Angels and sinners of the third sex

The Perfect Servant
February 27, 2004

There has been considerable interest in eunuch history over the past ten years and an increasing body of literature dealing with it.

Kathryn Ringrose's book is a thoughtful, stimulating and non-sensationalist addition to the field. Ringrose examines eunuchs within a Byzantine context, the first full-length study to do so. She has two objectives: the first is to examine whether eunuchs were regarded as a distinct gender within Byzantine society - a third gender in effect; the second is to explore how the roles played by eunuchs in society changed between the 7th and 12th centuries.

Ringrose begins with the question of gendering. She challenges preconceived ideas of the strangeness of eunuchs, emphasising that, in a global context, it is the West, which lacks a tradition of eunuchs in society, that is out of step. She wants to see whether modern notions of gender as a social construction can be usefully applied to Byzantium. Her argument is that they can, and she uses them to suggest that eunuchs formed a unique category, with distinct physiological traits and patterns of behaviour. This allows her to argue that eunuchs were created to be perfect servants, able to move freely through all spheres of the Byzantine world.

Ringrose examines how Byzantine writings about eunuchs reveal that they were fascinated and repelled by eunuchism. Although eunuchs formed an intrinsic part of Byzantine court and ecclesiastical life, questions about their nature and sexuality engaged much attention. Byzantine authors were ambivalent and contradictory in their treatment of eunuchs: they were evil because they were lustful and licentious; or were good because they were pure and celibate.

In the second part of the book, Ringrose considers accounts of individual eunuchs. She brings together a range of texts dealing with actual eunuchs and imaginary eunuchs - figures in hagiographies, dreams and visions. These offer a composite of "the eunuch" within Byzantine society: he might appear as the servant of an emperor or as the embodiment of an angel.

Sometimes, the modern gender theory does not seem to be as well integrated as it might be and there must be more to say on the performative roles of gender in the context of eunuchs as a third category. Ringrose uses an unusual timeframe of 600-1100, suggesting that this was when eunuchs were "particularly prominent", which might surprise students of Late Antiquity.

I am not convinced by her use of images; the statement that, visually, beardless equals eunuch in Byzantium is one that needs discussion, rather than uncritical acceptance. I wonder too if there is more to be said about the societal role of eunuchs - their familial status, for example. A prosopographical list might help readers find their way among the eunuchs, and there are some surprising omissions from the bibliography (such as Shaun Tougher's work on Byzantine eunuchs). This is a solid and thought-provoking book, but it does not tell the whole story of Byzantine eunuchs. Nevertheless, it is a book that anyone interested in gender roles and in Byzantine society needs to pay attention to.

Liz James is reader in art history, University of Sussex.

The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium

Author - Kathryn M. Ringrose
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 295
Price - £28.00
ISBN - 0 226 72015 2

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