Three-year project, conceived by Prof. Carla Rossi, and funded for three years by the Baugarten Stiftung, the Stiftung für wissenschaftliche Forschung an der Universität Zürich, and the Società Filologica Internazionale RECEPTIO

link to an initial sample database of what the collection will look like

1. Summary of the research plan

Despite what one might think, Middle Ages or, more generally, the premodern period, were quite familiar with the idea of ‘gender fluidity’ and with hermaphrodite and androgynous figures, as well as with a range of physiological aspects of sexualities that cannot easily and clearly be categorized in a bipolar system of male and female. Examining the concept of ‘gender fluidity’ during the Middle Ages means delving deep into the history of a fundamental notion in the Judeo-Christian society, in which our culture is embedded, i. e. the idea of intersex.[1]

This interdisciplinary project is the result of my thirty years’ experience both as a philologist, used to investigating medieval literary, philosophical and religious texts, and as a codicologist, with an art-historical background.[2] In fact, in the medieval and renaissance manuscripts, which are a fundamental tool for coming into material contact with premodern culture, ‘gender fluidity’ can be detected and verified on two communicative levels: textual and visual.

Decoration in medieval manuscripts was not only for the purpose of embellishing the book object, it was also intended to aid literacy by offering a visual support, to help the reader find his/her way around and into the book.

The project aims: 1. creating an image database, in order 2. to analyse a series of illuminated manuscripts containing disparate texts in which ‘gender fluidity’ is depicted in images, from legal writings, such as the Decretum Gratiani to courtly novels (the Roman de la Rose, a medieval best-seller, among others), from philosophical to astrological or even alchemical texts, such as, to give just a few examples, the De Plancu Naturae, the Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit or the Liber introductorius (Kitāb al-madkhal al-Kabīr ‘alā ‘ilm aḥkām al-nujūm), which became one of the most important and widespread texts in late medieval astrology in Latin Europe.

The primary aim of the research is to collect a sufficiently large number of images (in a dedicated database of annotated illuminations) to allow a series of in-depth studies and Thesis from various aspects, in order to analyse ‘gender fluidity’ from a variety of sources and in considerable detail. The secondary aim of the research is to stimulate a series of synchronic and diachronic reflections, in order to understand how the theme of ‘gender fluidity’ is by no means a novelty of our century.


​2. Research plan

​2.1 Current state of research in the field

Although the project presented here is part of a line of studies that began in the 1990s (I am thinking in particular of the pioneering works by Joan Cadden, Meanings of sex difference in the Middle Ages: medicine, science, and culture, Cambridge 1993;[3] and Thomas Walter Laqueur, Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, 1990), until now there has been no interdisciplinary philological and art-historical research on the subject.

In addition, even the most recent research projects in the German-speaking area (including Zurich) have been very sectoral, focusing only on the problem of hermaphrodites. For example, in 2015, a Post-Doc-Project was presented at the Universities of Constance and Zurich in Medieval History, with a focus on Roman and Canon law about hermaphrodites.

However the concept of ‘gender fluidity’ does not only concern the hermaphrodites, but also other figures that have made the history of ancient French literature (such as Bel-Accueil in the Roman de la Rose),[4] or fundamental figures in the history of the Christian religion, such as the androgynous Christ or God who has the iconographic attributes of the Madonna, in the Lamentations over the dead Christ. Therefore, an interdisciplinary approach to the subject is absolutely necessary, because firstly medieval culture was not as sectoral as ours has become, secondly, it should be borne in mind that our clear divisions between Church, secular society and medicine, understood today as different intellectual frameworks, may not always do full justice to the cross-disciplinary nature of the reflections on sexuality in the Middle Ages.

In the medieval debate about sex differences, the Church cannot be understood only as an institution that defined and enforced a sexual code. As recent research by Peter Biller, Caroline Bynum, Alain Boureau, Joseph Ziegler, and others has brought to light, medieval theologians and canonists also participated actively in learned discussions about the natural body.

Thus, in reality, there is no research to date that, starting from a deep knowledge of medieval texts, identifies the manuscripts to consult in order to obtain a series of images that are important for analysing the problem of ‘gender fluidity’.

Fundamental to this research is the analysis of the figure of Christ. Starting from Christ’s isolated side wound in Books of Hours [6], it is arguable that these images destabilise Christ’s gender by drawing the focus on Christ’s body to a prominent bleeding vulva. Over time, I have focused on images of the androgynous Christ from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and this research will feed into the research proposed here.[7]

My project on the woman illuminators[8] was recently included (as a special project) into the famous Manus census (Manus is a database containing catalogue descriptions and digital images of manuscripts, private papers and archives held by Italian public, private and ecclesiastical libraries). In the academic year 2021-22, I have designed a public seminar for the research centre I direct (the Research Centre for European Philological Tradition), which will run from November 21 to May 22, with lectures by the world's most renowned codicologists on Bibles, Evangeliaries, Breviaries and Books of hours. Many of these manuscripts contain the images that we will be collecting and cataloguing as part of the research that I am proposing here. [9]

​2.3 Detailed research plan

The proposed scheme for cataloguing and analysing manuscripts is as follows: legal, literary, philosophical, astrological and alchemical manuscripts. A special section should be devoted to liturgical manuscripts and religious texts, both Latin and Hebrew.

2.3.1. Ambiguous bodies in Canon and Roman law MSS

From a purely legal point of view, it was commonly assumed that hermaphrodites, even if constituting a separate sex, in practice could be assigned either male or female gender according to the «sex which prevailed».

In the learned laws (Roman law and canon law), hermaphrodites were relatively prominent from the 12th century on. Hermaphrodites could marry, inherit, act as witness, enter holy orders etc. according to the gender assigned to them. The legal status of ‘predominantly male’ hermaphrodites was clearly better than that of women and with only few qualifications equalled that of men; unlike women, for example, they could be ordained, but unlike men, dispensation was needed for such an ordination. Lawyers discussed various criteria (body and behaviour) as indicating the ‘prevailing’ sex; following Hostiensis, both laws finally adopted the solution that in doubtful cases, the ‘perfect’ hermaphrodite should swear an oath which gender s/he belonged to. This at least in theory left some choice to the individual; in practice, much depended on the social environment.

Miniatures from legal manuscripts will be collected in this section in order to understand how such a legal problem was represented iconographically.


The graphic illustration of these text passages will be investigated in particular:

1. , C. 4, q. 2 et 3, c. 3 § 22

Hermafroditus an ad testamentum adhiberi possit, qualitas sexus incalescentis ostendit.

2. 2.4, q. 2/3 s.v. hermaphroditus

Hermaphroditus: In terra enim calida plures nascuntur utriusque generis qui, si magis adjungant viris, tamquam viri dabunt testimonium. Hermes interpres, i.e. mercurius, frodis spuma, i.e. venus. Inde hermaphroditus qui ex his natus utriusque formam gerit.

3a. , C. 27, q. 1, c. 23 ad v. ordinari

Quid si est ermafroditus? Distinguitur circa ordinem recipiendum sicut circa testimonium faciendum in testamento, ut IIII. q. III. Item ermafroditus (c. 3 § 22). Si ergo magis calet in feminam quam in virum, non recipit ordinem, si secontra [sic], recipere potest, set non debet ordinari propter deformitatem et menstruositam [sic], arg. di. XXXVI. Illiteratos (c. 1), et di. XLVIIII. c. ult.[1] Quid si equaliter calet in utrumque? Non recipit ordinem.

3b. , C. 4 q. 2 et 3 c. 3 § 22 ad v. sexus incalescentis

Si quidem habet barbam et semper vult exercere virilia et non feminea et semper vult conversare cum viris et non cum feminis, signum est, quod virilis sexus in eo prevalet et tunc potest esse testis, ubi mulier non admittitur, scil. in testamento et in ultimis voluntatibus, tunc etiam ordinari potest. Si vero caret barba et semper vult esse cum feminis et exercere feminea opera, indicium est, quod feminius sexus in eo prevalet, et tunc non admittitur ad testimonium, ubi femina non admittitur, scil. in testamento, set nec tunc ordinari potest, quia femina ordinem non recipit.

  1. Quid si utriusque membri officio uti potest, secundum quid de facto fuit in villa mea, scilicet Secusiae? Respondeo: eligat cui se dicat, secundum quid episcopus Tauriensis diocesanus noster de ipso fecit et iuret quod de caetero alio non utetur, quia nec fungi debet duplici officio, maxime tam diverso.


2.3.2. Literary figures

Medieval vernacular poets, including Dante, Chaucer, Chrétien de Troyes, Guillaume de Lorris, Jean de Meun, Christine de Pizan, and Boccaccio, among others, all made extensive use of Ovidian material on the story of Hermaphrodite narrated in Metamorphoses in their writings. The myth of the hermaphrodite, in particular, found a number of admirers and interprets. In this section, images of both hermaphrodites and other gender fluid literary figures will be collected, such as Bell'Accueil in the Roman de la Rose. Images from manuscripts containing texts by these authors with representations of gender fluidity will be flanked by images from these texts: Augustinus, De civ. Dei XVI,8; the Hereford Mappa Mundi and the Book of John Mandeville.


2.3.3. Ars  imitatur   naturam   in  ejus  modo  operationis

Important to this research are philosophical and theological reflections on Nature, in general, and on the nature of Christ in particular. Analysing Christ’s isolated side wound in Books of Hours, it is arguable that these images destabilise Christ’s gender by drawing the focus on Christ’s body to a prominent bleeding vulva. An entire section of the research and image collection will be devoted to the sex of Christ, which is discussed more extensively in the section on alchemy. A noted polymath, Alan wrote during the 1160s or possibly 1170s a work entitled De planctu naturae (The Complaint of Nature), which examines the relation between grammar and gender.


2.3.4. Alchemical gender fluidity, the Mercurial hermaphrodite

By the turn of the fourteenth century, Latin alchemy was in the process of changing from a self-consciously scholastic discipline, wedded to the language of Aristotelian natural philosophy, to a field of study that was increasingly religious in its sentiments and vocabulary. The image of the hermaphrodite became crucial to these new writings, as can be seen from the text and manuscript illuminations of the undated Aurora consurgens and the early fifteenth-century Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit (Book of the Holy Trinity).This is one of the earliest alchemical manuscripts containing emblematic symbolism. It is also of importance as its text used the Trinity and Christ's passion to allegorise alchemical content. This became very influential upon the alchemy that developed in the 16th century and later. About 23 manuscripts have survived, not all from the early period, and many of them contain the series of alchemical emblems, some with high quality coloured drawings, others somewhat less competent, though in general the symbolism is preserved with only a few relatively minor variations. The manuscripts are complex and fall into three groups, which scholars have investigated. We will look at a number of these images in this discussion forum over the coming months, but initially it would be interesting to consider the two images of the hermaphrodite that appear in these manuscripts. The Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit is not only an alchemical treatise using medical metaphors of regeneration and rejuvenation, but also contains elements of Christian prophecy. It is thought to have been written by a Frater Ulmannus who may have been of the Franciscan Order. While the precise date of the Aurora consurgens' composition remains uncertain, the earliest exemplar of the Aurora consurgens is a lushly illustrated manuscript produced in the 1420s and now housed at the Zentralbibliothek of Zürich (Codex Rhenoviensis 172). Both books confront us with the problem of Christ's sexual identity, of his gender fluidity.


2.3.5. Hebrew MSS

The use to which the Jewsput the androgyne myth is quite different from its meaning in Aristophanes' tale in the . Leviticus Rabba 14; Babylonian Talmud, Erubin 18a, Berakot 61a (R. Jeremiah ben Eleazar); Genesis Rabba 8. 1; Tanhuma "B," ed. Buber, 3:33 (Tazria'); (R. Samuel ben Nahman); Leviticus Rabba 14 (Resh Leqish); cf. Zohar 2, 55a.


Selected bibliography

Caroline W. Bynum, , 200 –1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Peter Biller, “Introduction: John of Naples, Quodlibets and Medieval Theological Concern with the Body,” in , ed. Peter Biller and A. J. Minnis (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 1997), 3–12; Idem, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Alain (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1999); Joseph Ziegler, “‘Ut dicunt medici’. Medical Knowledge and Theological Debate in the Second Half of the Thirteenth Century,” 73 (1999): 208–37; Idem, “Medicine and Immortality in Terrestrial Paradise,” in , ed. Peter Biller and Joseph Ziegler (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2001), 201–42. See also Maaike van der Lugt, Les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004) and Chiara Crisciani, “Aspetti del dibattito sull’Umido radicale nella cultura del tardo Medioevo (secoli XIII–XV),” in Actes de la II trobada internacional d’estudis sobre Arnau de Vilanova, ed. Josep Perarnau (Barcelona: Institut d’estudis catalans, 2005), 333–80; Other interesting texts for research, in chronological order: Schwarz, Arturo. “Androgyny and Visual Artists.” Leonardo 1980, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), pp. 57-62; Guynn, Noah D. Allegory and Sexual Ethics in the High Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Mcmillan, 2007; Schachter Marc D. Voluntary Servitude and the Erotics of Friendship: From Classical Antiquity to Early Modern France. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008; Bromberg, Sarah. “Gendered and Ungendered Readings of the Rothschild Canticles.” Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art; Issue 1, September 2008, pp. 1-26; Rolker, Christof. “Der Hermaphrodit und seine Frau. Körper, Sexualität und Geschlecht im Spätmittelalter.” Historische Zeitschrift 297 (2013), pp. 593–620; Whittington, Karl. “Medieval.” Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), 1-2, pp. 125-129; Santos, Ana Lúcia. “Beyond Binarism? Intersex as an Epistemological and Political Challenge.” RCCS Annual Review, 6, October 2014, pp. 123-140; Id.  “The two laws and the three sexes: ambiguous bodies in canon law and Roman law (12th to 16th centuries).” Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte: Kanonistische Abteilung, 100 (2014), 1, pp. 178-222; DeVun, Leah. “Heavenly hermaphrodites: sexual difference at the beginning and end of time.” Postmedieval 9, (2018), pp. 132–146.





[1] אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס in Hebrew means "intersex" and refers to someone who possesses both male and female sexual characteristics. The Mishnah explains: «The androgynos in some ways is like men, and in some ways is like women, and in some ways is like both men and women, and in some ways is like neither men nor women» (Bikkurim 4: 1). In the Mishnah, Rabbi Yosi makes the radical statement: «androgynos bria bifnei atzma hu / the androgynos he is a created being of her own». This Hebrew phrase blends male and female pronouns to poetically express the complexity of the androgynos’ identity.

[2] In recent years, my studies have focused heavily on the verbal/visual relationship in both the Renaissance and medieval periods; my latest work is entitled Miniatrici di Dio e del Demonio, il contributo femminile alla miniatura europea, RECEPTIO Academic Press, London, 2021.

[3] Joan Cadden is one of the first historians who reflected and invited reflection on the natural characteristics of men and women and on the construction of gender to medieval debates about physiology, procreation, intercourse, and pleasure.

[4]  See Michel Zink, Bel-Accueil le travesti : du Roman de la Rose de Guillaume de Lorris et Jean de Meun à Lucidor de Hugo von Hofmannsthal, in Littérature , Année 1982,  47,  pp. 31-40.

[5] See Miniatrici di Dio e del Demonio, il contributo femminile alla miniatura europea, cit.

[6] See Carla Rossi, La “Vulva Christi”, dai miniaturisti medievali l’origine e l’evoluzione del motivo della mandorla, in About Art,  21 /02/2021: https://www.aboutartonline.com/la-vulva-christi-dai-miniaturisti-medievali-lorigine-e-levoluzione-del-motivo-della-mandorla/

[7] See Carla Rossi, Salvator Mundi : il Cristo androgino di Leonardo, in About Art, 3/05/2020, https://www.aboutartonline.com/leonardo-alchemico-una-indagine-sui-misteri-del-salvator-mundi-tra-ermetismo-e-neoplatonismo-con-video-audio/

[8] Presented at the latest webinar of the International Society for the History of Illumination.

[9] https://www.receptio.eu/bibles-evangeliaries-breviaries