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7-08-2015, 20:05

Society: gender and eunuchs

The social fabric to which Byzantium owed its resilience drew on diverse human resources and the nature of that diversity is worth considering. An elemental difference is that between men and women. The Byzantines’ assumptions and demarcations on matters of gender are now receiving attention, as are the specific experiences and activities of women.61 In some respects, such as life expectancy at birth, their condition seems to have resembled men’s – living to between their late twenties and early thirties – with expectancy rising markedly (to perhaps their late forties) for those surviving their first five years on earth.62 These estimates apply, however, to the early fourteenth century. Demographic and other social and economic data for the middle empire, from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, is scanty for men and women, while the data available for the early period is not really comparable.63 Exegesis and comparison of the roles of men and women in Byzantine society and culture with due allowance for all the variations in class, place and time is correspondingly difficult. In the fifth and sixth centuries, women of wealth, status and also position in public life are quite well attested,64 and it is no accident that Theodora is portrayed with her female retinue on one side of the sanctuary of the church of SanVitale in Ravenna, in equal majesty to her husband (see below, fig. 8b, p. 211). But for subsequent centuries, the picture darkens in nearly every sense. Already under Justinian, the church’s influence on imperial laws was becoming marked, with a ban on the performance of judicial duties by women and abandonment of divorce by mutual consent.65 Thereafter, little evidence survives for verification of the restrictions on women imposed by canon law, or the idealised portrayals of holy women in their Lives.66 Not that the picture is wholly dark. Women retained the right to own extensive landed properties as well as chattels during the middle Byzantine period, and strong-minded individuals of substance occasionally surface in narrative sources, for example the widow Danelis.67 Lower down the social scale, scraps of archival information such as tax registers take for granted the role of women – often but not invariably widows – owning land in peasant communities, heading households and paying taxes.68 Women in the capital had important economic roles in crafts and trades, including weaving and silk-working, could walk freely in the streets and occasionally joined with menfolk in rioting against unpopular regimes.69 In the betterattested sphere of religious life, there is evidence of women as writers of hymns, and founders of nunneries in their private houses, and they probably.

 

 

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