Katherine Crawford, a historian of early modern Europe, writes a history of how castrated men were socially formed in early modern Europe through medical, legal, and religious institutions. Her main lines of inquiry are also outlined in her earlier 2016 article "Desiring Castrates, or How to Create Disabled Social Subjects." She endeavors to link her project towards current disability and trans scholarship by analyzing early modern European castrated men as disabled and transgender. Through Eunuchs and Castrati, Crawford considers how sexual (dis)ability informs historic and current understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality. She connects religious edicts, cultural artifacts, legal judgments, and medical practices to give insight into how castration functioned as an expression of power and a site for the construction of gender in early modern Europe. She uses the scope of her work to point toward the production and regulation of castrati—men who were castrated (almost always intentionally) as prepubescent boys in order to preserve their high singing voices for religious and secular musical institutions—as the fevered zenith of the creation of castrated men as a distinct (gender, sexual, social) category in Europe.

Crawford surveys significant disputes in early modern Europe about what castration signifies and should socially warrant (e.g. punishment, praise, pity). These disputes persisted and, Crawford argues, intensified with the increasing prevalence of castrati; indeed, "the voice was both why castration endured and how it depended on the medical profession in order to persist" (28). That a form of disability was conceptualized and enacted through medical practices will come as no surprise to disability scholars.

Crawford successfully interrogates castration as a disability outside of the operating room as well, documenting castration's effects for men's marriages, masculinities, and social desirability. I am reminded of Audre Lorde's reflections on the loss of her right breast to cancer in The Cancer Journals. She argues against the compulsory masking of her mastectomy through a cosmetic prosthesis, writing that "I am personally affronted by the message that I am only acceptable if I look 'right' or 'normal,' where those norms have nothing to do with my own perceptions of who I am. Where 'normal' means the 'right' color, shape, size, or number of breasts, a woman's perception of her own body and the strengths that come from that perception are discouraged, trivialized, and ignored" (Lorde 64). I quote Lorde as an analogy here in part due to the silence from castrated men themselves. Crawford reflects on this absence from the historical record, remarking that "one of the great ironies of studying castrates is that a group mostly known for their voices said very little about themselves and what castration meant to them" (193). Castrated men's silence shapes Crawford's project, requiring her to look towards the institutional powers that disabled them.

Crawford's goal for Eunuchs and Castrati is to create an understanding of castrated men in early modern Europe that enhances current disability and trans scholarship. Her insistence is clear early on in the book for viewing castrates as disabled and transgender figures: "Understanding castrates as transsexual, transgender, and disabled demonstrates that misogynous gender bias combined with medical intervention has a long lineage" (37). Crawford's work contributes to disability research topics including eugenics, the asexuality/hypersexuality disability trope, and the supercrip (the most successful castrati were wealthy celebrities). She demonstrates how castration functioned as a category of social disability in early modern Europe.

In contrast, Crawford fails to convince me that the study of early modern castrates contributes to the study of trans people. I dismiss Crawford's argument that early modern European men who were castrated are "transgendered" through their social disabilities (9). I do not understand how such an analogy gives a better understanding to the contingent experiences of the castrate figures she traces here, or the transgender people I move and breathe with in my life. I would rather connect Crawford's efforts to her first book, Perilous Performances: Gender and Regency in Early Modern France, where she analyzes the decisions of French regents through a Butlerian gender lens. In both Perilous Performances and Eunuchs and Castrati Crawford demonstrates how gender acts as a site to construct social and political disabilities.

Crawford's Eunuchs and Castrati follows a similar approach to Edward W. Said's Orientalism—both are interdisciplinary projects inspired in part by Michel Foucault's method of analyzing power through "the forms of power, the channels it takes, and the discourses it permeates in order to reach the most tenuous and individual modes of behavior" (11). Crawford and Said both task themselves with making sense of a European concept's circulation, construction, and power. Said's influence on Crawford crystallizes in a later chapter of Eunuchs and Castrati on European accounts of the Ottoman court where "many of the accounts of the harem and its castrate inhabitants aspired to claim Western superiority of the sort that Said denounces" (163).

The term castrate itself bears consideration, especially within a Foucauldian framework. The use of castrate helps Crawford and her readers stabilize themselves amongst the flotsam of figures (the eunuch, the castrato, the musico, the spado, the gallus, the ablate) that have non-normative genitals in early modern Europe. I worry whether using the castrate indicates an acceptance that these figures can/should be reconciled with each other for an essentialized approach. To expand on my critique, I turn to David Valentine's Imagining Transgender. Valentine maps how the term 'transgender' became the US umbrella term for gender non-normativity in the early 1990s. He argues that this use of transgender as an umbrella term illuminated personal and social disagreements over the separability of gender, sex, and sexuality, and how those categories are shaped through race, class, and other identity categories. Transgender's widespread adoption as a term, therefore, paradoxically furthered the ongoing disputes it was meant to resolve about what gender non-normativity is and who is gender non-normative. Crawford's efforts to unify the experiences of castrated men in early modern Europe similarly exposes the myriad of divergences and instabilities of castration that remain unresolved in our current time.

Works Cited

  • Crawford, Katherine. "Desiring Castrates, or How to Create Disabled Social Subjects." Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, 2016, pp. 59-90. https://doi.org/10.1353/jem.2016.0011
  • ---. Perilous Performances: Gender and Regency in Early Modern France. Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley. Pantheon Books, 1978.
  • Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. Spinsters, 1980.
  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
  • Valentine, David. Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category. Duke University Press, 2007. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822390213
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