I believe I first found out about The Shape of Sex shortly after I had surgery earlier this year. I was immediately interested. DeVun had previously co-edited an issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly on Trans*historicities that I have referenced extensively, so I was rather excited to get my hands on The Shape of Sex. I am happy to report that it lived up to my expectations. This book, more than any I have read before, makes a strong case of transgender studies as a discipline.
The Shape of Sex takes a look at how non-binary bodies have been portrayed in medieval literature. This ends up being a far broader subject than one might expect, as it begins with theological discussions around Adam’s gender in the Garden of Eden prior to the creation of Eve from his rib. Some early medieval interpretations saw Adam as containing both male and female genders prior to Eve, depending on how one interpreted certain phrases. And so the book does not just examine the existence of what we now refer to as intersex individuals, but also how bodies that are not solely male or female have been envisioned throughout the Middle Ages. In doing so, the book offers this fascinating look at both the metaphoric non-binary as well as the physical.
Where the book truly shines is towards the end of each chapter where DeVun puts the subject being discussed, be it depictions of the mythic half-man half-woman hermaphrodite or an historiography of surgical interventions on intersex individuals, into a larger conversation within academia. This is where the interdisciplinary traits of transgender studies truly show their merits. Two of these discussions stand out to me as exemplary. The first is a discussion around racism in the medieval era, and the second is on the use of “transgender” as a lens to view history.
The discussion around race and racism comes at the end of a chapter that examined the ways that the mythic hermaphrodite was used to mark boundaries in the world. The chapter used the depiction of a turbaned half-man half-woman creature in Northern Africa on the Mappa Mundi in Hereford to discuss the limits of the known world and to define the boundaries not only of the Christian world but also who were recognizably human. This then brought about the larger conversation around defining racism in the medieval period, with DeVun stating that, while historians have been reticent to use modern terms for a premodern era, “a wave of new scholarship has made a persuasive case that we must identify elements of race and racism in the medieval world.” (66). DeVun then points to what other scholars have written about the creation of race around the same time as the Mappa Mundi. It provides a fascinating look at how these mythic monsters were used not necessarily as a literal creature that was believed to exist, but instead as a way to other outsiders. While this might sound obvious to anyone familiar with horror films, it never occurred to apply the same logic to the monsters of a premodern past.
In a similar way to the use of race in the medieval period, DeVun also discusses how using transgender can be an illuminating process. This conversation comes after looking at how multiple surgeons had written about performing on intersex individuals. Whereas today’s surgeries are performed on infants, the cases in the medieval period were after puberty, with the caveat that there would be no switching between genders. The central concern was the fear that a non-binary body might “abandon their assigned sex or […] switch back and forth” (158). At the heart, then, is not solely intersex but also transgender individuals. This section thus brings together multiple intersections of queer, intersex, and transgender activism and scholarship to make the case that these concepts can be applied to the past. And, much like with applying racism to a premodern world, DeVun states that these lens are relevant, for while “[medieval thinkers] did not use the language of transgender nor would they have recognized the concept. But we often use contemporary terms to describe past individuals and societies that lack our modern language. (After all, no one used the world “medieval” in the Middle Ages.)” (159). This is a philosophy I have come across before but never quite so exquisitely. It feels like a perfect distillation of what I have attempted to write about in the past.
These kinds of conversations are what sets The Shape of Sex apart from other books I have read. It is truly interdisciplinary, and willing to delve into the deepest parts of those disciplines, knowing there are brilliant analyses to be found. At just over 200 pages, it is shockingly short for how much is packed into the book. An absolutely exceptional book, and one that is definitely worth reading.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.