Sexuality and Modernity
The Pre-Modern European Concepts of Sexual Difference

Throughout the modern period, "sex" and sexuality have become intrinsically connected to modern conceptions concerning the biological differences between female and male bodies. The word sex refers to both the physical activity of sex and the designation of anatomical differences between female and male bodies. It seems impossible to discuss sexuality without simultaneously invoking the biological distinction between female and male.

In order to fully understand the modern nexus between nature, sex differences, sexuality and social order I will attempt to chart these concepts and categories to the boundaries of modern European history and thought. In doing so I hope to show that "sexuality" and sexual difference are thoroughly modern phenomena. In this sense both "nature" and sexed bodies have a history, or as Michel Foucault would say a "genealogy". 1

The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries heralded in a revolutionary break with the Ancient, Classical and Christian meta-physical universes which were conceptualised in terms of a hierarchically ordered "chain of being", stretching from divine "logos" (Greek), or "God’s will" (Christian), down to the naturally and divinely sanctioned social hierarchy within European societies. Sex and sexuality in the pre-modern European context were conceptualised in a radically different manner to that which emerged with the transition to modernity, the shadow under which we still live today. Beliefs concerning sexual difference, gender and sexuality were dominated by a combination of Ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle, Roman physicians (Galen), Midwives (Jane Sharp) and Christian theology. In order to comprehend how pre-modern Europeans conceptualised the body, sexual difference, gender and sexuality we have to leave our modern heads behind. We moderns have become enmeshed in a world inhabited by two sexes; one female & the other male, each is quantitatively different to its very essence from the other.

Stretching from the Ancient Greeks, through the Renaissance and beyond, indeed until the dawn of the Enlightenment in the 17 & 18 centuries all bodies were alike in substance. Difference was conceptualised in terms of degrees of perfection. A matter of degree rather than the modern incommensurable biological difference separated female and male. This was a world in which males and females had all the same bits, they were simply arranged differently along a vertical axis of perfection. Thomas Lacquer refers to this as the "one sex/one flesh model" in contrast to our modern "two sex model". 2 Perhaps the clearest expression of the "one sex" model is found in the works of a second century physician named Galen.

Claudius Galenus (129-210) 3

Roman Physician to the gladiators in Pergamumunder during Emperor Marcus Aurelius reign.

Galenic ’one sex’ model

Stretching from the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity, through to the Renaissance, Reformation and beyond, Galen’s anatomical understanding influenced artisans, midwives and barber surgeons alike. The notion of "vital heat" is fundamental to Galen’s understanding of the anatomical differences between female and male. The amount of "vital heat" produced by a specific body was viewed as a direct index of its place in the "great chain of being", a hierarchical order of rank according to degrees of perfection. Humans were seen as the most perfect and thus hottest, while the male human was viewed as more perfect than the female due to their excess of heat. From this perspective male and female genitals are not essentially different in kind but merely located in different places, one inside and one outside, each possessing identical elements. Men’s excess of heat resulted in their reproductive organs being forced outside the body, while women’s cooler constitution left them inside. 4

Turn outward the woman’s, turn inward, so to speak, and fold double the man’s, and you will find the same in both in every respect - Galen 5

Male and Female reproductive organs as drawn by Andreas Vesalius in Tabulae Sex Written in xxx 6

In Galen’s model each element of the generative system is common to both women and men, a mirror image of each other. The vagina an interior penis, labia as foreskin, uterus as scrotum, ovaries as testicles. Galen uses the same term to describe each element ie "orcheis" 7 which refers to what we would term separately the ovaries and testes. Until the late 17th century it is often impossible to determine from medical texts which part of the female anatomy a particular term refers. The language of the "one-sex" universe constrains the conceptualisation of our modern notions of absolute sexual differentiation by projecting the male body as the canonical human form. Even the words used when referring to female organs ultimately refer to male organs. Terms which emerged in the eighteenth century which refer specifically to female organs (vagina, uterus, vulva, labia & clitoris) do not have their renaissance and ancient equivalents.


In the "one sex" model, generation or what we would call reproduction, stems from the enormous combined heat and pleasure arsing from the female & male genitals rubbing to the point of mutual orgasmic climax. For Galen, sexual pleasure, excitement and climatic orgasm for both female and male were essential and necessary to generate enough heat to concoct and fuse the two seeds into matter and thus new life. The male heats up to a point at which blood is transformed into semen (seed), we would view this as orgasmic ejaculation. Galen viewed women as requiring orgasmic sexual pleasure to simultaneously generate her own ejaculated seed. Galen is often referred to as having a two seed model. 8 The view that women’s orgasm was essential to generation was dominant throughout Europe until the late eighteenth century at which point we begin to see the emergence of the Victorian era and its obsession with the passionless bourgeois wife and mother. The majority of physicians and midwives manuals throughout the 15-16-17 centuries dealing with infertility focussed upon how to excite, and enhance women’s sexual pleasure. To ensure that generation emerges from sexual activity John Sadler in 1636 in a book titled The sicke woman’s private looking glass advised...

handle her secret parts and dugs, that she may take fire and be inflamed in venery, for so at length the wombe will strive and waxe fervent with desire of casting forth its own seed, and receiving the man’s seed to be mixed together therein. 9


Indeed the Modern term "clitoris" derives from the Greek verb kleitoriazein meaning to touch or titillate lasciviously, to be inclined to towards pleasure. 10 Galen discusses a case of a widow who he claimed had an excessive build up of "semen" causing back aches and other pains remedied by a midwife who rubbed her genitals. Jane Sharp (1671) a physician & midwife wrote that the vagina "which is the passage for the yard, resembleth it turned inward" adding that the female clitoris "will stand and fall as the yard doth and makes women lustful and take delight in copulation ... were it not for this they would have no desire delight, nor would they conceive". 11

Flexible boundaries

Prior to the eighteenth century the human body was predominantly conceptualised in terms of ambiguity, permeability and inherent fluidity. This is quite at odds with modern notions of absolute difference exemplified by sex and race. We have very rigid biological boundaries compared to this. Renaissance literature is littered with cases of girls turning into boys, hermaphrodites, spontaneous bleedings (stigmata), virgin births, monks with lactating breasts and cats turning into women.

The Man of Sorrows 12

Jacob Cornelisz (1510)

Christ was frequently portrayed as possessing breasts flowing milk, symbolic of Christ’s blood. Blood, semen, milk were all fluids independent of a sexed origin. What was at stake was the amount of heat required to transform and purify blood into another substance.

Pre-modern patriarchy

The "one sex" model is clearly patriarchal, by which I mean it privileges "man" with respect to "woman". In this "one-sex" model the male body is taken as the most perfect in form and beauty, whist the female a cooler and thus less perfect version of the male. The masculine is the yard stick against which all else was measured.

The Sleeping Faun 13

(2nd century B.C.)

The important point to remember about medical texts and literature generally throughout this period is that they were exclusively written, taught and promulgated by men, for men - "free" men that is! Throughout these writings women are figured as wives, objects, possessions that required training, regulating and constant supervision. Male writers did not define or articulate an ethics and code of behaviour which differentiated its directives and knowledge to an independent sex. This contrasts with modern literature which speaks specifically to either women or men addressing to them directly in terms of their sex (female - male).

What was at stake in terms of sexuality (flesh) was not so much the styles of pleasures indulged in, or even the type of bodies involved, but rather their relationship to each other within the "great chain of being". In Ancient Greece and Rome sexual pleasure between males was not illegitimate in itself (desire & practice) but rather only became so in terms of their relative position within the social order of the day. Sexual pleasure between Greek male citizens and boys was legitimate and socially sanctioned, however if the boy become a free citizen (an equal) their sexual practice become problematised. Sexual codes of conduct did not direct in terms of prohibitions concerning specific sexual practices or preferences, but focused upon relations which obliged them to exercise power and authority in terms of their social position. It was not biology or sex which mediated activities of the flesh, but your location within the hierarchical chain of being.


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