, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 161–178 | Cite as

The Isle of Hermaphrodites: Disorienting the place of intersex in the Middle Ages

  • M. W. Bychowski


What is the place of intersex in medieval studies? How have non-binary bodies been oriented and reoriented as marginal by medieval literature and history? Might medieval intersex studies disorient such mappings of power? To provide inroads to these questions, this article puts medieval studies and intersex studies into conversation. Affirming the premise that non-binary scholarship offers necessary insights to the history of non-binary bodies, this critical analysis of the intersexual bodies on the Hereford Mappa Mundi and in the Book of John Mandeville utilizes the theoretical frameworks of Cheryl Chase and Hilary Malatino. In so doing, the essay proceeds to first orient the place of intersex using medieval pilgrimage as an experienced and imagined practice, generating and using objects such as Mappa Mundi to position certain places and communities as spiritual centers, loca sancta, eschewing other locations and peoples to the margins. Second, this essay unpacks how the second half of the Book of John Mandeville reorients relations to the margins through a sort of “boundary-lust,” imaginatively embodied by the Isle of “Hermaphrodites;” a medieval conception of intersex invoking the ancient parentage of Hermes the God of Travel and Boundaries and Aphrodite the God of Lust and Sex. To conclude, the passages describing the intersex bodies in Mandeville’s Book are close read alongside intersex and queer studies to conceive of how non-binary bodies disoriented the universality and centrality of binary gender for medieval writers and readers in much the same way that intersex continues to de-centralize the flow of power in modern mappings of gender and sexuality.


  1. Ahmed, S. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Augustine of Hippo. 2009. City of God, trans. M. Dods. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.Google Scholar
  3. Bale, A., trans. 2012. The Book of Marvels and Travels. J. Mandeville. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Chase, C. [1998] 2006. Hermaphrodites with Attitude: Mapping the Emergence of Intersex Political Activism. In The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. S. Stryker and S. Whittle, 300–14. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Clare, E. 1999. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.Google Scholar
  6. Coleman, S. and Eade, J. 2004. Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. DeVun, L. 2008. The Jesus Hermaphrodite: Science and Sex Difference in Premodern Europe. Journal of the History of Ideas 69(2): 193–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. DeVun, L. 2014. Animal Appetites. GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 20(4): 461–490.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Fleck, A. 2000. Here, There, and In Between: Representing Difference in the Travels of John Mandeville. Studies in Philology 43(4): 379–400.Google Scholar
  10. Herndon, April. 2005. Getting Rid of ‘Hermaphroditism’ Once and For All. 11 November.
  11. Holmes, M.M. 2009. Introduction: Straddling the Past, Present, and Future. In Critical Intersex, ed. M. M. Holmes, 1–12. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Intersex Society of North America. 2008a. What is the History Behind the Intersex Movement?
  13. Intersex Society of North America. 2008b. What is Intersex?
  14. Kohanski, T. and C.D. Benson, ed. 2007. The Book of John Mandeville. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.Google Scholar
  15. MacCormack, S. 1990. Loca Sancta: The Organization of Sacred Topography in Late Antiquity. In The Blessings of Pilgrimage, ed. R. Ousterhout, 7–41. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  16. Magubane, Z. 2014. Spectacles and Scholarship: Caster Semenya, Intersex Studies, and the Problem of Race in Feminist Theory. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 39(3): 761–85.Google Scholar
  17. Malatino, H. 2013. The Waiting Room: Ontological Homelessness, Sexual Synecdoche, and Queer Becoming. Journal of the Medical Humanities 34(2): 241–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Moseley, C.W.R.D., trans. 2005. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Penguin Classics. NY: Penguin Random House.Google Scholar
  19. Ousterhout, R. 1990. The Blessings of Pilgrimage. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  20. Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online. 2017. Oxford, UK: University of Oxford Press.
  21. Pagonis, P. Presentation at the Forum on LGBTQ and Disability Issues. The White House, Washington, D.C., 28 June 2016.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EnglishCase Western Reserve UniversityClevelandUSA

Personalised recommendations