- Questions of Gender in Byzantine Society ed. by Bronwen Neil and Lynda Garland
Just because a book has “gender” in the title does not mean that it actually does deal with it. Other than a specific topic, “gender” is a theoretical methodology, a way of looking at things and posing questions. Simply writing about women, men, or eunuchs does not necessarily entail that one is doing “gender studies.” Those topics can equally be approached through traditional scholarly methods that may be brought to bear on any aspect of Byzantine history. If gender scholarship is limited to the repetition of certain commonplace formulas or to banal observations about sexual inequality and does not truly bring “the lens of gender to the study of history,” the results may be interesting, to be sure, but do not deepen our understanding of gender in a society.
Two basic observations may be made regarding the book under review. First, in spite of the quality of most of the contributions, the volume takes an approach that, with few exceptions, is far from belonging to gender history and that ultimately leads to the conclusion that there was no gendered discourse in Byzantium, not because it truly did not exist but because the contributors are not looking for it where it did. Second, this type of collection of papers is shaped primarily by the [End Page 148] choice of contributors and their prior interests, and not by an editorial logic that would prioritize theoretical relevance and thematic coherence.
Two contributions (Paul Brown and Bronwyn Neil) deal with Western views of Byzantine men and women. The first relates to the military presence of Byzantium in Italy (eighth to eleventh centuries) and the second relates to the image of the empress Eirene (797–802) in various literary texts, primarily Western. In both cases the authors conclude that gender plays a secondary role in the political and cultural confrontation between the Byzantines and the Latins and that the main issue at hand was, in the first case, a denunciation of the “treachery and cunning” of the Byzantines and, in the second case, Eirene’s Iconophile policies (whether viewed positively or negatively). The chapter by Diana Gilliland Wright takes the inverse approach by looking at Byzantine views of Western women, namely Sophia of Montferrat and Cleofe Malatesta who came to Byzantium to marry the sons of Manuel II Palaiologos and tries to understand why they were treated so differently.
A series of chapters on aspects of the lives of women in Byzantium constitutes the core of the book. Lynda Garland presents family strategies of investment in monasticism, by examining, through the Typika, the transformation of monasteries into alternative family households, especially on the initiative of aristocratic women. Amelia R. Brown presents the “highlights” of the education of women throughout the whole of Byzantine history. Sarah Gador-Whyte studies the masculine and feminine qualities that hymnographers attribute to the Virgin during the sixth and seventh centuries. Liz James presents the genealogical tree of many women of the family of Constantine the Great, their role in the creation and cultivation of political alliances, and the way in which their representation changed with every fluctuation in political circumstances.
For his part, Shaun Tougher discusses men and eunuchs in Byzantium and underlines the importance of beards in defining manhood after the seventh century. Tougher regards the general preference for beards as “a sign of the increasing Hellenisation and Christianisation of the empire and also a sign of a desire to enhance masculinity, perhaps in response to a sense of political and military crisis” (p. 161). The volume closes with the contribution of Damian Casey that is also the most interesting when it comes to the actual issue of gender. In this very stimulating paper, Casey examines various Christian readings of gender, the body, and sexuality, underlining the ambivalence of those terms and the complex relationship that they had with spiritual authority.
In conclusion, with the exception of some contributions that pose the issue...