The Trans troubles of the Middle Ages

The great scholars of the Middle Ages had their own word for Trans

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

History echoes. Sometimes, it’s a place that echoes across time. Sometimes, it’s a turn of phrase. Consider these two statements. The first is by John Wycliffe, the fourteenth-century philosopher and heresiarch:

So about this white and round priest-consecrated thing, similar to the non-sacred host, which afterwards the priest breaks and eats, and which receives transmutations that a non-consecrated host [would receive], as perhaps being eaten by a mouse, putrefaction over time, with similar transmutations, of this white thing first let there be an explanation.

The second is by J. K. Rowling, the twenty-first century novelist:

“People who menstruate.” I’m sure there used to be a word for these people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?

These statements are separated by more than 600 years and by language, since Wycliffe originally wrote in Latin. But they are united by much more. They share a tone of exasperated irony; a vivid awareness of the reality of things or — as Wycliffe calls it in the jargon of the day — “quiddity”, that is, “this-ness“ or specificity, and a determination, common to almost all good writers and sound thinkers, to call things by their proper names: “bread” in the case of Wycliffe’s “white and round priest-consecrated thing” and “women” in the case of Rowling’s “people who menstruate”.

Most strikingly of all, both statements are a response to what we can call “the trouble with trans”. Rowling is dealing with the absurdity of men who are supposed to change gender and become women by declaring themselves so in a more-or-less medicalised process of “transitioning”; Wycliffe with the equally absurd process — at least to secular eyes — by which the priest, in uttering the words “Hoc est Corpus” (“This is my Body”) is believed to change the “substance” of the bread of the host into the “substance” of the body of Christ by the miracle of “transubstantiation”.

Let there be an explanation: Wycliffe and Hobbes both rejected the concept of transubstantiation

Transubstantiation is first declared to be infallible doctrine at the Lateran Council, summoned in 1215 by Pope Innocent III. It had, the Decree stated, “ever been the persuasion of the Church of God and the same is affirmed afresh by this Synod” that “by the consecration of the bread and the wine a conversion be made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ . . . and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood. Which conversion conveniently and appropriately is called transubstantiation by the Holy Catholic Church”.

Put simply, “substance” is the idea that things and persons are more than the sum of their descriptors

But what does all of this actually mean? The key word is “substance”. You won’t find “substance” in the Bible: in the Gospels’ report of the Last Supper Christ says simply, “This is My body”, not “This is the substance of My body”. Instead, “substance” is a term of art of Aristotle’s logic. This was adopted wholesale by the Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages and, fixed thereafter as a principal part of the mental furniture of the West, bedevilled thought for the next five centuries at least.

Put simply, “substance” is the idea that things and persons are more than the sum of their descriptors. Take bread for instance. Ordinarily we might define it thus: “Bread is round, white, made out of flour and water and so on.”

Now analyse this sentence in the technical language of grammar or logic. “Bread” is the subject or noun; “is“, the copula or link; while “round”, “white”, etc, form the predicate which denotes the qualities of the noun. In other words, the very structure of such a descriptive sentence suggests that the qualities of bread are somehow separable from bread itself as a noun — or, to use the more old-fashioned and revealing term, a substantive: that is, a thing or person having “substance”.

Or, as Bertrand Russell puts it with his accustomed neatness: “ ‘Substance’ . . . is a metaphysical mistake, due to transference to the world-structure of the [grammatical] structure of sentences composed of a subject and a predicate.”

And the consequences of this “metaphysical mistake” lay upon the altar of every medieval church and chapel in the form of the host in which, the people were required to believe, the “substance” of bread had been entirely annihilated and replaced by the “substance” of Christ’s body. If, on the other hand, they ventured to follow their senses and say that it looked like bread, smelt like bread and tasted like bread and so probably was bread, they risked being burned alive for their pains.

Hobbes pointed out gleefully that it took a lot of learning to spout such nonsense

These absurdities have been understood and exposed since the seventeenth century when Thomas Hobbes, the author of Leviathan, took an especial pleasure in holding them up to ridicule. A statement like the Decree of the Lateran Council, Hobbes contended, was pure gibberish in that it was made up of “such words as, put together, have in them no significance at all”. He also pointed out gleefully that it took a lot of learning to spout such nonsense. On the other hand, he observed, the “common sort of men seldom speak insignificantly”. Which is why the so-called learned dismissed them as “idiots”, even though it was they who were really maddened by their misuse of language.

Which, incidentally, is a nice illustration of the fact that the mutual contempt of “experts” and “ordinary people” long antedates Brexit.

But Hobbes laughed too soon. For the long twentieth century, from the end of the First World War to the Covid crisis of 2020, saw an astonishing revival of the mode of thought which Hobbes had attacked, in which words replace action, the abstract the concrete and pseudo-grammatical structures are imposed (in Russell’s phrase) on “the world-structure”.

First to fall, even before the Great War was over, was the key to the citadel of post-Renaissance culture, the idea of art itself. The Fall took place in 1917, appropriately enough in New York, where the young Belgian “Dadaist” Marcel Duchamp exhibited a humble inverted urinal, signed “R. Mutt” and entitled “Fountain”, transubstantiating it in so doing into “the most influential modern art work of all”. Or at least he did if you are a true believer.

Modernism and Post-Modernism are leading us into a dark parody of the Middle Ages

Duchamp removed the aesthetic from art; even more extraordinary is the achievement of those like Judith Lorber and Judith Butler, who, in the last 30 years have removed sex from the distinction between men and women. It’s not sex and biology which distinguish the two, such writers declare, but “social construction”. They label the results of this process as “gender”.

“Gender”, once again, is a term borrowed from grammar, in which, as anybody who has struggled through the elements of Latin or German will remember, nouns and their corresponding adjectives are divided into the three “genders” of “masculine”, “feminine” and “neuter”. But what determines grammatical gender is not nature but rules. Similarly, gender theorists claim, it’s social rules, not sex, that determine the “essential” difference between men and women.

But rules — unlike nature — can and should be changed. Instead therefore of society telling us what gender we are, we should, in the final act of liberation, choose our own. It’s a simple act of will, a new “Hoc est Corpus” — “Trans women are women; get over it.”

Which brings us full circle. For Modernism and Post-Modernism are not leading us forward, as they claimed, into a Brave New World of the future, but backwards into a dark parody of the Middle Ages. Reason and empirical evidence are rejected and we relapse instead into magical incantations and vaporous philosophisings. And enforce the beliefs by mob rule and the social death of “cancellation”.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover