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Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen


Neurohormonal Wars

Old questions and dubious debates in the psychology of gender.

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In the Byzantine East, the fortunes of eunuchs proceeded somewhat differently. From about ad 600 to 1100, they were well-compensated professionals in a wide range of roles. Among the élite, they were household guards, military officers, administrators, doctors, musicians, and guardians of women and children; among the lower classes they were entertainers, actors and prostitutes. In the church, pre-pubertal castrates eventually served alongside "whole" or "bearded" men as priests, bishops, and even patriarchs, and were lauded for their perfect celibacy rather than ostracized for taking a dubious shortcut to achieve it. However, eunuchs were more marginal in the early centuries of the Byzantine era, due to the reigning Aristotelian gender ideology. This envisaged a ladder of virtue with more passive and less-rational women and girls at the bottom, boys who had left the women's quarters en route to manhood in the middle, and optimally active, reasoning, reproductive males at the top. Especially if castrated before puberty, eunuchs were seen as cases of arrested development: more manly than women or young boys, but by virtue of their feminine appearance and infertility not capable of top-tier masculinity. Thus, in a manner reflecting both virtue and guilt by association, writes Ringrose, when earlier Byzantine sources "wanted to speak well of eunuchs, they did so in terms of positive attributes traditionally ascribed to men. When they wanted to be critical of eunuchs they did so in terms of negative values traditionally ascribed to women."

In light of such ambivalence, how did the Eastern church later come to accept and honor male eunuchs at all levels of office? Ringrose suggests it was largely traceable to a new reading of Daniel 1, which emerged between the 9th and 11th centuries. The account of Daniel and his companions' exile from Jerusalem to Babylon notes that they were "youths without blemish, handsome and skilful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to serve in the king's court." Moreover, they were trained and presented to the Babylonian court by the king's chief eunuch. Thus, various exegetes concluded, though the text doesn't say so directly, Daniel himself must have been a eunuch. This revised portrait of a major biblical prophet permitted "a broadening of the criteria that signified sanctity in ways that made it possible for eunuchs to assimilate to the religious culture of the era." Rather than following the spiritualized "manly eunuch" route of the Western church, eunuchs became a kind of revered "third sex," functioning "in ways that closely paralleled the supposed role of angels: facilitating miracles, conveying messages between divine sources and mortal recipients, and escorting holy individuals …. [I]n the Byzantine mind, eunuchs, while not capable of some things that ordinary mortals could do, possessed a potential for holiness, asexuality, and access to spiritual realms that was not part of the makeup of ordinary mortals."

"Eunuchs from Birth": Some Contemporary Controversies

One way to approximate an experiment in otherwise constrained circumstances is to do a longitudinal study. In a sense that's what Kuefler and Ringrose have reconstructed. The physiological effects of male castration remained predictably consistent throughout the centuries they studied. But in terms of their effects on behavior, hormones (or in this case, their absence) did not rage: at most, they insinuated. Otherwise, these authors point out, history would not have produced such varying expressions and stereotypes of "essential" eunuch traits at different times and places—from Roman temple prostitutes to Christian miracle-mediators, and many things in between.

Such a conclusion does not cut much ice with bot adherents, many of whom think they have better ways as scientists to settle the nature/nurture question, despite the methodological challenges (mentioned earlier) that inevitably plague their work. One of these ways is to study so-called intersex people, whose bodies are atypical not from deliberate human interference, but due to accidents of nature. The goal is to infer causal relationships between the abnormal physiology and anatomy of such persons and any gender-atypical behavior they may later demonstrate, and in the process shed light on the causes of behavioral differences between ordinary men and women. Both Roman and Byzantine writers recorded the existence of such "eunuchs from birth." These included males with undescended testes and people with otherwise ambiguous genitals, often accompanied by adult infertility and atypical secondary sex markers. It is possible that Jesus was referring to such people when he spoke of "eunuchs who have been so from birth." In both Roman and Byzantine writings, they were often grouped together (for good or ill) with males who had been deliberately castrated.

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