Alicia Walker

title.none: Garland, Byzantine Women (Alicia Walker)

identifier.other: baj9928.0801.007 08.01.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alicia Walker, Washington University in St. Louis,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience, AD 800-1200. Center for Hellenic Studies, King's College, vol. 8. Aldershot, UK/ Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. Pp. xix, 226. $89.95 (hb) 0-7546-5737-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.01.07

Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience, AD 800-1200. Center for Hellenic Studies, King's College, vol. 8. Aldershot, UK/ Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. Pp. xix, 226. $89.95 (hb) 0-7546-5737-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Alicia Walker
Washington University in St. Louis

Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience AD 800-1200 gathers nine essays on diverse topics relating to the roles of women in middle Byzantine literature and history. The volume proposes to investigate how women operated within predominantly masculine social domains, including the management of private property, the foundation of monasteries, the writing of history and liturgical hymns, the maneuvering of palace politics, and the performance of popular and elite entertainments on the streets and at the court of the capital, Constantinople. Interest in gender issues is not new to scholarship on Byzantium, but earlier studies often assume a broad chronological approach, which can elide fundamental distinctions across the one- thousand-year history of the Byzantine Empire. The more limited period addressed in this study allows for scrutiny of particular social and cultural currents that shaped the lives of women between the waning years of Iconoclasm (which ended in 843) and the Conquest of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The book includes seven black and white drawings and twelve black and white photographs (all illustrating the same essay) and a common bibliography.

In the Introduction, Lynda Garland provides a general survey of major issues and dynamics surrounding women in the Byzantine world, including the patriarchal nature of Byzantine society, women's general exclusion from positions of civic and religious authority, the isolation of women in elite social strata, the vulnerability of women in the lower classes, women's limited economic roles, and the question of female literacy. At the same time, she draws attention to the variety of ways in which women exercised influence over and actively engaged with the world in which they lived, a point persuasively demonstrated in the subsequent essays. She posits that because information about women is found predominantly in texts authored by and for men, consideration of women cannot be separated from the study of Byzantine culture and society more broadly. Rather we must read between the lines of standard discourse. The collection claims particular concern for the experiences of non-imperial women, although the majority of the essays focus to large extent on women of the court. This bias is, however, the product of Byzantine sources more than scholarly interest, and most essays make an effort to consider how evidence pertaining to elite women may or may not be relevant to the experiences of the female population at large.

Although outlining a range of important issues relating to women's experiences, the introduction lacks any bibliographic citations, reducing its value as a scholarly tool. Ideally, this opening essay would serve to guide interested readers to foundational studies on the essential issues it notes, as well as provide an overview of the state of the subfield to which the volume contributes. On both accounts, however, its utility is minimal. The introduction also falls short of making a clear case for the need and aims of the collection itself. Surely there is good reason to address issues concerning Byzantine women in a focused, chronologically discrete fashion, but what exactly are these motivations? What are the particular dynamics at play for women of the middle Byzantine era as opposed to other periods of Byzantine history? What are the major earlier studies on women's issues in this particular epoch and how does this collection intersect with or move beyond previous discussion? Although each essay is introduced individually, relevant connections among the diverse papers are not sufficiently highlighted. What issues and conclusions resonate across the authors' topics? How do they, as a group, point to new perspectives on the broader questions the collection purports to elucidate? Attention to these and related questions in the introduction would have lent the volume as a whole greater coherence and purpose.

The papers are arranged in roughly chronological order of their topics. In the first essay, Judith Herrin considers how women's monasteries shifted social functions during the final years of Iconoclasm. She relates increased numbers of monastic foundations during this period to political turmoil and the retreat of high ranking women from the political scene. In some cases their retirements were forced expulsions, but in other instances women created monastic environments as refuges from political intrigue and the dangers of the court. Through the latter examples, Herrin makes a persuasive case for elite women's agency in the design of their (and their families') political and personal destinies. At the same time, she draws attention to the way in which this phenomenon is not necessarily gender specific; elite men exercised parallel strategies, employing monastic foundations as social and economic safe havens in the late and post-Iconoclastic era.

Anna Silvas surveys the life and poetic works of the well-known ninth- century nun, Kassia, assessing the contributions of this aristocratic woman to Byzantine hymnography and secular poetry. Silvas proposes that Kassia's literary productions should be studied not only as artistic contributions, but also for what they reveal about a ninth- century woman's perspective on Byzantine society. She argues that Kassia, a committed Iconophile, was influenced by female resistance to Iconoclasm and that her ideological position might be characterized as a "theology of woman" that promoted female independence, intellectualism, and uncompromising spiritual dedication. The author describes her essay as an "appreciation" of the poetess, which summarizes her artistic production and social perspective rather than posits new interpretations of these works or their author.

Timothy Dawson surveys the evidence for "ordinary" (non-imperial) Byzantine women's clothing from 1000 to 1200 C.E. and asks how dress reflected social status and professional identity. He argues that three essential factors motivated taste and convention in clothing: modesty, practicality, and desire for adornment. The author explores a variety of visual, material, and textual evidence (most interestingly the wills and donation records of elite women) that illustrates the options available to fulfill these requirements. In addition, he provides reconstructions of typical middle Byzantine clothing types.[1]

Leonora Neville assesses the image of women conveyed through tenth- to twelfth-century Byzantine provincial tax and law records. The documents define women largely in terms of their relationships to men (especially male heads of households) and generally not as autonomous social or economic agents. Nonetheless records identify specific women as land and property owners, who gained prominence through their economic holdings and fiscal liabilities. In some instances the documents reveal a prevailing attitude toward women as intellectually and emotionally inferior to their male counterparts. At the same time, Neville argues that women potentially subverted this ideology, using the assumption of feminine shortcomings to extricate themselves from undesirable fiscal situations. She suggests that critical analysis of provincial records and the relationships they reflect might serve as a model for the study of other categories of sources not typically considered in gender studies.

Stephen Rapp and Lynda Garland discuss the Georgian-born Byzantine princess, Maria of Alania, and how her foreign origin impacted her navigation of palace politics in the late eleventh century. Despite the disadvantage borne from the lack of a biological family network, Maria was remarkably successful in mastering the intricacies of court dynamics, surviving two imperial husbands and numerous shifts in power. Rapp and Garland suggest that the absence of binding family obligations may have served Maria well, liberating her from confining social or political relationships and allowing her to make and break alliances at will. The prominence of women at the Georgian court during the tenth and eleventh centuries is noted as a possible contribution to Maria's confidence and abilities. The authors suggest that Maria herself helped shape the unprecedented cultural and political prominence of women at the Komnenian court in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Dion Smythe analyzes the attitude toward family expressed in Anna Komnene's famous twelfth-century history of her imperial father's rule, the Alexiad. Smythe positions his analysis in relation to the larger field of the "history of the family," suggesting the usefulness of this approach for the study of Byzantium, especially at the elite level. He characterizes the Komnenian era aristocratic family as an extensive yet tightly woven network, linked by both natural bonds and those forged through marriage and adoption. His essay resonates meaningfully with other contributions in the collection, which note the essential role kinship played in defining and motivating Byzantine women in the larger world. His suggestions that Anna Komnene suffered from a sexual disorder and may even have been the victim of sexual abuse are less than persuasive (especially given the evidence upon which the claim is based). Nonetheless this unusual direction of interpretation serves in larger terms to recall the many unexplored possibilities that cross-disciplinary and comparative-historical analysis may offer Byzantine studies.

Corinne Jouanno turns to the realm of fiction, analyzing the role played by women in twelfth-century novels and what this might suggest about attitudes toward women in Byzantine reality. She deems female characters more passive and submissive than their counterparts in the ancient Greek novels that medieval Greek novels imitate. Among prized feminine traits in Byzantine romances, modesty, discretion, and laconic reserve rank high. To the degree that medieval Greek romances depart from Byzantine social norms or ancient literary models, Jouanno supports western chansons de geste of the twelfth century as a possible alternate source, which may have gained popularity among Byzantine courtiers at this time. In this sense, the twelfth-century romance becomes a site for negotiating diverse paradigms of female behavior within the safe space of popular fiction. Jouanno notes the moral hollowness of certain female and male characters, who publicly observe Byzantine social norms of propriety and modesty while covertly pursuing their erotic and romantic desires. She suggests that, in this regard, some novels might reflect contemporary Byzantine "double-think," which promoted an ideology of restriction and inferiority of women during an era when, in reality, they enjoyed increased social freedom.

In the final two essays, Lynda Garland investigates women's roles in popular and courtly entertainments, concluding that in eleventh- and twelfth-century Byzantium, women participated actively in the low- brow, carnivalesque humor that predominated across social strata and genders. Although Byzantine sources perpetuate an ideal of female seclusion from the public sphere, Garland surveys evidence that attests to the presence of women, especially non-elites, in Byzantine city streets and their enthusiastic involvement in public spectacles. The songs, skits, and parades orchestrated at these events typically employed comic inversions of social norms, slapstick exaggerations, and bawdy invective. In a similar manner, Byzantine sources speak of elite women's lively participation in courtly performances as audiences, patrons, and targets. The ribald buffoonery that characterized street entertainments also served as the stock of palace spectacles, where mimes, jesters, musicians, and poets aimed to amuse and thereby gain the favor ofmen and women alike.

Overall, the papers are uneven not so much in quality, although this does vary somewhat, but in terms of approach and goals, distinctions which might have benefited from further explanation in the introduction. An interesting pattern that emerges from several studies is the possibility for women to capitalize on the very prejudices that Byzantium's oppressive patriarchal hegemony imposed on them. In some instances, women manipulated social proscriptions to their advantage, avoiding limitations by feigning the role of the lesser sex. Another important theme is that of kinship, and its potential to override gender as a social force in Byzantine identity and experience. As a group, the essays clearly demonstrate that the misogynist ideologies typically associated with Byzantine culture belie a more complex reality in which Byzantine women of all social levels engaged actively in their culture and transgressed many of the limitations that are commonly ascribed to them.

The anthology provides useful (and in some cases excellent) contributions to specific topics within Byzantine women's studies, and the value of certain essays extends beyond this special subfield to offer intriguing perspective on larger issues of Byzantine economic, literary, and social history. The essays are, however, extremely focused in their analyses, and most authors assume a familiarity with the terminology and background of Byzantine society, which may make the collection somewhat daunting for the non-specialist. As a whole, the volume will likely be of greatest interest to Byzantinists rather than scholars interested in women's studies more broadly, although individual topics and methodologies may serve as productive comparative examples across other cultures and eras of medieval studies.


1. Two recent studies of relevance to Dawson's discussion, but not cited in the essay, include: Maria Mavroudi, A Byzantine book on dream interpretation: the Oneirocriticon of Achmet and its Arabic sources (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2002); and Jennifer Ball, Byzantine dress: representations of secular dress in eighth- to twelfth-century painting (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).