Join us on Saturday from 1 pm for an afternoon of medieval armoured and rapier combat on Waterbeach Recreation Ground (CB25 9NJ). If you wish to have a go, please wear trainers/boots and long sleeves/trousers. You may wish to bring your own cup/box/groin protection if you do not wish to use the one in the group kit. We have loaner kit that will cover the rest of your needs. There is no charge for attending.
We also have a Discord server which you’re welcome to come and check out if you want to talk to us about living history: https://discord.gg/AfucYV5
It is a common belief that intersex people were considered to be monsters and as such subject to execution during the middle ages. However, there is no evidence of physical persecution of intersex people, or hermaphrodites, as they were known after Hermaphroditus, the legendary child of Greek deities Aphrodite and Hermes whose myth was an occasional subject of art during and shortly after our period.
Gender was viewed as a strict binary during the middle ages. Being intersex was seen as a physical deformity, according to a chronicle written by Bishop Otto of Freising in the mid-1100s, in which he listed it alongside short stature, dark skin, and “lameness”. However, the main societal concern around intersex people was whether they should have the legal status of men or women. This means that they appear in several legal texts at the time.
The medieval Welsh law code, traditionally codified by Hywel Dda in the 900s and only fully abolished by Henry VIII in the 1500s, specifically mentioned intersex people and the canon law text Decretum Gratiani stated that whether an intersex person could witness a testament – a right reserved for men – “depends on which sex prevails”, referring to physical characteristics. Where this was impossible to determine, according to cardinal and canon lawyer Henry of Segusio, writing in the 1250s, the individual could choose their preferred gender under oath.
Henry of Segusio also wrote about baptism, addressing the question of whether baptism is valid if a baby girl is mistaken for a boy and given the name “Peter”. He said that such an error has no effect on the sacrament, because “As far as the worship of God is concerned, there is no male and female, neither slave nor free [Galatians 3:28], and even if one errs concerning the sex, he does not err concerning the person whom he holds and whom he intends to baptize.” (Summa aurea ad X 3, 42, translated by Christof Rolker https://intersex.hypotheses.org/5289).
This custom of fitting the legal identity of an intersex person to a binary conception of gender was still in place at the end of our period, when jurist Edward Coke wrote in his Institutes of the Lawes of England that an intersex person should be treated as male or female for inheritance purposes depending on their physical characteristics. This work then became a foundation of English common law.
Tree of affinity – Decretum Gratiani – Fitzwilliam Museum MS 262 fol. 71v – ca. 1310–30
[Image description: a medieval illuminated manuscript page showing a family tree with a man standing on the left of the page facing a woman standing on the right]