The Shape of Sex

Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance

Leah DeVun

Columbia University Press

The Shape of Sex

Pub Date: September 2020

ISBN: 9780231195515

288 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $35.00£30.00

Pub Date: September 2020

ISBN: 9780231195508

288 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $105.00£88.00

Pub Date: September 2020

ISBN: 9780231551366

288 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $34.99£30.00

The Shape of Sex

Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance

Leah DeVun

Columbia University Press

The Shape of Sex is a pathbreaking history of “hermaphrodites”—as individuals who allegedly combined or crossed sex or gender binaries were called—from 200–1400 C.E. Ranging widely across premodern European thought and culture, Leah DeVun reveals how and why efforts to define “the human” so often hinged on ideas about hermaphrodites.

DeVun examines a host of thinkers—theologians, cartographers, natural philosophers, lawyers, poets, surgeons, and alchemists—who used ideas about hermaphrodites as conceptual tools to order their political, cultural, and natural worlds. She reconstructs the cultural landscape navigated by individuals whose sex or gender did not fit the binary alongside debates about animality, sexuality, race, religion, and human nature. The Shape of Sex charts an embrace of hermaphroditism in early Christianity, its brutal erasure at the turn of the thirteenth century, and a new enthusiasm for hermaphroditic transformations at the dawn of the Renaissance. Along the way, DeVun explores beliefs that Adam and Jesus were hermaphrodites; images of “monstrous races” in encyclopedias, maps, and illuminated manuscripts; justifications for violence against purportedly hermaphroditic outsiders such as Jews and Muslims; and the surgical “correction” of bodies that seemed to flout binary divisions.

In a moment when questions about sex, gender, and identity have become incredibly urgent, The Shape of Sex casts new light on a complex and often contradictory past. It shows how premodern thinkers created a system of sex and embodiment that both anticipates and challenges modern beliefs about what it means to be male, female—and human.
The Shape of Sex is beautifully written, elegantly argued, and accessible to specialists and nonspecialists alike. Leah DeVun's use of case studies draws the reader in, her sophisticated elaborations of the import of the material show her familiarity with gender theory today as well as in the past. I especially value the book's attention to the intersection of race and gender. This will be the major study of the topic for many years to come. Ruth Evans, Dorothy McBride Orthwein Professor of English, Saint Louis University

About the Author

Leah DeVun is associate professor of history at Rutgers University. She is the author of Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupescissa in the Late Middle Ages (Columbia, 2009) and was coeditor of Trans*historicities (2018), an issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.