Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 2022
Roland Betancourt Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. 288 pp.; 8 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780691179452)

I intend to engage the book under review with the respect and sympathy its challenging, adventurous spirit requests. This encounter was, indeed, a transformative experience; Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages not only made me examine assumptions of my own positionality as a scholar of Byzantine art history, but also asked me to read more deeply—to listen in to—the writings of excellent scholars in the field of intersectional studies.

Byzantine art history needs interventions such as this book. It is known as a field that has made small steps toward reckoning with contemporary trends in art history (and other disciplines). Byzantine Intersectionality attempts, against this history, to pull the field into a necessary conversation about its normative assumptions regarding sexuality, gender, and race. The book delivers many stimulating insights and methodological innovations. For instance, the inclusion of medical practices as contexts for understanding saints’ (and others’) lives and their reception reveals new facets of meaning and affect for their audiences. The sensitive readings of the erotic dynamics of sensory perception in Byzantine thought likewise ignite new insights. The striking move to name Pelagia of Antioch, the fourth-century prostitute turned saint, by the masculine form of their name is just one example of an elegant solution, presenting Pelagius in the form they/he sought. That restitution of lives, translated from their original cultures to our practices of naming and describing now, is perhaps the book’s strongest, and hopefully most lasting, contribution, insisting that we demarginalize those past figures and give them full voices and dignity in our scholarship.

That gift of demarginalization is cause for celebration, and scholars will surely follow the trail blazed here. Yet the book does not often extend to scholarly interlocutors that deep generosity offered to historical subjects. Previous scholarship of Late Antiquity and Byzantium cited in these pages is thoroughly critiqued; much is found fundamentally errant.

Moreover, readers wanting to understand the development and state of intersectional studies (in itself too complex to be reduced to this term of convenience, in any case) will receive but little guidance in this book. The book is only nominally concerned with intersectionality. Not just the theory but also the phenomenon of intersectionality get scant attention. Promisingly, the book’s first paragraph brings us into the textual world of the fantastic figure of Mary of Egypt, a penitent saint who lived in Alexandria, perhaps in the fifth century. Right away, we are dropped into the narratives constructed around a sexually free, peripatetic woman who spends long years alone in the desert, where she is found by a monk named Zosimas. His ring tale of quest, and of Mary’s own life and death, was widely popular in Byzantium. Mary’s life is not intersectionality here. Mary is sunburned, blackened, but how her desert travails made her into a racialized figure needed more arguing. Exactly how does the “curious” ecstasy of Zosimas before her blackened figure lead to an “[undoing of] the aspects of racial prejudice inherent in some Early Christian texts” (14), as Betancourt writes?

The first chapter, “The Virgin’s Consent,” passes to an entirely different order of Byzantine woman, the Panaghia or Virgin Mary, and her role in the moment of pivot from the (so-called) Old Dispensation to the New Dispensation—that is, the Incarnation. The texts track a longstanding discussion among theologians about the fact and degree of consent by the Virgin Mary to the Incarnation, as revealed to her by the archangel Gabriel. These issues also implicate social dimensions of legal and cultural understandings of the limits of consent in rape, inside and outside marriage, matters of enduring concern for feminist historians. Most striking in this first leg of the argument is the consistent, exclusive testimony of men; all texts are by men speaking for and at women, and likewise all images are produced by men for proscriptive and coercive purposes. In point of fact, no intersections occur. The cultural history of consent in this book is single-track. By failing to answer basic conditions of its intersectional premise, the book begins on already compromised grounds.

The second chapter examines the sensationalist calumny directed at Theodora, the sixth-century empress married to Justinian, the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, in an “underground” account written by the court historian Procopius, now known as the Secret History. That portrait of Theodora is damning in its caricature of a vulgar, debauched, ruthless woman. Conversely, Theodora appears as the pious imperial consort in the sanctuary mosaics in the Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (used here only as illustration). Byzantine Intersectionality brings new insights to bear on the infamous figure of Theodora, who is portrayed sympathetically in these pagees as a woman in full agential control of her sexuality. Theodora is, then, a marginalized figure not only because of her sexual identity, but also because of her origins in poverty: “In other words, the contours of her sexual acts articulate the intersectionality of her subjectivity” (62). The chapter ends with strong judgments and proscriptions, and the text hectors; even though I am not entirely certain I follow all the moves in the concluding section of this chapter, the strength of the condemnation of all previous attempts at understanding shame and Theodora comes through clearly. Those attempts have been neither “feminist nor ethical”: “To praise Theodora’s shamelessness is not to praise a queer identity; it is to embrace the violent bullying and subsequent marginalization of nonnormative subjects through the imposition of shame” (88).

Byzantine understandings of transgender individuals and eunuchs are the subject of the third, and perhaps strongest, chapter in this book. The material on transgender figures encompasses social, religious, and medical practices, as well as textual explorations of the meanings of such figures among Byzantine writers. Aligned then with contemporary definitions of the transgendered, these figures became “aspirational models, showing the way for all genders to purge themselves of feminine wiles and weaknesses” (99). Yet prohibitions against these practices in state and church law codes multiplied, and this situation represents a “perplexing contradiction” (99) between veneration and prohibition. Indeed, these individuals are not “queer, abject, and aberrant social figures, but rather often within the normative practice of Christian worship, asceticism, and empire” (120).

The fourth chapter might have better served the book had it been its first. It is a searching exploration of the queerness and same-gender desire of texts describing the scene of the Doubting Thomas, as well as monastic representations of that moment of erotic energy generated between the apostle and the risen Lord. In this argument, the author again eschews allies: “But rather than negate or deny the attacks of Western critics and haplessly engage in the futility of respectability politics, my hope is to reparatively recuperate the queerness of the empire and articulate a voice of power from this marginalization” (123). There is much to chew on and be stimulated by in this chapter, but part of that stimulation is carefully following the moves and understanding the prose. In any event, Thomas emerges here as a queered witness to the Lord. The scroll in his left hand (in a late Byzantine fresco on Mount Athos) is an erect penis, and the probing finger is its displacement. A section on the great sixth-century hymnographer Romanus (called “the Melode”) is fantastically provocative, and the progression toward the queer affect of the senses, primarily touching and seeing, likewise leads us into extended meditations on desire and community, beautifully ending with “the possibility of Christian queerness as the process of learning to live together—with intimacies that sometimes include those of the flesh” (160). This irenic conclusion is profound, and the chapter stands out as the most necessary in this study.

A focus of the final chapter, as well as the third, is castrated men. Eunuchs operated under special conditions that implicated transgender agency. The author pushes back against scholars who have written about eunuchs as a third sex, but the arguments asserted here do not change a great deal about how they are presented. Eunuchs were proverbially feminine in voice and temperament, and also in physical qualities like hairless faces, wide hips, and breasts. They are the perfect figures, perhaps, for a focus on transgender subjectivity and on the complexities of same-gender desire. And they were potentially powerful players in the imperial administration, often given responsibility for important offices and ministries, because of their lack of kin networks and of children to whom they might direct patronage. Among the extra complexities the author gestures at is a passing reference to a highly placed eunuch of the tenth century, Leo Sacellarius, in his extraordinary commission of a complete and illustrated bible (194–95), only part of which survives, though with a donor portrait (pl. 6).

Certainly, Byzantine Intersectionality is imperfect, occasionally frustrating, and its version of the field is potentially misleading for nonspecialists. But it also forced this reader to reconsider assumptions and toward new ways of reading, and I am grateful for this book that has challenged me in ways very few books in these fields have done for some time. Byzantine Intersectionality should be read and discussed, so that these fields can do the work of moving forward.

Glenn Peers
Professor, Syracuse University