The Online Home of The University of York Postmedieval Reading Group.
Tuesday, 27 April 2010
Medieval Cyborgs and Sex Toys - be RAD, not UNraede
After emerging from essay hell michael and I have some wonderful plans for meetings this term: a collaboration with the anglo-norman reading group on medieval disability studies and the life of saint edward; playing at the middle ages; The posthuman middle ages; Dan will be doing something on medieval drama; and 'We Have Never Been Modern'; possibly something on medieval table manners; I'd like to do more Augustine, because he's great. So lots to look forward to then.
In the meantime, we will be flooding the blogosphere with our recent and tragically lamentable work...
The picture of the strap-on is thanks to the lovely and very helpful Liza Blake of NYU, who is doing some brilliant work on early modern dildos.
Katherina Hetzeldorfer’s Cyborg Body and the Medieval Phallus
Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true...At the centre of my ironic faith, my blasphemy, is the image of the cyborg.
Strap-On (N.) A device used as a sex toy normally amongst homosexual couples (gay males and lesbian females). Basically, a latex or plastic penis-shaped dong that is used by connecting it to some sort of harness that straps around the waist…Used as if it were a part of the body.
Could we see at the centre of a Nuremburg ecclesiastical court case of 1477 the image of a cyborg? Her body is far from straightforward, and the ambiguity of her differently gendered ‘performances’ (and the performance of the courtroom itself) is mirrored by the ambiguity of her charge – sodomy? Rape? Transvestism? This unnamed and unspecified crime – most likely sodomy, or as Helmut Puff notes in her work on the case female sodomy – leads to her execution by drowning, and two of those involved with her are exiled outside of the city.
Puff’s article (‘Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer’) that emerged with an appended English translation of the text in the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studiesidentifies seven women executed for ‘sodomy’ in the city of Bruges between 1385 and 1515, women who furthermore “cluster around the years 1482/83, only six years after Katherina Hetzeldorfer's trial”. When Donna Haraway remarks, “blasphemy has always seemed to require taking things very seriously”, there can be little doubt as to the seriousness of Hetzeldorfer’s ‘blasphemy’, and the seriousness with which her body was taken – she paid with her life. The glossing of the idiom, in translation, that she uses to attest her conviction – “She was ready to die for that [i.e., it is really true]” – becomes bitterly ironic when read in light of her fate. The ‘truth’ that operates in this case – truth being the thing that clears up the ambiguity and contingency she cultivates with her body – only brings finality and death, the ultimate foreclosure of possibility. There is clearly something very serious, and very disruptive, going on with certain kinds of bodies – and more specifically, her technologically radicalized body – in the late fifteenth century. Haraway’s cyborg politics are, much like Hetzeldorfer’s politics of the penis, “a struggle over life and death”.
Hetzeldorfer, too took her enjoyment very seriously – in order to get close to what she wants, she modified and diversified her body with a homemade medieval ‘strap-on’, an alliance of technology and body that proliferated new sexual possibilities. Her body, the incongruous woman-with-a-penis, is “holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true”, a ‘fake’ penis that can, it is nevertheless claimed, produce semen and urine just as a ‘real’ one, suggesting in her fantasy an indistinguishable continuity between the organic and inorganic. This dialectically irresolvable tension with Haraway’s cyborg at the centre perhaps for medievalists evokes the image of Katherina Hetzeldorfer’s impossible body sitting at the centre of this continental courtroom, the centre of a blasphemy, an “ironic faith” in her own desire. The translation of the text too brings out this irresolvable tension – “have her manly will with her”  is certainly an “incompatible” holding together of genders and pronouns itself. This linguistic confusion is also temporal, as Puff notes, and Hetzeldorfer’s case seems to present with a particularly disruptive ‘queering’ of history, a breakdown of the usual discursive machinery:
A consistent narrative of past events was forged with difficulty.Repeatedly, the scribe alters the present-tense wording (the level of gender axioms and sexual normativity) in order to use the past tense (the narration of the legally relevant events that led to Hetzeldorfer's arrest).
Her reimagining of the limits of the body – as well as instability in the signification of gender, or conflicting temporalities – does not, however, just belong to modern gender theorists like Haraway. Close analysis by Michael Camille in his ‘Unwriting the Medieval Body’ of images and diagrams of the medieval body show that it is part of various networks: astrological cycles, geographical structures, or as an allegory for the body politic. If we consider certain medieval discourses and images of penis and body, then we sense a fundamental incompatibility surrounding the unruly Augustinian penis, an organ that is so problematic and willful that it is impossible to integrate it into either the personal or social body.
It is the contention of this essay that by situating, as it were, Hetzeldorfer’s urban courtroom within Augustine’s City of God and his theorizing of the unruly male member that we can see how her alliance with such a strap-on shows how she herself embodies the unruly, detachable and mobile medieval penis. This paper will also discuss how her extraordinary case and body are plugged in to, and serve to deconstruct, medieval images of the body, and explores the different allegorical dimensions of the medieval body.
Hetzeldorfer’s behavior in the court case is invariably articulated as inevitably masculine. Puff’s article certainly identifies this and notes that:
Phrases such as "to have one's will," or, more pointedly, "to have one's manly will," just like "to commit an act of knavery," project all erotic initiative onto men or, in the case of Katherina Hetzeldorfer, persons who presented themselves as such
Certainly, Hetzeldorfer’s ‘masculinity’ and the fact that she seems to ‘fool’ almost everyone in the narrative into believing that she is a man with her behaviour and equipment (the text is strangely silent on the gender of her clothing) certainly raises important theoretical questions about the indeterminacy of gender and its enacting through performance. We could also consider the masculinisation of her behaviour a kind of discursive intervention, taking recourseto a “culturally highly determined code of a sexually aggressive male” in order to organize a fundamental ambivalence about her gender and her wants. But the way in which Hetzeldorfer’s desire and female homoeroticism are cast entirely in sexually aggressive male terms suggests that a site for investigation would be the underlying fantasy of such masculinity, and particularly of the penis, as this is quite literally the “instrument”  of her sexual disorderliness, appearing in her own testimony and that of Else Muter.
Indeed, if we take Puff’s analysis of the text – “Their investigation focused almost entirely on how Katherina Hetzeldorfer was able to embody a masculine role” – then the investigation is also articulating an implicit knowledge concerning masculinity, and more specifically, penis. The scribe, whose annotation is preserved in the translation, takes the trouble to underline a particular remark of Else Muter’s concerning Hetzeldorfer’s penis:
She also says that her semen is so much that it is beyond measure, that one could grab it with a full hand 
Presumably the remark is underlined by the scribe – who was “stunned by this revelation, just as a modern reader might be”, according to Puff – because Hetzeldorfer’s penis does not have the usual characteristics. It is excessive and aggressive, “beyond measure” – perhaps reminding us of the problems of establishing narrative in the case as a whole, with its multilayered and ‘polyphonic’ nature. Hetzeldorfer’s impossible body has an impossibly effective fabricated penis – one that is inorganic, “the piece of wood that she held between her legs” , which can nevertheless urinate and ejaculate an equally indescribable fluid. This extreme version of a penis is the epicenter of Hetzeldorfer’s masculinity, and at this point we must turn to Augustine to perhaps understand her ‘instrument’ – fabricated and synthetic – in relation to the rest of her body, or her identity. Is her strap on attached or unattached?
Writing in Book XIV of City of God, Augustine discusses what he terms “the component parts of man”, that which is constituted by “the soul and the flesh”, though his conclusions on the usage of such words are somewhat paradoxical: “For both the soul and the flesh, the component parts of man, can be used to signify the whole man”. Augustine’s point, about the interchangeability of these terms in describing a person, might seem to be that the distinction is arbitrary – he does, at one point, experiment with interchanging ‘man’, ‘soul’ and ‘flesh’ into different passages. “The whole of human nature”, he writes, “is composed of flesh and soul”, and indeed, he goes on to say that either word can refer to the totality. But the thing that is striking about Augustine’s writing here is the way in which he allows for and privileges multiple components in the construction of human identity. In his thought, subjectivity is embodied and the soul lives in the flesh, without devaluing the flesh – a “part being taken for the whole”, in the sense that the flesh is a molecular part of the molar “whole”, but exists as part of a dynamic interaction between both that allows it a representative function. In Augustine’s version, it is unclear where the human is to be situated – the flesh, or the soul – or even if the difference is discernible.
Katherina Hetzeldorfer’s part, as it were, is taken for the whole, in several senses. Firstly, her ‘manly’ behaviour is a merely a ‘part’ (though a significant one), or component of someone who is, at the end of the day “consistently referred to by the feminine personal pronoun she” – linguistically woman. Perhaps what is also extraordinarily striking is that this inorganic part can stand for her ‘whole’ – the idea of the flesh, it seems, can include inorganic, or nonhuman, components into the body. Secondly it is her ‘instrument’, her fabricated penis, that is the focus of the investigation, and the cause of all the trouble, and we should not forget Puff’s remark that “their investigation focused almost entirely on how Katherina Hetzeldorfer was able to embody a masculine role”, perhaps refining Puff’s analysis further to suggest that thisembodiment focuses very precisely on the penis, the part. This part stands for the whole in the sense it is one part of her body (or a part attached to her body) that leads to the destruction of both her body and soul. In the economy of Hetzeldorfer’s sexual desire, too, the part must necessarily stand for the whole, if we look precisely at one passage in the case:
She says that she did it at first with one finger, thereafter with two, and then with three, and at last with the piece of wood that she held between her legs. 
First, we should perhaps entertain the possibility that the progression – from one finger, to two, and so forth - is not only a factual account, but that her testimony here is an account of her sexual development and experimentation towards her invention of a ‘part’ that allows her to be sexually satisfied. It is worth noting that her description of the “instrument” she manufactures is the culmination of this trajectory – it is “thereafter”, a technologically more sophisticated version of the “piece of wood…held between her legs”:
…thereafter she made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden, put a string through, and tied it around 
The level of detail in this description should certainly be compared to the simplicity of the “piece of wood” we hear about formerly. In fig. 1 (see appendix for all images), we can see an example, of unknown date and providence, that not only perhaps fairly aptly represents what she goes on to describe in the case, but appears to have suffered quite some use. Her sexual pleasure is profoundly technological, in the sense that her innovations – a piece of string is attached to allow, presumably, for a greater mobility and control during sex, as well as perhaps a more ‘realistic’ simulation of a male penis – open up new possibilities for her desire. In this shift, from the rudimentary wooden dildo to something more artisanal, Hetzeldorfer’s body is forming alliances and bonds with a multiplicity of materials – leather, cotton, wood and string – and increasingly flirting and fusing with the non-human. This fusion is perhaps best captured by taking recourse to the earlier image of her hyper-potent semen, and impossible urination – when both the human fluids, and non-human strap on are taken together, it becomes unclear where the limit of her body actually lies. Perhaps such a limit is dictated only by her desire itself?
We must return to Augustine again for a more detailed theorization of this hyper-potent part of the body. What characterizes Hetzeldorfer’s penis for Else Muter is its extraordinary size (“a huge thing, as big as half an arm”), its excessively powerful ejaculation, and its unruly character – “she could hardly ward her off…she tried to have her will with her”.
In Book XIV of City of God, Augustine attempts to describe our relationships with our ‘outward members’: “justly, too, these members themselves, being moved and restrained not at our will, but by a certain independent autocracy, so to speak, are called ‘shameful’”[“ipsa membra, quae suo quodam, ut ita dixerim, iure, non omni modo ad arbitrium nostrum mouet aut non mouet, pudenda dicuntur”]. This ‘iure’ is translatable as ‘law’, but in this less accurate, more archaic translation of ‘independent autocracy’, there is actually something quite key: the properly political dimension of the penis here ties it (certainly unwittingly) to medieval images of the ‘body politic’, which we shall see in Michael Camille’s work. The penis that is outside of our control, or agency, is of great concern to Augustine – we should seek to “beget children without lust”, and his member should be “actuated by his own volition, in the same way as his other members serve him for his respective ends”, with the ever present threat of “disobedience of the flesh” [“inoboedientia caro”]. The subjugated other members of the body – organized, policed and bound into service [“membra seruirent”] – should be held here in contrast to the “independent autocracy” of the penis, who is not merely a disobedient subject, to continue the political metaphor, but a tyrant. Indeed, the obscene ‘iure’ of the penis (perhaps, here, we could invent a Lacanian parody: ‘The Law of the Medieval Penis’) exists in another dimension in the text – the “flesh by its disobedience did testify [my italics ‘testimonium’] against the disobedience of man”. Hetzeldorfer’s trial, and specifically her testimony, is the testimony of an unruly member – a penis, and a
member of the social body – and her disobedience can be seen to function in much the same way as the disobedient member in Augustine’s picture of the human body.
The risk is in Augustine that the part will end up standing for the whole – man will be reduced to his outward member, and that when “mental emotion is mingled with bodily appetite…all mental activity is suspended”. Augustine’s fear here, “at the moment of consummation”, is of an obliteration of agency and the destruction of “the will’s consent” that is the Lacanian Real of this moment of jouissance. Adam and Eve, before the fall, were not aware of “their members warring against their will” [“quando membra eorum uoluntati repugnare nesciebant”], as if the penis is something that can make war on the self – repugnare signifies resistance; to struggle, or fight against. Augustine’s body, hinting at political metaphors, seems to be turning the body into a site for struggle between its components, the most unruly being the penis. The part, it seems, can stand for the whole only after winning a violent struggle, and the different agents of the body – the mouth, the hands, the legs and the penis – all have to be socialized into obeying the will.
This excessive dimension of the penis is certainly present in Hetzeldorfer’s case – a fabricated penis that can nonetheless ejaculate and urinate, a penis that resists, or struggles against, the ‘normal’ rules of biology. The moment, in Else Muter’s testimony, when she notes how “she came to her and showed her the penis and tried to have her will with her” , we get a sense that Hetzeldorfer’s penis and body are issuing a challenge to, and serving to disrupt, the codes by which gender is organized. This moment of confrontation perhaps contains within it an injunction – what are you to do with my hybrid body? Her strap-on causes struggle and disruption – Hetzeldorfer has “many quarrels”  with Else Muter. Hetzeldorfer’s penis too appears at Carnival – “she whored like a man, and she grabbed her just like a man”  – and her notoriety in local gossip suggests that her unusual practices are a public presence. If her penis is mobile, and active, then it seems to be potentially detachable from the body. Hetzeldorfer’s penis is quite literally detachable, and mutable – in the sense that it not only changes itself materially, but also changes Hetzeldorfer herself into something neither masculine nor feminine. In Augustine’s writings too, there is a profound sense in which the ‘part that can stand for the whole’ delineates a radically fragmented body, one into which the penis can never be integrated. Similarly, of course, Hetzeldorfer’s shifting gender and unorthodox sexualities can never be integrated into the social spaces of late fifteenth century Nuremburg.
To deepen this, we can turn to some of the images Michael Camille explores in his article ‘The Image and the Self: Unwriting the Medieval Body’, from 1994 collection Framing Medieval Bodies. John of Salisbury’s metaphor of the state as a body “was not visualized by an artist until the mid-fourteenth century in a vernacular treatise written for a Valois prince”. In this image, Camille notes, we can observe the “vertical hierarchy” that is used to organize human physiology (the head being the primo regio) operating also upon the literal body politic by compartmentalizing and allegorizing the different components of the human body to describe medieval society:
The rest of the parts of the parts of the body politic have to be labeled with scrolls, the eyes “senechals”, the stomach “conseillers”, the arms “chevaliers”, the legs “marchauntes” and the feet “labourers sur la terre”...one has to remember that medieval physiology conceived of the body as a union of like and unlike parts in which the central and higher organs controlled the lower ones.
This image of course (fig. 2) does not focus on the penis in the same way that his previous example in the paper (fig. 3) does: a diagram from the early fifteenth century displaying the four zones of the medieval body that articulate the “neoplatonic notion of vertical authority”. The penis there – grossly large, with a heavily shaded tip that seems to counterpoint the shading of the hair on the head – and stands in comparison to the minor classical genitals of the body politic, and displays the “site of shame, the uncontrollable Augustinian signal of man’s fall” quite overtly. Perhaps Camille is suggesting that it is not only the genitals but also Augustine’s signal that is uncontrollable, that his discursive power, and version of the penis in the Middle Ages, is inescapable. In Hetzeldorfer’s case, we can see a penis, and a body that exists within the social body, that is not “working in harmony under the rule of the head”, or perhaps, more pertinently, shows in operation the authority of theprimo regio itself in the courtroom. This image of the body, one the is fragmented by warring factions, has to be disciplined and assigned useful roles – for Augustine, the usefulness of the penis is reproduction, not detestable, ignominious vice. Indeed, as Haraway remarks, “Cyborg replication is uncoupled from organic reproduction”, and Hetzeldorfer is uncoupling the penis (and we should enjoy both the technological connotations of uncoupling as well as the disruption of heteronormativity that is un-coupling) from its allotted purpose and male body.
However, we can glimpse this dangerous dimension of the penis – and the danger of having a penis on a woman’s body – in another of Camille’s images: that of the luxuria and the penis-serpent (fig.4). The extraordinary ambivalence of this carving – “the serpent…emerges from, or enters, her vagina, like a perverse phallus” – certainly reminds us of Hetzeldorfer’s ambivalent body, from which a penis, her perverse phallus, emerges in an inversion of the usual order of things. The ‘one sex model’ of the Middle Ages, argued for by Thomas Lacquer, in which the female genitals are the reversed and interiorized inversion of the male member also makes Hetzeldorfer’s penis all the more striking. This destructive, gnawing penis-serpent certainly mirrors the potentially violent strap-on of Hetzeldorfer, and makes plain the anxiety that the unruly Augustinian member may rise up and attack the organized and safe hierarchy of the body. Camille’s reading of the image certainly suggests a theological allegory for Hetzeldorfer’s situation, albeit slightly obliquely:
In some exegetical traditions Adam and Eve had allowed themselves to be penetrated by the serpent, signifying sodomy and masturbation, sins of the body to which this unusual carving may allude.
This problematic organ is literally detachable from Hetzeldorfer’s body, unintegrated into Augustine’s self, and obscenely obtrusive in our early fifteenth century illustration. This ‘mobile’ penis of Hetzeldorfer’s – it moves around all the social spaces and events of Nuremburg, and even seems to confer on her the energy to jump out of a window  – seems to be part of a medieval discourse on a potentially detachable penis. Indeed, we cannot help but imagine Hetzeldorfer’s swaggering with her fake penis at the carnival – “she whored like a man” . The mobility, and detachability, of her penis is not just material but discursive – it moves, in gossip, through the mouths of the inhabitants of Nuremburg. Hans Welcker, for instance, “said he had heard from Ennel Helmstat that she said she who stands in the dock…is supposed to be a man” – Hetzeldorfer’s penis is made mobile via speech as well as her body.
We can see this detachment in two artefacts – one is the case of John Skathelok’s impotence in late medieval York, and the other is the well-documented ‘penis-tree’ that is part of the marginalia of a fourteenth century copy of The Romance of the Rose, in BnF MS Fr. 25526 (fig.5). In Skathelok’s case, his wife accuses him of impotence and the court ‘tests’ this by encouraging women of different ages to sexually excite him by various means, which are described in lurid detail, on the first floor of a local tavern. His penis, though, is emptied of vigor and life, the women all attesting sentiments along the lines of “it was not able to become erect as if empty skin having no substance in it”, and we should certainly note the emphasis on shame, two of the women remarking – “he should for shame show these women his manhood if he were a man” and “show himself for shame a man”. Skathelok’s penis is a site of public shame, just as in the Augustinian mode, though it is uncontrollable, and refuses to do what wants, in a different way to Hetzeldorfer’s. His part, too, stands for the whole, as the marriage is dissolved on grounds of his impotence, and Skathelok is reduced to little more than a deficient penis, hardly being able to produce excessive and extraordinary semen “that it is beyond measure, that one could grab with a full hand” – a penis lacking character.
The image of the penis tree (fig. 5), like Skathelok’s penis, also detaches the penis from the body: a nun plucks disembodied phalluses from a bush, in an ‘organic’ version of Hetzeldorfer’s appropriated penis. In her own way Hetzeldorfer plucks a penis out of thin air, materializing the virtual medieval phallus, perhaps reminding us of the obscene Dutch badges – depicting winged phalluses, and phalluses roasting on spits that Nicola McDonald discusses in her introduction the Medieval Obscenities collection.
If Hetzeldorfer’s body is in some senses a cyborg body – ironic, inverted, and liminal – then she is one that is coupled firmly to the Middle Ages, one version of what Camille calls the “host of competing corporealities”, a body whose limits are not strictly delineated and plays with a heavily coded phallus. Quoting Hostientis in his paper, Camille opens up the possibilities for what constitutes a body in the middle ages:
One calls a body…that which holds the parts together like a house. Or where the parts are distinct, one from another like a troop or a people or a collage. Finally man and woman form but one body.
Hetzeldorfer’s hybrid body represents not only a breakdown of man and woman, but also human and nonhuman, and Hostientis thinks along similar lines – a body can be like a house. These medieval bodies that are ‘plugged in’ to “the stars…tangible bodies which, floating high above, had direct ‘lines’ to specific parts of one’s anatomy and ruled…the waves of humoral fluids within one’s body” certainly speak about Hetzeldorfer’s body, which is attached to wood, leather, the inorganic, her flows semen of urine passing through the nonhuman.
The hierarchical, vertically organized body of the Neoplatonists, a body that struggles to unify disparate and unruly parts, stands directly opposed to another more open-ended medieval body that ties together the human and nonhuman – Camille’s paper contains an extraordinary diagram of the body as a map schema, where the curves of the landscape and the body intertwine (fig.6), and a diagram of the body as a cosmological schema. Haraway too serves with an analogy for this conflict between fragmented bodies that moves towards unification and these more open-ended possibilities. The Neoplatonist model is “only one position”, part of a “biological-determinist ideology” that constitute medieval theories of the body and genitals, standing opposed to the “pleasurably tight coupling “ where her cyborg transgresses “the boundary of human and animal” that we can see in Hostientis' and Hetzeldorfer’s shifting bodies.
Augustine. The City of God. Trans. Marcus Dods. New York: The Modern Library, 1960.
Camille, Michael. "The Image and the Self: Unwriting Late Medieval Bodies."
Kay, Sarah and Rubin, Miri eds. Framing Medieval Bodies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994. 68.
Goldberg, Jeremy trans. and ed. Women in England 1275-1575 Documentary Sources. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Goldberg, J trans. and ed., Women in England 1275-1575 Documentary Sources(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).
 Reproductions of these badges, which are available fromhttp://www.fetteredcockpewters.com/ are perhaps amongst the most ostentatious and striking depictions of the medieval penis we have. For more on them, see McDonald, N ed., Medieval Obscenities (York: York Medieval Press, 2006).