a stable object that produces uniform bodies in conformity with externally imposed norms.
These sartorial practices...