chapter  5
17 Pages

FANTASIES OF "RACE" AND "GENDER": Africa, Othello, and bringing to light

In the 1573 edition of Des monstres et prodiges - in a passage so controversial that it was finally moved to his less accessible technical treatise on anatomy - the influential French surgeon Ambroise Pare included a section on the secret parts of women which "grow erect like the male rod," making it possible for them to "disport themselves with them, with other women," and hence necessary "with such women" that "one must tie them and cut what is superfluous because they can abuse them."l Pare's text pauses at this point to defend his mention of such practices, however incredible they may seem ("Now that these women, who by means of these caruncles or nimphes, abuse one another is a thing as true as it is monstrous and difficult to believe"). He does so, in a passage added to the 1575 edition, by appealing to the testimony of Leo Africanus, the converted Moor whose Geographical Historie of Africa, written in Arabic and Italian in 1526, had been widely translated and reprinted in Europe after its publication by Gian Battista Ramusio in Venice in 1550.2 This confirming testimony is found in a story Africanus tells of some women of Fez in Mauretania who, claiming familiarity with demons, "rub one another for pleasure, and in truth ... are afflicted of that wicked vice of using one another carnally." Sometimes, the interpolated story reports, women of the town who wished to join these female traffickers with "demons" in "carnal copulations" would use their husbands as unknowing accomplices in their own cuckoldry, as go-betweens to fetch or to prepare feasts for a "venerable band" of such women, leaving the wife free to go where, and with whom, she wished (though some husbands, it notes, would "get the spirit driven out of their wives' bodies with a good hard clubbing"). Pare's text then links this story out of Africa with another part of the Geographical Historie, on clitoral excision:

That is what Leo Africanus writes about it, assuring us in another place that in Africa, there are people who go through the city like our castrators ... and make a trade of cutting off such caruncles, as we have shown elsewhere under Surgical operations.