This week we’re exploring queerness in the Byzantine Empire with the guidance of Roland Betancourt, a professor of Art History at the University of California, Irvine.
A continuation of the Roman Empire in Eastern Europe, Byzantium existed for approximately 1000 years: beginning in 330 with the founding of its capital, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), and lasting until 1453 with the conquest of the Ottoman Turks.
Betancourt had long been a scholar of Byzantine history, but as a queer historian, he felt like some stories hadn’t been properly explored by scholars in his field. “I kept noticing all these lives in the margins that people just ignored,” Betancourt explained. “Like all these trans saints that past scholars were just like ‘Oh, it's women in disguise’ or things like that.”
This realization led to the writing of his book, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages. Approaching this period of history from a standpoint of intersectionality not only fit into a popular discourse of the current moment, but also began, as Betancourt explained, “to show how enmeshed questions of sexuality, gender, or race have come to intersect each other in the past.”
A fitting example of how these various identities interact is in the story of Saint Mary of Egypt. A popular saint in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, Mary abandoned her normal life to seek isolation in the desert, and in doing so, become closer to God. Accounts of her life before this period vary drastically. "In some cases, she was the sex worker so voracious in her lust that she saw a group of hot guys boarding a ship and ran after them,” said Betancourt. Some accounts even claim that she ran off to the desert to protect men from her sexual desire.
While in the desert, her body underwent several changes. “She was said to become ‘as black as an Ethiopian’ in several renditions of the story,” Betancourt explained, and in artistic depictions, there is a noticeable masculinization of her body. “She opens up this really interesting world to think about figures that played on the outskirts of a lot of these ideas we see more clearly articulated in terms of gender, sexuality, and race.”
Mary is one of the targets of what Betancourt labels “slut-shaming,” which in the context of his book refers to the way archivists or historians have attacked non-normative sexual identities or behaviors of historical figures. “Slut-shaming is a really useful way of understanding these texts at face value,” Betancourt explained. “You have to understand that the identities you're trying to excavate are scarred by the horror of that abuse that those texts preserve as well. Then you have to cut through the misogyny, the transphobia, and the homophobia, and understand what the identities are that this text is presenting itself against…and in doing so, like the shells of Pompeii, bodies begin to emerge in the negative space to understand those lost lives that are only preserved through screens of hatred.”
This tradition of “slut-shaming” is by no means a relic of the past. In fact, Betancourt opens his book with a quote from Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk, The Price of Shame, in which she reflects on the events of the Clinton administration. “Monica has always been a figure that I have had a great deal of respect for,” Betancourt told me. “In her TED Talk, she articulates the lack of terms to describe what she was subjected to, which now, we can call online harassment and bullying.”
Lewinsky’s reflection on her own experience––finding, years later, the language to label and address her harassment––may offer an appropriate framework for the way queer historians should look after figures who have been “slut-shamed” throughout history. “Terms can often be felt without them being articulated publicly,” explained Betancourt, “or having an actual discourse that lines up with them.”
Despite these instances of “slut-shaming,” Byzantium contains several examples of figures or constructs that complicate our modern notions of “normative” society. One common interruption to the gender binary at the time was the presence of eunuchs, figures assigned male at birth that were forcibly castrated to work in the imperial court. “Eunuchs were very common, very visible figures that held a lot of imperial authority,” Betancourt explained, “but they were also attacked for a lot of stereotypes associated with women and a lot of stereotypes associated with men. A lot of texts when they are speaking about eunuchs are either praising them or hating on them.”
The prevalence of eunuchs also allowed for other trans and non-binary figures to coexist with the early and Medieval Church. “There's a series of saints who are assigned female at birth and who live out their lives as men in monasteries passing as eunuchs and rationalized that they are beardless because of the fact that they are eunuchs,” said Betancourt. “Eunuchs really ripped apart the gender binary, to produce a space for many of these figures to exist.”
These trans saints appear in books of saints’ lives, which include details of their transitions. “These are figures who are praised for their holiness,” said Betancourt, “and even in major imperial manuscripts, there's a very clear articulation of their trans identity.” This is due in part to the misogyny of the time, when masculinization was praised and was synonymous with saintliness, but it’s also “because of the misogyny of the period that we have a record of their lives, but not of trans women.”
“Byzantium is important,” according to Betancourt, “because not only does it have that immense connection to the ancient world and its learning, it is also the steward of early Christianity. And when you see in early Christianity that trans men are being praised as saints, that is really powerful.”
When he began writing his book, Betancourt expected he would be dealing with scant traces of evidence, but he found more: “the worlds that unfolded were so rich, dynamic, and nuanced,” he said. “I always say that the lesson from this book was not how modern can I make the Middle Ages,” explained Betancourt, “but how medieval our present still is.”