14.02.04, Herrin, Unrivaled Influence

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Kathryn M. Ringrose

The Medieval Review 14.02.04

Herrin, Judith. Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. Pp. xix, 328. ISBN: 978-0-691-15321-6.

Reviewed by:
Kathryn M. Ringrose
University of California, San Diego

Judith Herrin's latest book is a collection of her own essays dealing with a variety of issues concerning Byzantine women living between the third and the fifteenth centuries. As always, Herrin's work does not disappoint. The essays, written between the 1970's and the present, allow us to see the development of her thoughts about the roles of women in Byzantium. The collection includes three new unpublished new essays on this ever developing topic. Each of the essays begins with an introduction that offers updated bibliographical material. Herrin is a very broadly trained historian comfortable in the Classical, Late Antique, and Byzantine periods. She is also comfortable and sympathetic in her treatment of changing Christian traditions.

Six important themes emerge from these essays. Some are obvious, and thanks to the work of Herrin and others, are now well established in historical literature. Others offer new syntheses. Still others point to new and exciting historical avenues to explore.

First, two obvious themes. Aside from the writings of Anna Comnena, almost all of what we know about women in Byzantium is drawn from the writings of men. We must learn to use these sources effectively and Herrin offers excellent examples and guidelines for exploiting them in Chapters two, four, and seven. For example, in Chapter four, she notes that men writing about women in the medieval Greek world usually wrote set rhetorical pieces that reflected men's opinions rather than historical reality. In Chapter seven she reminds us that scholarly opinions about the empresses Theodora in the sixth century and Irene in the eighth century were firmly established by Edward Gibbon and are only now beginning to change. Less than ten years ago this reviewer, asked to comment on a new general text with a chapter on the Byzantine Empire written by a very prominent European historian, found that he had described the empire as "hag-ridden." Scholars who are accustomed to western imperial traditions favoring male rule have long been skeptical of governments controlled by women, casually condemning their political incompetence. Herrin suggests that we look beyond these conventional historical sources in order to understand women's roles in government, citing civic foundation myths and monumental sculpture as alternatives.

A second obvious theme maintains that women's roles in Byzantium are not well understood or appreciated by scholars. Herrin suggests that this may be because so much positive emphasis is placed on the Classical period that scholars fail to appreciate the changes that took place between the Classical and Byzantine periods. This is dealt with in some detail in Chapter one, with a discussion of developing Byzantine legal practice, and in Chapter five, with a discussion of the canons addressed to women at the Council in Trullo.

Herrin's discussion of the impact of Christianity on women's lives and roles offers a new and very welcome synthesis. As the Byzantine empire developed and absorbed Christianity women were gradually moved out of positions of authority in the church and forced to look to private forms of devotion. At the same time the development of church doctrine, and especially the emphasis placed on the Virgin Mary gave women new status in lay communities. This is especially demonstrated in the world of the Byzantine court, where women gradually acquired power and authority often with the backing of religious doctrines designed to protect the structure of the family. This is discussed in Chapters seven and eight.

One of the core historical problems in Byzantine history is iconoclasm, the rejection of the icons in the middle Byzantine period. Icons and their veneration is of particular interest to scholars. Herrin makes an important contribution to this study by looking at the special relationship between women and the icons. She believes that, deprived of a place in the church, women's devotional outlet came to be focused on the icon, especially the icon in its specially protected corner of the home. Herrin suggests that as Christianity developed women substituted icons for the lares that guarded their homes in antiquity making icon veneration central to familial life. Amplification of these ideas can be found in Chapters three, four, six, seven, and thirteen.

In a 2009 lecture, reproduced here as Chapter one, Herrin suggests that because the Byzantine court was gendered, as the court structure grew and became more elaborate, Byzantine women gained power by the very fact that they were women and had access to private, feminine space within the court. This is an avenue of investigation that holds great promise. The Byzantine court was very elaborately structured with specific separate spaces for women and men. This pattern was accompanied by rigid rules about crossing over from one gendered space to the other. The court eunuchs acted as a bridge between these masculine and feminine spaces. The empress presided over her own court, which was comprised of the wives of high court officials. She had her own eunuch advisers, a mark of imperial power. When an empress became too powerful and had to be reined in her eunuchs were taken away from her. This made it difficult for her to wield power within the compartmentalized court structure. The degree of gender specification at court went far beyond living and working spaces. It extended to clothing, colors, jewels, and riding mounts. A full analysis of the nature of gender within the Byzantine court remains to be written, but Herrin recognizes the scholarly potential in this topic.

Herrin also suggests that scholars pay attention to the life cycle of Byzantine women both inside and outside of the church. In Chapters four, five, and six she observes that, with a life expectancy of thirty-five, the life cycle of women was very compressed and early marriage and early childbearing were the norm for women. Girls might be betrothed as young as seven but were not married until about twelve. Herrin is inclined to accept the tradition of the Byzantine "bride show" as real rather than legendary. Leaving aside elements of the bride show that remind us of the tale of Cinderella, the bride show offered an opportunity to bring young aristocratic women from the provinces into the court and imperial family. Most women, regardless of social status, married and bore children. Those who did not were noticed. Women were expected to educate (if literate) or at least train their children so that they could earn a living. In fact most women aside from the elite worked outside the home. In Chapter four Herrin shows how the development of the hagiographical traditions surrounding St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary illustrate and also influence expectations for Byzantine women. In this chapter she also suggests that mothers specifically taught their children to venerate the icons. While this fits the model that Herrin is building regarding women and private, personal piety, the textual base for this argument is very thin.

Chapter five provides a detailed synopsis of the canons of the Council in Trullo of 692 that deal with lay women in the church and women in monastic communities. These canons vividly record the silencing of women's voices within the religious world of Byzantium.

Herrin's mastery of her source materials, the breadth and variety of these materials, and the wealth of historical threads that she teases out of them make this far more than a retrospective collection of scholarly articles. This collection of articles draws together many aspects of Herrin's fertile and extensive research. It will become a valuable tool both for historians of women and for historians of the Byzantine state.

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Author Biography

Kathryn M. Ringrose

University of California, San Diego