JOAN CADDEN. Nothing Natural Is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval R. Mills

The American Historical Review


Archaeology / History / Museology


Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe.

Joan Cadden, John Boswell

Anticlericalism in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe.

William Rednour, Peter A. Dykema, Heiko A. Oberman

Late Ancient and Medieval Population

J. C. Russell


fourteenth century—for it well suited the needs of the then more itinerant merchants—but that as trade networks became more dense and merchants established permanent residencies abroad, the old systems became obsolete. Antwerp responded supplely, and until the sack of 1576 and then the fall of 1585, it reigned as northern Europe’s commercial capital. The situation was different in Amsterdam, which succeeded Antwerp.

There, local merchants and producers played a bigger role in fueling trade, but there too the city accommodated both foreign and domestic merchants by providing common venues for dispute settlement and mechanisms for protecting trade routes and cargos. As merchants and producers from Antwerp (and elsewhere in the southern Low Countries) fled the Spanish, they could have gone (as many originally did) to Hamburg or Cologne, for example, but they wound up in

Amsterdam in part because it provided formal institutional support for the private order practices they were developing.

Gelderblom thus corrects North by showing that although princes were hardly indifferent to the benefits of lively markets, their governmental apparatuses were less flexible and less focused on fashioning workable solutions for problems of dispute settlement, risk management, and the like than were these cities. But, in modification of an argument advanced by Greif, Gelderblom also argues that private order systems functioned effectively precisely because the cities backed them up with formal procedures for dispute resolution, assignment of penalties, and the like. Gelderblom explains the cities’ willingness to adapt to “competition.”

Each city lived from commerce, and unless it accommodated merchants better than, or at least as well as, neighbors equally available to markets for materials and buyers, it would lose out.

In Gelderblom’s telling, however, the city’s elites did not control this process; in fact they often worked to shut foreign merchants out. So, once again in critique of North, the formal political system of the cities was not the hero in this story. Rather it was “the city.” But just what was “the city”? Gelderblom does not directly address this question. He is certainly correct that the kind of changes he documents facilitated commercial activity, and there is also no question that the changes took place at the municipal level, only occasionally (although more frequently as time went on) at the level of, or in cooperation with, central states. These observations will come as no surprise to specialists, although

Gelderblom’s account of precisely what those changes were, when and where they occurred, and how they helped is extremely valuable. It would, however, have been useful to have had as careful an analysis of how these changes were realized. Obviously, pressure came from themerchant community itself (local and foreign), fractured though it was by national rivalries, different investments in different markets, and different legal institutions. Somehow they utilized “legislation from below,” in Gelderblom’s apt phrase (p. 135). In short, groups of individuals with enough common interests or operating in some kind of “balance of power” nudged (or forced) the formal changes that allowed goods and people to follow the money (p. 153). Although we must be grateful to Gelderblom for clarifying just why this region (and these cities) succeeded in taking leadership in this period’s economic history, the institutional history itself was only the result of a complex sociopolitical and cultural history.


Columbia University

JOAN CADDEN. Nothing Natural Is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe. (The Middle Ages

Series.) Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Pp. 327. $85.00.

The Problemata, a work originating with Aristotle, collates hundreds of questions mainly about natural phenomena. Book four, which focuses on venereal matters, turns in its 26th problema or “problem” to the issue of men who have sex with men.Why do somemen who like being anally stimulated enjoy only a “passive” role in coitus, whereas others delight in both “active” and “passive” roles? What in nature causes these dispositions? In this absorbing study of responses to problema

IV.26 in the late Middle Ages, Joan Cadden demonstrates how Aristotle lent his name and authority to efforts by several medieval scholars to develop a scientific approach to what they called “sodomy.”

Nothing Natural Is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in

Late Medieval Europe is groundbreaking in at least two ways. First, while medieval sodomy has been subjected to several book-length analyses in recent decades, to date there has been no sustained investigation of its handling by natural philosophers. Second, this inquiry, which considers over 100 manuscripts of the Problemata and related texts, opens the door to valuable new insights concerning sodomy’s circulation beyond the confines of theology and law. Working against the assumption that medieval attitudes toward sodomy were monolithically repressive, Cadden attends to the instabilities of texts as they shuttle between manuscripts. In turn, this emphasis on textual culture brings into focus the extent to which “certain cultural and social spaces were at least partly shielded from the powerful religious and judicial forces of stigma and suppression” (p. 177).

Heading up the book’s “cast of characters” (p. 10) are the four named authors who wrote commentaries on the medieval Latin translation of the Aristotelian Problemata. Cadden turns in her first two chapters to the most significant of these, Pietro d’Abano (c. 1250– 1315), who produced the earliest and most influential treatment. Pietro begins by developing physical answers to Aristotle’s questions. These include the notion that men who enjoy being anally stimulated have partially or wholly blocked sperm ducts, and that such defects can be understood with reference to a language of monstrosity. Subsequently Pietro contemplates the relationship between nature and habit, speculating on whether habit itself can become a kind of nature. 1760 Reviews of Books