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05.01.04, Ringrose, The Perfect Servant

05.01.04, Ringrose, The Perfect Servant

The central conceit of Kathryn Ringrose's book is contained in the title: that eunuchs in Byzantium of the fourth to twelfth centuries were "perfect servants." The first page of the book provides a clear and succinct definition of the subject under discussion:

"And then there are the eunuchs. We find them in the streets, carrying messages, escorting wealthy women, guarding young children. They are beardless, carefully groomed, dressed in expensive clothing, for they are the costly elite agents and servants, the elegant adornments of a wealthy, urban aristocracy. Those who are still young might be mistaken for adolescent boys, albeit slightly unusual adolescent boys, with fine fair skin, faces that are just a bit broad and tall thin bodies with narrow shoulders and graceful carriage. Older eunuchs often show the signs of poor health. Their faces are prematurely lined, and youthful fairness has become pallor. Their bodies are stooped from osteoporosis. Even so, they sport a thick, luxuriant head of hair and present themselves as wealthy, cultured gentlemen. The most successful of these distinctive people live in the grand houses that surround the palace." (1)

This is what the eunuchs were, what they did and how they looked on the streets of the capital. What suited them to this "perfect service" according to Kathryn Ringrose was their separation from sexual reproduction and family obligations (5 and the more extended treatment 194-211). What this book does do is to draw together into one coherent analysis the words used to denote eunuchs, to describe eunuchs and to place them in society, organised clearly with an eye on developments through time (2), attempting answers to the main questions that confront anyone thinking about Byzantine eunuchs: Who were they? Where did they come from? How were they made? What did they do? How did they interact with other Byzantines? How were they viewed in Byzantine Society? And these questions are asked of both eunuchs in the state (i.e. imperial) service and eunuchs in the service of God.

Ringrose defines eunuchs as "an alternative gender category," neither masculine nor feminine and she stresses that this gender category changed through time between the sixth and twelfth centuries (3). Despite the fact that castration on Roman (i.e. Byzantine) soil was prohibited by law (71) and that the church frowned on bodily mutilation, nevertheless, eunuchs continued to prosper at least until the period of the Komnenoi, when a more all-pervasive "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" attitude spread downwards from the court to society as a whole. Ringrose recognises that the pervasive nature of the third gender category (eunuchs) may have been limited to the "urban, courtly elite" (3) but it was an aspect of life in that milieu.

Eunuchs were liminal--crossing all manner of thresholds and boundaries: social, spiritual and gender. Their sexual status as eunuchs rendered them marginal, yet at the same time paradoxically their necessary social function meant that they were never really "outsiders" (7). The legal position meant that it was assumed that most eunuchs--at least into the period of Iconoclasm--were of foreign origin. This helped bolster the idea that they were alone in a foreign land, without a connection of family near at hand all requiring and expecting preferment as their kinsman prospered. This alien origin and marginal incorporation into the oikos (household) of which they formed an honoured part helped construct the idea of the eunuch as the "perfect servant" at least until the ninth century. After that date, the social convention that eunuchs were foreign-born, alone and therefore eminently suited to loyal service was on the wane (11), but by then the social convention of the perfect servant eunuch was established. A central question in dealing with Byzantine eunuchs was encapsulated by Alexander Kazhdan: "It is not clear why eunuchs were so important in the Byzantine administration." Ringrose widens this out to considerations of eunuchs integral and necessary roles in Byzantine society by asking what made eunuchs "the perfect servants."

Looking at eunuchs as the perfect servants of God, pre-existing traditions did not augur well for the eunuch as holy servant. In almost all the strands of Judaism in Late Antiquity, bodily mutilation (with one exception) was rejected and castration meant that one was not numbered in the Assembly of Israel (11). Traditional Roman religion took the pater familias as the model, expanding it out from the family hearth to the state altars; eunuchs and alien oriental imports such as the galli never overcame their marginalization. In contrast, Late Antique Christianity developed a cult of celibacy and renunciation of human family, preferring the heavenly family of the eternal home. Yet the path of celibacy to holiness was to be a struggle, the triumph of spirit over flesh; the use of a knife to make the struggle easier was disallowed. Castrated by others one could still aspire to the holy celibate life, but if one sought the celibate life through the knife then one was barred (12).

In our simplistic black and white world we believe the definition of a eunuch is "clear-cut" ([ouch!], 13). On pages 13-16 Ringrose deals with the variety of eunuchs. At one extreme were the "double castrated" boys, who suffered the loss of all external genitalia and were marketed as sex objects. Their opposites were celibate monks, who were bodily entire but completely celibate; these monks the Byzantines regarded as eunuchs. In the middle come a variety of non-reproductive males: eunuchs "from birth" (individuals born with damaged or incomplete genitalia, monorchids, undescended testicles and the rest); eunuchs "from necessity" (individuals born entire but who experienced some manner of trauma or hernia rendering castration a medical necessity); and eunuchs "by force" (individuals castrated on the authority of another). Most disquieting for modern scholars are the lines used by Byzantines which would place men who had had vasectomies and other modern medical interventions (whether surgical or not) on the "eunuch" side of the border. Of those we would regard as "eunuchs proper" there were three categories used to describe them: "cut" or more brutally "cut off men"; "crushed" for eunuchs made as children by the destruction of the testes by compression usually after a hot bath before puberty; and "dragging" which seems to imply the use of some ligature to block the blood supply to the testicles which entailed atrophy. Whilst this terminology looks exact, by the eleventh century the terms were treated as synonyms and cannot be used on an individual basis to identify the exact manner of an individual's castration. Additionally, there was the difference between being made a eunuch before puberty and after. If one was made a eunuch before puberty, then the characteristic defining physiological features of a eunuch would apply, but not if one was castrated as an adult. "Prepubescent sexual and reproductive potential could readily be sacrificed to create an individual who was constructed by society to fulfil a particular set of social or religious needs. After puberty this option for creating a eunuch was far less acceptable." (15) Byzantine eunuchs could not procreate, but some could be sexually active (17).

I want to emphasize the aspect of the work that is its most important contribution to scholarship. A work with the subtitle "the social construction of gender" has all the marks of being an earnest yet rather tiresome slog through slough of feminist despond, with Pilgrim assailed by jargon of nature versus nurture and essentialism versus social construction. The major triumph of this work is to address many of these questions with a subtlety that avoids the depths of jargon and theory whilst never occluding the complexities of the subject matter at hand.

Ringrose makes use of the feminists' distinction: "sex" is biology; "gender" is culture (and therefore "constructed" by the society in which it exists, (3)). In our bipolar world, feminists in the 1970's were able to make the one-to-one mapping of female (biology): feminine (culture) and male (biology): masculine (culture). Their point of course was that no biological determinant required a particular cultural (gendered) attribute. This giant leap for womenkind (and hearty shove for man) worked easily when reproductive organs (primary sexual characteristics) were held to determine biological sex. However, in the later twentieth century, greater understanding of the function of chromosomes and hormones in physiological development has complicated the situation. Greater awareness of intersexed neonates, "gender re-assignment surgery" (actually sexual re-assignment surgery of course) and the whole flotilla of issues raised by questions of sexual orientation, never mind the concept of "just gay enough" straight men means that it is harder to maintain the polite fiction of matched bipolarity between sex and gender in the modern world. It is at this point that the importance of the Byzantine eunuch gender model becomes most apparent. Eunuchs, to the Byzantines, were men: altered men but still men; their gender was different, but their sex remained male; eunuchs were a third gender, not a "third sex" (4). "Thus, eunuchs constituted a third gender within Byzantium. They were men but a differently acculturated kind of men." (4 and 154-155).

The castration of pre-pubertal males has certain physiological effects: the beard doesn't grow, the voice doesn't break, and the classic adult male v-shape of wide shoulders and narrow hips is not achieved (16). Associated with these physiological effects were certain "learned" attributes: manner of dress, mode of speech and way of walking. For the Byzantines, eunuchs spoke with soft effeminate voices, tended to lisp, spoke with their hands more than was seemly for men and had a characteristic "rolling gait." (6) For observers from western society, lisping speech, limp wrists and "hips set on gimbals" is indicative of another--very different--sexual/gender subset. This is an issue, because in response to the same set of stimuli the Byzantines identify a eunuch, the modern observer identifies an effeminate gay man. In some measure this is why some modern scholars (though not obviously Ringrose, 21-22) have identified Byzantine eunuchs with modern Indian hijras or modern gay men--both of which are equally unhelpful (21-22). In this bean-counter age, it is sufficient to say that one in ten Byzantine eunuchs may have preferred same-sex relationships.

However, Ringrose shows that it is necessary to confront the parallels to mark out the similarities and the differences. The liminal, marginal role of the Chinese eunuchs as guardian of the women of his master's women required that the eunuch be incapable of penetrative genital sex; Chinese eunuchs therefore were normally eunuchs by total excision of all external genitalia. In contrast, Byzantine eunuchs were infertile but usually retained their penises. The liminal role of the berdache in many Native North American societies (a biological male who dressed, spoke and acted as a woman and who lived with a male spouse) however has less connection with a Byzantine eunuch than with a modern pre-operative transsexual or transgendered individual -- or even a camp effeminate "bottom" (9-10 and 23). Sexual orientation, however, was not the defining characteristic of Byzantine eunuchs; for Byzantines the defining characteristic of eunuchs was that there could not be sexually reproductive (17).

Byzantine eunuchs were a distinctive gender because in addition to their physical, infertile nature they were acculturated into ways of behaviour held to be appropriate for their gendered status--"eunuch." (5) "There is little question that in the Byzantine world eunuchs represented a distinct gender category, one that was defined by dress, assumed sexual behavior, work, physical appearance, quality of voice, and for some eunuchs, personal affect. It is clear that we are dealing with a culture that socially constructed a gender category with the aid of a form of physical mutilation that led to physiological change. Furthermore if we look at this society in terms of our modern models for the organization of the categories of sex and gender, it is quickly apparent that both of these categories were fluid and socially dependent." (29)One difficulty for Ringrose's thesis that eunuchs formed a third gender, but not a third sex, is the statement that in Byzantium "biology and gender were considered to be one." (19) However this may be more of a problem arising from our expectation that things conform to an "either/or" formulation rather than more subtle gradations on a spectrum (31). Rather than not being fully men and therefore having to be women, Byzantine eunuchs were recognised as being less manly as they might have been but not necessarily being women (21).

Following the period of Late Antiquity (2nd-8th centuries AD) when language associated with eunuchs was heavily negative, in the period covered by this study, the language associated with eunuchs has five aspects: it frequently reflects feminine characteristics; it is a language of ambiguity or instability; it is a language of negation; it is a language of competence, that the eunuchs are perfect servants; and finally that eunuchs are artificial, created beings. Negative attributes ascribed to eunuchs are the negative attributes ascribed to women; positive attributes are the ones ascribed to men (6). Examining language, eunuchs are associated with frequently negative feminine characteristics (35-37). They are ambiguous in their physiognomy, in an unstable nature and in changeable (37-38). Eunuchs are described in negative terms--in terms of what they are not. And what a list it is too (mostly the words are 'a-' prefixes in Greek, so like 'un-' adjectives in English): "Eunuchs are beardless, low-born, fruitless or unable to bear fruit, unmanly; ignorant of war, not working, sickly, unsuckled or unweaned, unwilling to share, not gentle or cruel, insatiable, dishonoured, and unworthy." (39)What is truly striking about the list is that it negates every quality held to define the fully Byzantine male:"He is bearded, wellborn, fruitful, manly, a good fighter, generous, intelligent, mentally stable, actively engaged, healthy, a part of a family, kind, content with what he has, and honorable. He knows how to dress and how to behave, and he deals openly and honourably with his fellow men." (39)Eunuchs are well minded and competent in service (39-41). Further, in the words used to describe them, they are recognised as artificially created beings.

There are no sources written directly by eunuchs and so we cannot hear "eunuchs speaking for themselves." We can hear Theophylaktos of Ochrid speaking on their behalf and in their defence (or at least in consolation to his brother), but we can have no idea how widespread Theophylaktos's opinions were. However, not hearing the eunuchs speak for themselves is not a bar to writing their history: we rarely hear the emperor's own voice (perhaps Julian and John VI Kantakouzenos suggests Ringrose) and saints' lives are usually the product of a devoted disciple not the great man himself (and when we do get an autobiographical saint's life is it usually even more suspect that the pious platitudes from a Metaphrastes). Detailed analyses of treatments of eunuchs follow. Andrew in The Chronicle of Theophanes, where his outrage at the insult hurled at him by Sergios may represent how a eunuch may have responded (though of course it may represent how Theophanes thought a eunuch ought to have responded.) (42-45) In the Life of St Andrew the Fool we encounter the eunuch friend of Epiphanios (who gets the rough edge of the saint's tongue.) (45-47) In the Vita of St john the Almsgiver, a eunuch monk accompanying a young woman is beaten. The monk rebukes the saint in a dream and reveals that he is a eunuch. The saint--miraculously--apologises. (47-48; 65).

The second chapter (51-66) deals with medical descriptions of eunuchs. These were underpinned by the Byzantine conception of the difference between men and women, which placed people on a vertical hierarchy, with [whole] men at the top and women and children lower down. A procreative male could aspire to the perfection of the fully realised individual (20), but with old age and diminishing powers even a whole male would find himself ousted from his position at the top of the tree. To the Byzantines, "being a man" was something that one had to work at (rather than the modern belief that is something that will happen inevitably with time), and prospect of failure provoked the "gender anxiety" that Peter Brown has identified as a feature of Late Antique society (53). Medical authors assume that boys made into eunuchs in childhood cannot experience sexual pleasure, but that men castrated in adulthood might be able to experience sexual pleasure even though they could not procreate (58).

The third chapter (67-86) deals with the acculturation of eunuchs into their gender role. In addition to the physical changes effected by castration, the Byzantines held that this was mirrored by changes in character or personality. Eunuchs intermediate status between full men and women rendered them a "problem"; it was not always clear how they should be treated and this provoked a social response as they were allocated specific social roles to contain their inherent difference and by extension danger. In addition to their ceremonial roles--where their white robes and physical appearance tended to meld them in the Byzantine mind at least with the angels that surround God's throne--eunuchs also served as book-keepers, go-betweens and tutors for aristocratic children as well as the more expected "personal" services (barbers, bloodletters and physicians).

The fourth chapter (87-107) deals with the development of a mythic history of eunuchs, centring on interpretations of the prophet Daniel and his assignment as a eunuch at the Persian court. This was supplemented by the invention of significant eunuchs in the history of the emperors Justinian and Constantine.

Chapter five (111-127) deals with eunuchs and the church. The central issue is whether eunuchs' physical condition made it easier for them to lead celibate lives. Interestingly, "it is difficult to find examples of bad eunuchs in the hagiographical literature" in contrast to the secular historical sources (117). The increasing number of eunuchs who held high church office from the ninth century onwards suggests a greater accommodation with eunuchs and celibacy, but the story of the patriarch Methodios and his "divine castration" at the hands of St Peter shows that Byzantium "was still somewhat ambivalent about the whole issue of eunuchs, sexuality and celibacy." (p. 121) Theophylaktos, in his Defense of Eunuchs, identifies two kinds of castration: one, performed after puberty, which he holds to be akin to murder and an act against nature; castration "arranged for a young child by a concerned parent who is helping that child to fulfil God's plan for his life' is regarded, in contrast, positively." (122)

Chapter six (128-141) provides a series of examples of "eunuchs in authority":"The conclusion here is not particularly surprising. Eunuchs could and did command armies, especially in situations requiring sophisticated tactics and organizational skills. Some eunuchs even had the necessary charisma to lead fighting men. Many monarchs, especially those who were not too secure on their thrones, were more comfortable turning military forces over to individuals who, because of the their physical disability, could not rise up and attempt to use these forces to seize the imperial throne." (140)

Chapter seven (142-162) deals with the identification of eunuchs with angels, and chapter eight (163-183) deals with the "obvious" social role of Byzantine eunuchs as guardians of the imperial space. The final chapter (184-193) deals with social reproduction and integration.


As a topic "eunuchs" seem very alien to Anglo-Saxon ways to thinking. Ringrose makes a good case, however, that rather than asking why Byzantium made use of eunuchs, historians should be asking why the societies based on the cultural heritage of north-western Eurasia and the English-speaking world do not (8-10). Castration as a punishment is marginally acceptable in our society (think of "chemical castration" for rapists), but the idea that parents would castrate one of their own sons either to save them from the "sinful lust of the flesh" or to allow them access to high positions in the administration of church and state (13) is hard for us to comprehend.

This work deals with a complex human phenomenon in a detailed and comprehensive way. Assigned as reading in a course, students will complain it is too hard to understand. (But then don't they complain about everything that is good for them to read? The concept of "no pain, no gain" is something we need to import into the library from the gym). The work triumphs, however, in dealing with complex "gender troubles" without excessive use of jargon. Ringrose shows that "empirical historians," who worry about what the sources say, the exact words they use to say it, and the meanings of the "little stories" about actual bodies, have something crucially important to say about the development of gender as a social reality. For students of gender, this book sets out the strengths of the "historical approach" to questions of gender. For the scholar, Ringrose's work gathers together the source-data concerning Byzantine eunuchs and places it in a convincing analysis. The Byzantinist will be able to deal with some of the elided detail. Other historians seeking to use this work to provide comparative Byzantine material may suffer a little from Ringrose's decision not to take prisoners on the matter of Greek. On page xi of the front matter, dealing with spelling conventions, the reader is expected to know the difference (or at least to understand this explanation of why there could be cause for confusion) between koitonites and koubikoularioi. This is a recognition of "l'audace, toujours l'audace!" in operation. Her use of Greek is restricted (there are no long passages of Greek text). Usually Greek is given to show the underlying technical term for a word in a translated source. In these days when graecae sunt non leguntur is an all-pervasive sentiment, it is good to encounter a book where it is automatically assumed that one will go and read the sources in the original. However, for lesser mortals, in places Ringrose as Homer nods. On page 111, "monastic foundation documents" are glossed as "typika" (i.e. in the plural as is proper), but on page 27 the same "monastic foundation documents" are identified as "typikon" (i.e. in the singular). On page 130 "protovestiarios" is glossed as "first dresser," whilst on page 136 it is more helpfully defined as "an honorific title at one time associated with the imperial wardrobe." These are very minor points, but nevertheless I hope they can be corrected in the second edition.

Discussing the "Language of Gender" Ringrose states that "Eunuchs were masculine." (34). Here she is being a little ecumenical [sic] with the truth. She is actually making two assertions: "eunuchs" [the people] "were masculine" [in terms of socially constructed gender]; AND "eunuchs" [the word used to signify such people] was "masculine" [in the terms familiar to traditional grammar]. Both assertions are true but it is rather naughty to pass off "natural gender" (as it is termed in English) and grammatical gender (as it is termed in inflected languages) as the same thing. Language, as Ringrose clearly knows, is a powerful social constructor and this could have been set out more clearly. One weakness is the failure to explain the difference between topos ("this topos of institutionalised 'otherness'" (10); "with its much wider range of stories and topoi" (26, 113) and trope ("as a trope," 20; "descriptive tropes," 33; "negative tropes," 76), especially as topos has been granted naturalisation in the language.

It is not a typographical error as such, but one of the things that I really dislike is the use of the "upper case I" to represent the Arabic numeral "1." I know that it is all determined by the font used to set the book, but just as the king remarks plaintively that "I do like a little butter with my bread," I do like to use "1" [numeric character 'one'] or even "l" [alphabetic character lower case "L"] rather than "I" to mean "one." And again--a voice (though not a lone voice) crying in the wilderness: can we please have notes at the bottom of the page where they belong!

This book deals with the approximately 200 documented eunuchs (29), and it deals with them very well, placing them in a social context that changes through time. In the eighth century, eunuchs were characterised as "people without past or family" (10). By the end-point of this analysis (in the twelfth century) Byzantine eunuchs had moved from this liminal "outsider" status to being an integral part of the highest levels of social and political power. What they were not however, was completely accepted. That Theophylaktos of Ochrid had to write his Defense shows that eunuchs were not insiders without question, and ambivalence and self-doubt could also afflict eunuchs. "Eunuch" as a gender category was not cut and dried; there were several threads that co-existed though Byzantine history and Ringrose has done much to clarify and elucidate these various strands. Eunuchs were different, and therefore something to feared, controlled and brought into society in particular ways. Eunuchs were "unnatural" in that they were created by people and had to be brought into their proper social role by being taught how to behave as "good eunuchs" as opposed to good men. "This made them fascinating, dangerous, and desirable," (83) and whilst we may no longer find them desirable, any mention of eunuchs in the classroom setting shows that they are still as fascinating. In The Perfect Servant, Kathryn Ringrose has produced an erudite, lucid treatment of a complex issue that has much resonance in the modern world. This is not to say that Ringrose engages in agitprop; quite the contrary. Ringrose sets out the case for a deeper understanding of Byzantine eunuchs as a third gender category in the Byzantine context. She expresses the hope that understanding Byzantine gender better in its specific context may increase our understanding of gender in general as an aspect of social articulation. Gentle readers are left to draw the conclusion for themselves, that having understood gender better in relation to Byzantium, it might be appropriate to look at some of the gender troubles of our own modern society. Never is the analysis heavy-handed. Unhelpful ideas--that eunuchs are gay men carried to the "logical extreme"--are treated to rational argument and shown to be in error. The strengths of historical study--attention to the individual and the individual case; due notice of sources, why they were written and how they say what they say; and a strong awareness that all human phenomena must be placed in their time and that they change will time--are magisterially displayed in this analysis of gender. Read this book!