03.12.13, Herrin, Women in Purple

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Dr Dion C. Smythe

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.013


Herrin, Judith. Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 304. ISBN: 0-691-09500-0.

Reviewed by:
Dr Dion C. Smythe
Queen's University, Belfast

This book is ripping history! Not in the sense of 'bodice- ripper' historical novels--though clearly Herrin has some concerns that her book will be seen more in these terms than as serious history (see pages 259-262, esp. 261-2 and again 277)--but in the sense of a 'ripping good yarn'. This book's central thesis is that the three 'women in the purple' represent a 'family line' (Irene is Euphrosyne's grandmother, and Theodora is wife to Eurphrosyne's stepson Theophilos). The book is informed by a feminist approach, but the theory is presented lightly and convincingly. There are a number of recurring themes: the question of 'bride-shows'; what makes a family line and how marriages are arranged; the relationship between women and icons; how sources can and should be used, what sources don't tell us, and how material sources-- especially coins--can help us understand complex dynastic histories. However, what struck me most reading the book-- after the first introductory chapter there follows on chapter each on Irene, Euphrosyne and Theodora with a final conclusion- -was the sheer page-turning pace of the historical narrative. This is what I mean when I say that it is 'ripping history'; it is a well-paced narrative that tells the stories of three women, whilst placing them in the historical analysis of the period.

The first chapter provides a very clear overview of 'Byzantium' up to the period of the mid-eighth century, for the general reader or novice (though it should be noted that it can be read with profit by the more experienced Byzantinist as well; it is perhaps a parlour game out of favour, but it is always fascinating to see which aspects of Byzantine history and culture one's colleagues chose to stress--and at the expense of which other aspects!).

This book deals with the 'women in purple' of the age of iconoclasm. Given that the Second Council of Nicaea took place under the guidance of Eirene in 787 and then that the final triumph of Orthodoxy took place in 843 under Theodora, the question must then be asked if women have an 'automatic' affiliation with icons. Given the feminist approach that underpins Professor Herrin's analysis, it should not surprise to learn that Professor Herrin dismisses such reductionist determinism. It is clear that icons--set apart from the male- dominated official liturgy of the church--provided women with an avenue of religious expression that was not controlled by men (166-167). The stories present in the later iconophile traditions, which portray 'closet iconophiles' hoodwinking their male relations and emperors is clearly absurd, the result of a desire to play up the continual iconophilism of those who would eventually engineer the restoration of icons (pp. 179 and 195-6).

The question of the 'Bride shows'--in effect beauty contests by which a spouse for the heir to the Byzantine throne was chosen- -is a topic with which Professor Herrin has engaged previously. The concept of the 'bride show' is placed in its context as a literary conceit, but also as a means of tying the provincial magnates to the centre of power in the empire (p. 136). The literary qualities of the bride show initiated by Euphrosyne, by which Theophilos married Theodora is clearly set out (p. 170 and 190). The final account of a 'bride show' is for Michael III (p. 222), primarily a literary device to explain Eirene of Chrysobalanton's move from Cappadocia to Constantinople, where she became a nun. Professor Herrin establishes that the marriages of the heir to the Byzantine throne was usually arranged, and usually arranged by the boy's mother or step- mother. The myth of the 'bride show' encouraged the belief that any father in the empire could aspire to being the 'father of the bride', thus providing an automatic link to the capital, and the advancement that was expected to follow on from that.

A central concern of this review, as indeed it is of the book, must be the question of 'empathy' in historical writing. It is clear that Professor Herrin was concerned how some of her empathetic accounts (see pages 51-52 and then 58; also p. 139 f.; and p. 262) might be received by her peers (professional historians, rather than her general readership). It would seem that she was right to be a trifle concerned. However, what is really at issue here? In reading the account of how it must have felt for Eirene arriving in Constantinople from Athens in 769 are we really that concerned that there is no documentary, literary or material evidence to support the feelings that Professor Herrin ascribes to Eirene? Surely the root question here is more 'are the Byzantines similar to us as human beings or completely "Other"?' The past is indeed a foreign land and they do things differently there, but to my mind, the Byzantines--though paradoxically different and other--are yet still the same as us. To deny that fundamental truth renders history impossible. So a young woman, plucked from a provincial backwater would be overwhelmed by the metropolis and would be overawed--at least to begin with--by the prospects that lay before her. In attempting to reconstruct a 'life' of Eirene it would be as pointless to ignore these aspects of common humanity. Similarly, Professor Herrin attempts (on pages 156-158) to describe Euphrosyne's feelings about her roller-coaster life. Repeatedly Professor Herrin notes that little beyond the most laconic of notices is recorded in the histories of the period about these women, especially when their consorts were alive and ruling. A strict construction of historical method would conclude therefore that we cannot write histories of these individuals. However, the feminist tradition, drawing and modifying the Annales tradition, shows that it is possible and indeed necessary to write such historical analysis if our histories are to be in any way complete. The account on pages 176-177 of Euphrosyne's warning to Theophilos in 838 is not an exercise in empathy. Rather than dealing with how the empress-mother must have felt, Professor Herrin provides a fleshed out account of how she must have acted. A similar balance of probability is invoked (p. 195) to account for Theodora's clear idea that she wanted Methodios to replace John the Grammarian as patriarch. It is however more problematical to invoke the likelihood of Theodora crowning her victorious husband Theophilos in the kathisma of the Hippodrome 'probably in 837' (pp.199- 200).

The final conclusion that Professor Herrin reaches, that Eirene, Euphrosyne and Theodora 'were less true to their sex than to the purple' (p. 256) is one that could have been elaborated more in the body of the text. It is an axiom of feminist analysis that an individual's gender is the determining factor; increasingly in historical analysis using the insights of feminism we are becoming aware that an individual's gender is not a 'superordinate category'. Professor Herrin's recognition that access to the purple-- either by birth or by marriage (or both)--was more important than birth as a woman deserves to have been stressed more.

There are unfortunately a small number of errors that mar the presentation of the volume. On page 2, a misplaced closing bracket seems to imply that Christ was crucified in the early fourth century. Five lines from the bottom on page 82, 'service' has been printed instead of (perhaps) 'survives'. On page 159, nine lines from the bottom, 'ago' is printed rather than the more sensible 'she would have been around sixty years old'. Not a misprint, nevertheless it strikes me as odd that Professor Herrin has decided to use the masculine form 'porphyrogennitos' (born in the purple [chamber]) for Euphrosyne rather than the more expected feminine 'porphyrogennite' (random examples, pages 183 or 229). It perhaps removes the need to explain the grammar of Byzantine Greek in a work that is clearly designed to be accessible to non-specialist readers, but such 'openness' does a disservice if it colludes in 'dumbing down' as well. The decision to use the masculine form may have been informed by an explicit feminist desire not to render the heroes of the history inferior to their male counterparts (I think for example of the different semantic space occupied by the English words 'poet' and 'poetess' or 'actor' and 'actress'). There is a difference, however, between gendered languages such as Byzantine Greek and English, even if both are afflicted with negative semantic space inculcated by patriarchy. And if the work is informed by an explicit feminist theory, I was a little surprised to find the rather bald statement on page 163: 'men normally marry in anticipation of regular sexual relations and resulting children'. Given the overall accessibility of the text (a positive virtue, I hasten to add, not a fault) I was struck by the statement on page 187, that Theodora's father, Marinos 'was inscribed on the military catalogue'. Clearly this helps place Marinos socially, but it should have been explained. The costs of book production increasingly prohibit it, but I record that I do not favour the placement of notes at the end of the volume, rather than at the foot of the page where they belong. As Professor Herrin has provided detailed introductions to her use of the sources, both to the volume as a whole (pp. 258-262) and then to the individual chapters (pp. 265-267; 275-277; 283-285), this is more unfortunate. Placed as they are at the end of the book, with the notes and printed in a smaller point-size, they bear all the hallmarks of 'can be safely ignored by general readers'. 'Received wisdom' may have said not to place these considerations on sources at the start of the book, but they are too good to have been hidden with the source citations. The first two paragraphs on page 259 are a clear example of this, providing as they do a concise justification for Professor Herrin's book.

In conclusion, this book is successful. It is a clearly written analysis of one (if not the) pivotal points of Byzantine history, a period indeed when women appeared to dominate the course of Byzantine civilisation. The book is analytical, but its structure is a chronological narrative which makes it more accessible to the general readers Professor Herrin hopes to engage. In saying that the book is accessible to general readers, this is not intended as the coded statement that it is 'insufficiently academic'. This is not the case. Any undergraduate course on Byzantine history, or courses more specifically on the period of iconoclasm could use this well- written book with profit. Scholarly rigour can often come to be seen as the enemy of vigorous prose; this book by Professor Herrin reminds us that this need not be the case.

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Author Biography

Dr Dion C. Smythe

Queen's University, Belfast