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Illustration from the Byzantine Menologion of Basil II (ca. 1000 CE) of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from the Acts of the Apostles Credit: Image from the Vatican Library (Vat. gr. 1613) via Wikimedia

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In the late seventh century CE, an author in Jerusalem scribbled in Greek the tale of an encounter between a monk named Zosimas and a sexually promiscuous woman named Mary. Mary of Egypt, as she came to be known, had become an ascetic monk following a racy lifestyle in the Egyptian city of Alexandria during the fourth century CE. The author of her saintly life zeroes in on her lustful ways and laments her voracious sexual appetite while accentuating her masculinity, all while remarking on her donning of suggestive dress.

Mary’s early life and her later depiction in early medieval and Byzantine art are a medieval example of slut-shaming not unfamiliar to the present world. One need only look to the political and popular treatment of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B to recognize similar rhetorical and visual critiques. Following the summer release of their duet “WAP”, for instance, Republican congressman James P. Bradley noted that the two rappers were “what happens when children are raised without God and without a strong father figure.” Following “accidentally” hearing the song, he remarked that it “made me want to pour holy water in my ears and I feel sorry for future girls if this is their role model!” Like the critique of the rappers by predominantly conservative, white men, Mary’s marginalizing treatment by the popular media of her time reveals a bias against skin color (i.e. epidermal rather than biological racism), the presence of gender stereotypes, and rigid notions of sexuality. This complex construction of Mary in her biography is perhaps best understood by examining it through the application of the new interpretive model of “intersectionality.”

In 1989, Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw described how race, class, gender, and other characteristics overlap and “intersect” with each other to subject certain marginalized groups to multifaceted forms of discrimination. From her study of critical race theory, she coined the term “intersectionality” to address how the intrinsic racism of legal and social systems within American society operate conjointly to disadvantage particular people. In art historian Roland Betancourt’s new book, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages, he examines how stories of gender, race, and sexuality from the Byzantine world of the Eastern Mediterranean (roughly 565–1453 CE) provide insight into the intersectionality that existed in the medieval world. From the jump, it becomes clear to the reader why this important book is dedicated to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, Chelsea Manning, Matthew Shepard, and Marsha P. Johnson. This book is for the outcast and for those who inhabit the margins of the past and present.

Saint Zosimas looks away as he offers Saint Mary a cloak, from the 11th century Theodore Psalter made in Constantinople (Add MS 19352, f. 68r) (courtesy and via the British Library)

In Betancourt’s first book, Sight, Touch, and Imagination in Byzantium(2018), he similarly applied new models surrounding how human senses functioned with art in the ancient and Byzantine world. He proposed a new approach to theories of vision within the ancient Greek and Byzantine worlds by demonstrating that there was a distance between the senses of sight and touch; one could not achieve touch of an object simply by viewing it. In Byzantine Intersectionality, Betancourt similarly defines the distance between reality and rhetoric by excavating the intersectionality at play in the lives of the downtrodden and the marginalized in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Between the introduction and conclusion, Betancourt relies on a series of revealing case studies which he terms “miniscule intersectional histories.” This term is born from the fact that his historical approach to recovering the lives of marginalized Byzantine peoples inhabits a space somewhere between two analytical methods. One, “microhistory”, is a historical method that uses small aspects of a society as a prism for viewing much larger aspects or injustices (e.g. the Flint Water Crisis), and the other is “minor history”, which focuses on close readings of seemingly ancillary figures within a historical text or event as a means recovering their identity and impact (e.g. Annette Gordon-Reed’s groundbreaking Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy ). Four strains of intersection run through the entirety of the book, which is supported by numerous illustrations: nonnormative sexual practices, sexual consent, transmasculine gender presentation, and “constructions of race based on skin color.”

Saint Jerome wearing a woman’s dress, which was the result of a practical joke played on him by his fellow monks (early 15th century) Belles Heures de Jean de France, vellum, tempera, gold, ink (via and courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Chapter one looks at the Annunciation, the announcing of the conception of Christ to the Virgin Mary by the Archangel Gabriel and issues of consent. Chapter two explores the Empress Theodora and her slut-shaming as connected to issues of abortion and contraception. Chapter three looks at the lives of saints, medical texts, and letter from the Byzantine world which reveal the evidence for the existence of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. Chapter four uses the example of doubting Thomas as a means of examining same-gender desire and monastic communities. The final chapter is perhaps the most insightful and important, uncovering how Byzantine authors struggled with visual representations of the Ethiopian Eunuch. The intersectional identity of the eunuch met by Philip the Evangelist on his way to Gaza in the Acts of the Apostles was complex as a black African, a Christian, and a eunuch. The treatment of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Byzantine sources is also a means for Betancourt to explore the fact that not only were the Byzantines themselves not “white,” but they “repeatedly turned racist stereotypes on their heads.”

Doubting Thomas and Christ mosaic, South Wall, Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece (11th century CE) (image via Wikimedia)

Betancourt emphasizes the need to queer desire within the Byzantine world. He also rightfully counts “demisexual, asexual, aromantic, and even antisexual subjectivities as queer subjectivities.” It is undeniable that historians of the premodern world have done far too little to address queered desire in a way that is “inclusive of a variety of gender identities.” The “miniscule intersectional histories” within Byzantine Intersectionality together successfully demonstrates we must create space for trans/gender-variant lives in the present before we can begin to understand their lived reality in the past. We must also be prepared to “reconfigure the categories of gender as well as those of sexuality, desire, and intimacy” before the intersectional nature of the past can be recovered.

In his introduction, Betancourt notes that “[I]n examining the lives of figures subjected to multiple inequities, we begin to perceive the privileges afforded to some other women, men, and nonbinary figures in society.” Privilege works in a similar manner today. As the author finds, those with privilege are often provided privacy from being vilified in the historical record, although there are some striking examples of elites critiqued for their promiscuity as well. Afterall, as Betancourt addresses in chapter two, the emperor Justinian’s wife Theodora was famously slut-shamed by the contemporary historian Procopius in the sixth century CE for her past as a performer within a family of circus trainers.

An illumination of a scene from the Skylitzes Chronicle, depicting a Thracesian woman killing a Varangian guardsman (an elite corps within the Byzantine army) who tried to rape her, whereupon his comrades praised her and gave her his possessions (image via Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most significant contribution of Byzantine Intersectionality is its underscoring the fact that the rejection of the identification of trans people in the historical record is an act of physical and rhetorical violence — both in the past and in the present. Betancourt’s application of critical race theory and intersectionality to the ancient and medieval Mediterranean is also pivotal: coming at a time when the Trump administration — among many others on the conservative right — have fought to eliminate diversity training and knowledge of the deeply embedded racism latent in American history and its institutions. Byzantine Intersectionality  provides art historians, archaeologists, and historians with a better theoretical basis for reconstructing the complex lived reality of queerness, sexual violence, consent, and racial profiling. The marginalized biblical figures and saints examined together serve as a new testament to how engrained systematic oppression functions in society — and shows us why the teaching of critical race theory should be a part of the foundation of humanities programs long after Trump is ejected from the White House on January 20, 2021.   

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Sarah E. Bond

Sarah E. Bond is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. She blogs on antiquity and digital humanities, and is the author of Trade...