The Fascinating History of Intersectionality in the Medieval World
Roland Betancourt on the Princeton University Press Ideas Podcast
In Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2020), Roland Betancourt reveals the fascinating, little-examined conversations in medieval thought and visual culture around matters of sexual and reproductive consent, bullying and slut-shaming, homosocial and homoerotic relationships, trans and nonbinary gender identities, and the depiction of racialized minorities. Betancourt explores these issues in the context of the Byzantine Empire, using sources from late antiquity and early Christianity up to the early modern period. Highlighting nuanced and strikingly modern approaches by medieval writers, philosophers, theologians, and doctors, the book offers a new history of gender, sexuality, and race.
Weaving together art, literature, and an impressive array of texts, Betancourt investigates depictions of sexual consent in images of the Virgin Mary, tactics of sexual shaming in the story of Empress Theodora, narratives of transgender monks, portrayals of same-gender desire in images of the Doubting Thomas, and stereotypes of gender and ethnicity in representations of the Ethiopian Eunuch. He also gathers evidence from medical manuals detailing everything from surgical practices for late terminations of pregnancy to a host of procedures used to affirm a person’s gender. Showing how understandings of gender, sexuality, and race have long been enmeshed, Byzantine Intersectionality offers a groundbreaking look at the culture of the medieval world.
From the conversation:
Allison Leigh: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to the New Books Network. I’m Allison Leigh, one of the co-hosts of the channel and assistant professor of art history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Today, I’m excited to be interviewing Roland Betancourt about his new book, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender and Race in the Middle Ages, which was published by Princeton University Press in late 2020. Dr. Betancourt is professor of Art History and Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of California, Irvine. He is primarily a Byzantinist who works across the medieval Mediterranean world, and his work, as of late, has looked at the role of Byzantine art in modern and contemporary popular culture, as in his edited volume Byzantium Modernism: The Byzantine as Method in Modernity from 2015. His first monograph, which I also highly recommend, called Sight, Touch, and Imagination in Byzantium, published by Cambridge University Press in 2013, proposed a new understanding of theories of vision. He has published numerous articles on a range of topics, from a reconsideration of the tactility of sight in Byzantium to an exploration of the ethical practice of medieval art history. The book he wrote, which we’ll be discussing today, is a fascinating study of the intersection of race, sexuality and gender identity in the medieval world. It attempts to recover conversations in medieval thought and visual culture around a range of matters from sexual and reproductive consent to bullying and sexual shaming. But then it also covers trans and non binary gender identities and the depiction of racialized minorities. Dr. Betancourt explores these issues by using sources from late antiquity and early Christianity, and in so doing, he offers a fresh and at times shockingly modern history of gender, sexuality, and race. Byzantine intersectionality is at once thought provoking, disturbing, at times infuriating, but then also groundbreaking. It is a book that I imagine will draw as much criticism as it will praise, for dr. Betancourt does not hold back in this book, ladies and gentlemen. He explores issues of sexual consent and images of the Virgin Mary. He makes claims for transgenderism within medieval monastic life. And he argues there is evidence of same sex desire in portrayals of the “Doubting Thomas” to name but a few episodes from the book. I am very excited to discuss this book with him, and I hope you enjoy our conversation. Roland Betancourt, welcome to the show.
Roland Betancourt: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure. It’s such it’s been such a great process of writing this book that it’s really wonderful to get to discuss it and share it with the world.
Allison Leigh: Yeah, this is the good part, right. After years of working on these things in utter solitary state, but, you know, but after laboring in the way that we do to to finally get to talk is is exciting. And I think this is going to be an especially fun one, as I tried to say in my intro for us to discuss.
So I wonder if as a sort of way of getting to the book, you might actually begin by telling us a little bit about yourself: where you were born, where did you graduate from graduate school? Who were your mentors? How did you become interested in Byzantium? I mean, you could take this kind of in any direction you want, but I think listeners really enjoy hearing a little bit of your background before we dive into the book itself.
Roland Betancourt: First, I’d be happy to give a little bit of my backstory. So I was raised in Miami, Florida, basically in the Everglades, as I like to say, in a place that my mom thought was the end of the world. And in many ways it really was. That didn’t feel that way, especially growing up there. My family is first generation Americans. I am a first generation American. My parents both came from Cuba about thirty0five, forty years ago. So I grew up in Miami in a very unique household, but in some ways not so unique to Miami, but very much grew up in a very unique space in confronting a lot of the issues that, of course, I addressed in the book. And after graduating from high school, I started off my career at the University of Miami and transferred from the University of Miami to the University of Pennsylvania. I very much knew from an early age that I wanted to be an art historian. In many ways, my mother is often blamed for this fact since she famously used to lecture me about famous works of art while I was still in the back of the car, and my aunt literally told her, Why are you surprised he’s an art historian? You sort of trained him to be this his whole life. I took art history sophomore year of high school and it was a really foundational experience. I think it’s often hard to come to art history just for the sake that many students don’t even know that it exists. So having an AP class really was horizon broadening, and I was very fortunate to take an AP art history class with someone who actually cared about art history and not just the AP exam, which meant that I had a very robust training in the history of art from a very early age, and I really understood it. I was good at it. I comprehended it. I didn’t have trouble memorizing things.
So it was really sort of this thing that chose me, and I went into college knowing that I wanted to be an art historian from day one, just not really sure what period I wanted to work on. I really have always been someone who’s more interested in the sort of stereographic conversations that the field has had, more so than being attracted to a particular moment or a particular work of art. And so when I got to upend a lot of my time, there was preparing for the fact that, of course, I needed to go to doctoral work afterwards. A lot of my time there was just spent trying to figure out what niche of the history of art I was going to make a space for myself and claim as home in some capacity. Since I transferred to UPenn, I began there as a junior, so I didn’t have much time. I really began to gravitate to Byzantine art history, particularly because of the work of the person who would become my future graduate adviser, Robert Nelson. I was very inspired by the way in which he understood Byzantium through the history of art and how his work repeatedly made contributions not only to Byzantine art history in a very narrow sense, but really to conversations happening in art history more broadly. A lot of his articles, for example, looked at the history of the slide projector and how we teach and understand the history of how Byzantine art, for example, is showcased in our survey books, which really were foundational texts for me as I found my way. And so I basically began applying to art history PhD programs. It must’ve been 2008-2009, the worst time ever to be a graduating undergrad. And I was very much set on becoming a Byzantinist at the beginning of my senior year, to which my advisor at the time looked at me and said, Do you know any Greek? Do you have any French? What exactly are you doing? And here I am, just like, well, I have native fluency in English and Spanish, so that didn’t count for much. But I very much charted my path and sort of never looked back in many ways. I think I still sort of wake up with a weird feeling in my mouth of, I’m a Byzantinist. What is that? And I just slowly repeat that word to myself with all its oddities and strangeness to this weird, wonderful pocket of the Middle Ages that I found myself falling into.
Allison Leigh: Thank you so much for describing this to us. I don’t mean to cut you off. I just almost wanted to interject with with my enthusiasm simply for I think there are more of us art historians who perhaps think really broadly or are interested in questions of history, which are always very broad and get kind of forced to be specialists in Byzantine studies or in Russian art, in my case, or whatever the case may be, but that never goes away, that love of the greater sort of timeline. And I don’t know, I find it very refreshing to hear you say that. So please go ahead. I didn’t mean to you at all.
Roland Betancourt: Thank you for guiding this … I was going to say … that once I did get into grad school, I had taken a lot of classes beyond what was required, especially with transferring and so forth [so] I had basically two art history majors. I very much understood that graduate school as the moment to focus. So in grad school I was very much focused on taking as many courses that I could within Byzantium proper to sort of rein in my broader historiographical interest while, of course, doing a lot of reading. I think that is one of the wonderful things about a discipline that is small, relatively speaking, as art history, that you really are able to have a very intimate connection with your colleagues through the methods that we share. We’re very much oriented around our methodologies as we approach a very disparate and diverse group of sources and texts and situations and periods that all require their own sensibilities.
Allison Leigh: Absolutely. So true. Well, maybe it’s sort of logical direction to go since you had some brevity with how you described graduate school, although I understand saying it happened … But graduate students, did you hear Roland say, you know, that he didn’t have the languages? I was very much the same way. I remember sitting down just after having graduated as an undergrad and being asked, OK, so how good is your German? How good is your Italian? And thinking, oh my God, I don’t speak this at all. I have Russian and I have English, and that’s it. That was refreshing.
So following off of this, I want to ask very broadly, similarly, how did you come to write this book, Byzantine Intersectionality? You know, you describe sort of how you ended up locking into Byzantium and maybe we should point out that you have been uber productive for for just having graduated. You got your PhD in 2014, if I’m correct, and this is your third book, one a coedited volume. But, you know, this is an incredible speed at which to produce. So might you tell us the story of how this came about and maybe also speak to this productivity you have, which is really remarkable.
Roland Betancourt: Yeah, this book came out of a series of ongoing research. My dissertation, which I did at Yale working with Robert Nelson and finished in 2014, really was a sort of multi-pronged project. I always say that it was inspired by a BuzzFeed article on Beyonce’s song “Grown Woman.” But no matter how many tabs you open up this song in, it will still sound the same. And I really wondered if I could write a dissertation that all chapters could be read at once. So I have these chapters divided by sections that the idea was that you could read these three narratives that sort of interlaced with one another. One of those narratives became my first book, Sight, Touch, and Imagination Byzantium, a very broadly developed and expanded range. The middle chapter is my next book that’s coming out in March 2021 on the recitation of the Gospels. So it’s very much looking at the Gospels in Byzantium, from taxed marginal illumination all the way through recitation practices and the resonances of sound in architectural spaces. And the final part of that dissertation is a project on time and temporality and Byzantium. So I will say that I had a lot of energy coming out of the PhD program, and I think in many ways the pressure of the realities of being an assistant professor in our period is that there is a very big pressure to really encourage you to learn how to be productive. They encourage you to think about your work’s impact on the field, but also what its impact is on the world in your communities and so forth. My productivity has really come from a desire to really just get out there into the world to really be able to contribute in some meaningful way, both to the history of art, but also to the various communities I’m a part of and to the realities that afflict us today.
This project, more specifically, really emerged from my time at the Institute for Advanced Study. I had a fellowship year there … and I jumped into that fellowship year very much wanting to finish up this book on time and temporality while also wrapping up my first book. That really changed over the course of that year. I really early on decided there’s a lot of freedom here to do whatever you want. That’s something that’s very crucial. At the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, there’s the sense of you’re here to take your time and work on something that excites you, and I really took that to heart. So by November of that fellowship year. I was presenting my first chapter of that book, and it was on Election Day in 2016 that I presented to the medieval seminar at Princeton, the chapter on sexual consent, a very different world that this book was written for. And so the book really came out of this feeling that as I was doing all that other research that was very broad and spending a lot of different areas in Byzantine studies and art history, these were sort of the stories that were caught quite literally in the margins of my thought. And so if you look at some of the examples that I talk about in passing, in issues of perception and cognition in my first book, you can see the ways in which they bloom and blossom out into these tendrils of narratives in this book. It very much is a book that comes out as a byproduct of being a Byzantinist and all these stories that I just sat there being like, do we not notice what’s going on here? Are we not seeing this? And so this book was really about giving life to that and then going into other areas and learning more about my field to see where else there might be glimmers of these narratives and stories.
Allison Leigh: Well, you have absolutely done that work if that’s what you set out to do, searching or burrowing into those the glimmers that you saw just under the surface is very much the way that this book reads. So maybe we can kind of take it chapter by chapter, obviously meandering and going wherever we want. This is this is our show. I think it’s interesting to hear you say that the first iteration that you presented of the work, it ended up being the first chapter. Am I right in hearing that this chapter, which is called in the book “The Virgin’s Consent,” is what you presented, as you said on Election Day in 2016. Is that right?
Roland Betancourt: That is correct. This book was quite unique and that the only one chapter was cut, which was a chapter on disability. Just for the sake of coherence and the suggestions of my peer reviewers, it was cut out, and it will have another life in a different publication. But it was really a book that came fully formed out of my head what chapters that I wanted to write and I set forth to execute those chapters. There’s definitely a narrative arc that is very much preserved. I think in academic books we work so hard slaving over edits and revisions and there’s never a darling that you’re going to protect in your writing. And so you are really slashing, reorienting the book constantly. So this book was very much about preserving that initial spark, which I think is very important, because at the end of the day that sort of train of thought sketch that we always do of our books has such a narrative power to how we’re thinking and what’s at the core of our thought process, that it was very effortless in this case to preserve that, because every chapter is sort of its own case study narrative, minuscule history. But it was also important to respect this book as it sort of came to me for lack of a better term, far more complex than I thought.
Allison Leigh: Yeah, that’s remarkable. I always love asking when I have people on the line like this, what order did you write the chapters. And because anyone who’s written a book will know that it isn’t always clean. Oh, I wrote chapter one and then I wrote Chapter two. And, you know, it’s in my case at least, and with most people I interview, it’s much more like, oh, well, chapter three was first and then I wrote one and it’s sort of all over the place. And as you said, you end up cutting and editing and, you know, making adjustments based on peer review. Are you telling me that you wrote this starting with chapter one as the first thing you wrote and then chapter two in that order?
Roland Betancourt: Yeah, I whenever grad students asked me about this book, I say you should not try to emulate any aspect of the writing of this book.
Allison Leigh: You’re just the first person I have ever talked to that wrote their book that way. But I mean, it sounds like you had a reason to do it, which was to protect, as you said, the sort of intensity of the original idea, and it’s unfolding in your mind as the scholar who is wrangling this material.
Roland Betancourt: Yeah, I’m also someone who in the in terms of practice of writing, I always begin with a table of contents. I always try to begin there and sort of sketching out what is possible. And even if f you’re beginning on a project that you have to do the research. This is very different because this project emerged already sort of the bulk of the research was already there. So I knew the lay of the land in a different way than if I were starting a project from scratch. But I still think there’s something very powerful about presenting an outline to yourself, a chapter outline that will be completely wrecked over the years but that sort of captures a little bit of what you think some of the clusters of importance, the orienting points might be. So I will say that in many ways it also comes out of that. One of the things that I often tell grad students who are struggling with what’s going to be my dissertation, especially students who are very strong and have disparate interests and I have written in a lot of papers all over the place. I always recommend tell yourself that you have to make your dissertation from every seminar paper that you have to write that you have already written. What would that dissertation look like if you had to make those all work together? And I feel like that can be a very helpful process of understanding. What are my core interests? What is the line of work that really goes throughout all these various papers and investigations that I’ve undertaken? And I think often on when you’re on the job market, you might get asked precisely that type of question in a different way, which is, what what orients you as a scholar? What is the deeper scholarly path or investigation you’ve been undertaking? So for me, I think that’s a very important process of discovering yourself and discovering what it is that matters to you as a scholar.
Allison Leigh: I’m going to have to think about that more in terms of that advice that you give and what I would say if I was a student of yours. As you’re saying, when when you’re conceptualizing yourself for tenure, for job market stuff, you kind of have to ask ourselves that constantly.
I have on my notes that I’m looking at here as we plow through the book what I perceive to be the big claim that you make in each of these chapters. Maybe that’s most often for me, as I was reading it, because I’ve expressed that there were moments of shock and awe as I read this book. And I want to get into that. I feel like I’m leading listeners, like, what is so shocking about this book? Are they ever going to talk about it? Yes, we are. We could proceed however you want. I’m happy to say what I think the big claim is, and then maybe you can say, oh no. That isn’t the center of it and you’re missing the forest for the trees. Or we can proceed as we usually do on the podcast, and you just tell us what what each chapter is about, starting with this chapter that you’ve called “The Virgin’s Consent.” What sounds like more fun?
Roland Betancourt: I am happy to do a little bit of both, so maybe we can talk more about them. So if you want to lead us a little bit through the chapters, as long as it doesn’t stray too much from a blurb introduction, I think that’s a start.
Allison Leigh: So my perception … from chapter one for me was that you essentially claim that Annunciation iconography, i.e. the moment in which the Virgin Mary is visited by the Angel Gabriel and it’s announced to her, an I’m being very careful how I say this because of your discussion of it in the book, that she is going to be the mother of the Christ, that you compare that iconography essentially to iconography that surrounds rape, specifically the Susanna and the Elders. You have a few other examples. This was the “whoa” moment for me, and I imagined what it would be like to teach that. Maybe you can unpack this further. But am I right that that is the sort of big claim at the center of this first chapter?
Roland Betancourt: Well, I would say that it’s not all about the iconography. What the real story in that chapter is that in the conceptions of the Annunciation, we see a very significant shift after the period of iconoclasm roughly from the ninth century onward, we see a heightened fascination, concern, almost a mounting paranoia about the virgin’s consent to become the mother of God in narratives of the Annunciation. And for me, the the art historical side of this is a definitely oriented me to a realization of the ways in which the Virgin is depicted precisely in icons of the Annunciation. I think when we think of icons in many ways, especially from a more popular standpoint and here I can even use the word icon very broadly, it’s almost have a sort of emoji treatment of of icons where it’s like “Annunciation, that’s it.” That’s sort of what it’s communicating. Sometimes we don’t really spend the time to think about … the details and the nuances that happened beyond this is the Annunciation and in particular asking ourselves, what is the Annunciation? Because a lot of these stories that are so critical in the history of Christianity, what we really have in the biblical text, not only not to even address the fact that the Bible is for much of the Middle Ages a very fluid text in and of itself, what we have is really a fragment that oftentimes a lot of the key details that we expect to be in these stories, like Thomas actually touching Christ and the narrative of how the Virgin agrees to this moment, a lot of those details are not actually explained in those narratives. So medieval early Christian writers, medieval writers, spent a lot of time grappling with what is not there.
That’s one of the critical things that is very important to keep in mind about when we think about the history of Christianity. It’s not a history of this is what the Bible says, and therefore that’s what it is. It’s a history of very critical thinking of things that don’t make sense. These are details that are missing. How do we make this make sense? How do we understand a fluid narrative from this text and the theology that is written alongside it? And so that is something that you very much see in the narratives around the Annunciation. Before iconoclasm, you have this sort of iffy timeline. At some point, yes, Mary consents. At some point, yes, she becomes impregnated. The timing of this really varies, particularly in homilies as to whether this process happens and even the big question of how does this process happen. So the metaphor that she conceived through the ear, that is she was penetrated but also not penetrated. Which hearing is such a perfect model for these things that make Byzantine writers in later centuries very uncomfortable because it places the power of the conception on the Speech Act of Gabriel, and so therefore it emphasizes the power to conceive on Gabriel and not on Mary. After iconoclasm, this radically changes for many reasons that I go into in the chapter, but it changes to a direction where there is a very concise understanding that Mary had to consent to the Annunciation and the reasons why, or rather consent to becoming the mother of God. I will just say as a side note, we also should urge us to rethink the word annunciation, which of course suggests that it’s just merely an announcement.
The reality that Byzantine writers don’t focus in on, even if, of course, it is called the bringing of good tide is really on the complexity of that scene, that Mary is hesitant, that there’s this young, attractive man in her bedroom and he is telling her that she is going to conceive without a man. And Mary being the very righteous, pure maiden that she is and a very smart one at that says no, how is this possible? And she basically goes into a process of cross examining the angel to work out the details and to really understand the realities. And so with that understanding, we can turn back to images of the Annunciation and see that the weird face of Mary in some of these images. I always think of Simone Martini’s Annunciation, where you have this recoiling virgin who looks sort of in disgust at the angel and looks away. Something that undergrads will readily point out what what’s going on here. This is so weird, but that we get accustomed to in many ways as medievalist and early modernists. For me, it was taking those types of details more seriously in the history of art and understanding how these postures of twisting and turning away, these acts of recoiling actually speaks so well to the types of narratives that these homilies show us that precisely the Virgin is not going to consent to the angels tightening at first glance or at first hearing, that she is going to debate it in her mind, that she is going to make sure that she is not being led astray, that this is not just some suitor as the angel is often described in these texts. And so you see this emphasis that becomes not just a sort of fan fiction explanation of the scene, but it becomes a very crucial theological point about the role of Mary and her relationship to the Annunciation and the importance of this moment. This for me is really what these narratives allow us to see. It’s to look at images of the incarnation and of the Annunciation and understand that there are tensions inherent in these images that speak precisely to the hesitation that Mary expresses and the way in which she approaches that decision.
Allison Leigh: As you say, the way that that so fundamentally separates her from Eve, this earlier figure who who doesn’t hesitate or ponder or think over what’s happening before she eats the apple and partakes from the tree of knowledge. You go into all of the kind of theological implications of this in these homilies and things that you’re describing being written. I think that was really a nice sort of summation of this first chapter. Can I ask you to do this the same for Chapter two, which is entitled “Slut Shaming and Empress?” Could you take us through one of the main points and tell us what’s the driving force? And then I’ll tell you what I sort of think the big claims are for, especially within history and art history, perhaps.
Roland Betancourt: Of course. So this chapter turns to a very difficult text and Byzantine history known as The Secret History. That is a text written by Procopius of Caesarea, who all good Byzantinists know from his other texts, The Buildings and The Wars which are the rather comprehensive histories of the rule of Justinian that basically showcase all the wonderful things that the Imperial family has done, mainly restoring monasteries and church buildings and doing all those wonderful things that a good imperial family should do. And in this text, in The Buildings, for example, you have descriptions of the building of Hagia Sophia, all the architectural challenges that were faced and so forth, but then Procopius writes another text, a tax that was probably written for a very small audience. He begins it with a preface that sounds a lot like a sort of conspiracy theory or a tell-all memoir, which is “I was there. I saw all the things that were happening in the Empire. And now I couldn’t tell you these things before because they would have killed me. But now that enough people are dead now, I can actually tell you what actually happened during the story.” Exactly. And it’s like I was there. I was in the room where it happened. And now I’m going to say everything. And I always like to say that this text is somewhere between a QAnon conspiracy theory and one of these John Bolton or Bob Woodward rage-type memoirs.
It’s one of these interesting texts where a lot of the biggest struggle with this text that Byzantine historians and specialists in Byzantine literature have is, how much do we trust of it? It has a lot of interesting details that are corroborated by things that we know from other historical chronicles that, in fact, Procopius leaves out of his more positive histories of the empire. It shares a plethora of fascinating and scandalous details about the emperor, which, of course, range from him selectively accusing essentially retroactively men known to practice in homosexual acts of some sort and prosecuting them because they were basically speaking against the emperor. And then you have these moments where it says that Justinian was truly a devil and those who were in the palace late at night with him would see him get out from his throne, his head would disappear and he would pace the halls headless. So it is the sort of fascinating tension as to what really does this text offer us as historians.
Enter the narrative of Theodora. If you’ve ever heard something about Theodora, that is not just the mosaics at Ravenna. You’ve probably heard details of Theodora’s life that are actually recounted in The Secret History, which is essentially that she was some sort of circus performer, the details of which are scandalous and salacious in every every amount of nuance detail and specificity that really are trying to shame her for her sexual deeds. One of the key points that comes up here is the fact that she also used a lot of abortive and contraceptive practices in order to ensure that she never conceived, particularly in her life, as a sort of circus performer and sex worker. The language is really ambiguous and all encompassing and how she is described. But very interestingly as well, these types of claims against Theodora are also more in a less scandalous and sensational way are deployed as well in the text against a lot of the women of the imperial circles of Constantinople at the time. So you have a text that, even if it creates these hyperbolic literary figures, is also deploying these misogynistic stereotypes of the period against women. So in many ways, for me, the goal of this chapter was to recuperate Theodora in a way that tried to liberate her a little bit from the shame. One of the biggest attacks that Procopius has on her is that she did all these sexual things shamelessly. It’s not the fact so much that morally she was just violating nature with her sexual acts. It was really that she was shameless in her behavior. For me, that was a very powerful thing. And that’s why I use the modern term of slut shaming to really understand the processes that happen in the text, to understand how this figure is dealt with a lot of the time in the text.
I also really focus on these attacks on abortion to understand really what did abortion look like in the Byzantine Empire, particularly what did abortion and contraceptives look like in the period of Theodora, which we have a fascinating gynecological treaties that comes at the end of sort of this compendium of medical books that really goes into all the host of practices passed down from antiquity that Byzantine women had at their disposal to undertake abortive abortions and also use contraceptives.
Allison Leigh: Well, I’ll take the opportunity to jump in and say that I thought that the part of this chapter that deals with abortion and issues that surround it in this period was was fascinating and groundbreaking. At one point you discussed the fact that some Byzantine authors actually put the blame on men who copulated with women and then had abortions, saying that you you essentially made them murderousness. This is such a new or fresh perspective, very modern I think and maybe even more cutting edge than we are in some ways and in some liberal circles, to put the blame on men really reorients our sense of their understanding of that. Of course, you know, I have these concerns as a historian—and we’re both art historians so I know you know, the place that I’m coming from—but this you could say occasionally, you know, regardless of whether Procopius portrayal of Theodora is accurate or these various allusions to essentially “I’m not going to try to prove or disprove whether these things about her are true, but but I’m going to take it as a sign that figures like her did exist in 6th century Constantinople.” I sort of immediately cringed and thought, regardless of what I know is what we should be saying as historians. So maybe I’ll put it to you to further substantiate the reasons why you didn’t feel the need to to dig into the copious claims one way or another.
Roland Betancourt: One of the challenges, of course, is that we struggle here in answering this question is really well, what is our function as historians? And in many ways, a lot of the answers for these questions that we have as to the veracity of Procopius’s account of The Secret History, the truth of the matter is that is that we cannot answer those questions definitively. We can, of course, find more texts that might corroborate some of these stories. We might find texts that might dispel them. But you also have to acknowledge the amount of privilege that Theodora had as an imperial woman, as the empress, and so in many ways, any attack that we have against Procopius is this text we could also have against any other text that might either bring up these issues or downplay them.
For me, the the real thing, the real important aspect of being a historian is that we have to understand what our sources say and we have to understand what is the official narrative in a moment of time—by the church, by the imperial powers—but we also are real goal is and what distinguishes us from amateur historians is being able to look at those details and think critically about what does the host of evidence say to us and communicate to us. How do we responsibly interpret that in a way that gives us a better understanding of the realities of a period? Which is to say you can’t just understand what the text says and take it at face value, but rather you have to look to see what are the various imprints that some of these lives would have had.
By turning, of course, to a medical text that is commissioned by clearly an elite patron in Constantinople and uniquely has this one text on gynecology, you have to begin to understand that someone thought it was very important to commission this text on gynecology that is unapologetic. There is no sort of Christian apology, as we might expect, of abortions are horrible and a crime against God. That language is not in this text. It is very matter of fact. It is, if a mother is dying in childbirth, here is how you perform a surgical operation to remove the fetus limb by limb, what we would call late term abortion. Use this recipe as a contraceptive, and after this, you will surely not conceive. And these recipes have actually been passed down from ancient texts, but they have alterations, which suggests to us that they have been refined over the years. And the author even has added notes of their infallibility. This is a type of evidence that we find across medical texts that come not only from the sixth century, but centuries afterwards. As a historian, I really have the the pressure to look at these texts and understand them for what they are offering us. Demonstrating that there is an unbroken chain of medical knowledge being passed on that is really manifesting itself. What really for me is the center in all of this is to find a description of one of these late term abortions in a saint’s life where they say that a doctor was called because the mother was dying and the doctor was about to operate, but then, of course, the saint performed a miracle and was able to spare the doctor from having to undertake the operation and saves the life of the mother and the infant. And that is fascinating, because to find in a text that is not written by a doctor, a text that is written by this author, a description of removing the fetus limb by limb tells you that there is a understanding of medical knowledge here that permeates deeper and speaks to a certain understanding casually of what this operation is. There’s no sensationalism about this strange operation that was performed. It was, matter of fact, that this is what the doctor would undertake. Understanding these constellations of data points together, you begin to understand more of the reality. So for me as a historian, and particularly an art historian, I think it’s very important to bring out all of those narratives and all those complexities that are unspoken and precisely invisible in our works of art to bear on what we’re seeing in the visual culture. So this is really where this chapter emerges from, is really a sort of process and thinking critically about the disparities of sources and what those interstitial spaces reveal about life in a certain period.
Allison Leigh: Mm hmm. I hear you. I really do. And maybe I should point out to listeners that I think one of the amazing things about this chapter is the way that you’re able to use Theodora and this perhaps true, perhaps not true, exaggerated regardless, text by Procopius as a means of exploring all of the the abortion material that you were just describing and and sort of the medical understandings that surround that. I mean, the way you make that slide between one and the other is really a thing of writerly excellence. I guess I am endlessly concerned with the articulation of image of Theodore that, of course, Procopius puts forward and that and that you, as you said, are not able to … fully push against or deny because we just don’t know. Towards the end of the chapter, you mentioned this idea of what is necessary is the articulation of an image of a sexually-active, promiscuous, abortion-having, orgy-partaking, oral sex-enjoying sort of medical Theodora, who nevertheless persisted. I think you have a lot of these great moments where there are double meanings to the way that you’re describing this, of Theodora, who nevertheless persisted and thrived in the Constantinople social sphere, which included many other figures just like her. There’s so much of this that I accept and I imagine a lot of readers will be so enthused to hear just a scholar taking on this material and drawing out of it what you are, but my concern is that it reduces her down to just the narrative surrounding the sex that she had and all of her other achievements and pulling herself up by the bootstraps in the way that we definitely know that she did. All of that is glossed and Procopius’s claims, sexually shaming her, as you say, are just are given so much power. It’s such a tricky situation.
Roland Betancourt: It is indeed, and that’s one of the challenges also of dealing with marginalized figures in history is that a lot of the figures that we try to understand in the past might exist only through invective, through attacks on their personhood. And so being able to recuperate these lives without erasing the pain is something that’s very important as a historical task, which I think is one of the key things that we have to grapple with and how we both point to the evidence. These these figures are not new. Their lives are not inventions, but they are also preserved only through the brutality that they faced.
Allison Leigh: Well, maybe this is a nice segue to, I think, further similar problems, but also revelations that come about in chapter three, which is entitled “Transgender Lives” and centers on the lives of monks and eunuchs and attempts to understand, as you say, the ways that the very institution of monasticism is, in your opinion, a fundamentally queer practice. So maybe you can take us through what you mean by that and similarly how you’re using queer in the book is really vital. This is a chapter that is packed with the similar kind of problematic dynamics that you were describing in the Theodora chapter, but it moves in a different direction.
Roland Betancourt: Yes. So this chapter really deals with a very fascinating number of saints, lives of figures who were assigned female at birth, but for many reasons chose to live out their lives as male monastics, often being understood in their communities as eunuchs, reasoning away the fact, in particular, that they did not have beards. What really attracted me to these stories was the way, of course, in which these figures so powerfully and poignantly oftentimes beg their brothers to not prepare the body after their death so that they are not shamed, so that their gender identity is not betrayed at the moment of death. In all Byzantine depictions of these figures, you have them shown at the moment of their death as women, even though in the narratives themselves, these figures very clearly claim their masculine identity and they are very much attempting to avoid the processes that today we might refer to as deadnaming or misgendering. For me, that was one of the most pressing aspects, combined with the fact that in many of these stories, authors very critically and interestingly deploy a series of languages that are used in medical books to essentially describe differences between sexes, but also to articulate the ways in which some figures might not have adhered to either their gender identity or to their sex that has been assigned at birth. So you have a series of fascinating details from the fact that these figures ceased menstruating because of the deprivation of their monastic practices to these more complex understandings about the ways in which skin darkened through these practices, and darkening of skin is oftentimes associated with men. So you have even in some of these medical books that I’ve been describing before, these descriptions of so-called manly women who very rarely menstruate and who also have darker skin. And so you have here this very interesting depiction of these trans masculine figures that are also intersected with these series of their identities as these trans masculine figures are basically edified through a lot of the language and stereotypes that existed in medical texts about gender. And so for me, that really opened up a world of understanding, a very uniquely Byzantine understanding to these aspects of gender identity in the past. And what is fascinating is that through these figures, through these trans monks, what you really begin to see is this fascinating space where writers are able to explore some of the discomforts that happen in monastic spaces. I discuss this more in chapter four, but because these figures are both simultaneously deployed as men, rightfully so, but also sometimes misgendered as just being women by their authors, they allow many spaces where authors can unashamedly speak about these figures attracting the lust and desire of other monks to the point that they need to be isolated in the monastery so that the monks aren’t trying to sneak into their cells. These dynamics are really fascinating because, at the same time, one of the key accusations that we find across these narratives is that women accuse these monks of sleeping with them in some capacity or they try to sleep with them, as in the story of one monk where this woman named Melania tries to sleep with the young, attractive monk. And so you have these very fascinating moments where the complexities of sexual desire, as it intersects with gender identity, really reveal the tensions that existed in monastic spaces as well. [00:54:13][266.9]
Allison Leigh: I am thinking about the way that you’re describing this and the word that you keep using in terms of these narratives. I found myself wondering, even as I was reading it, and there are moments where you address this, how much should we think of these, again from a historical standpoint, as people who actually existed? You discuss the narratives concerning trans monks, whether they’re real or imaginary. They provide models for understanding what a transgender identity might have looked like in this period. But are these mostly just stories? And that’s, again, a problematic question, I know. How should we take them as historians knowing that there’s a certain amount of titillation in these stories? There’s an interest in homoerotic dynamics between women in the story of Melania that you were just describing. There’s so much in this book that is challenging for the reader, and I think really demands that we reconceptualize our expectations of this period, which I know is one of the goals you set out to to do.
Roland Betancourt: This is an interesting and very wide question because of the fact that if you’re going to read these stories as stories, then you also need to read them as good stories. It’s not a moment of Theodora where there’s this desire to shame her but also potentially be stirred up by the potential narratives that are being communicated, especially thinking of this imagined cis male heterosexual reader. But with these stories, you don’t have that language. It’s never about sensationalism. It is about look at these very pure godly people who chose throughout adversity to approach God in this process, and it is these figures who are trans that approach God through their gender. That is very powerful. These are stories that are set forth for emulation, like any saint’s lives. You are hearing the lives of these saints to emulate their goodness, to emulate what they represent. And there’s a lot of diversity in how these stories are clumped together and how they actually deal with gender identity. There’s a lot of interesting complexity there. So for me, that’s very important to keep in mind that these stories have a very different tenor than something that might be more scandalous or sensational. They really lack those aspects in many ways.
One thing that I will also point out, to broaden this a little bit, especially for those who are not as aware of the broader space of medieval studies, is that these stories have a very popular afterlife in the medieval west. They attract a lot of attention and a lot fuller illustrative programs and manuscripts. And in many ways, these stories have attracted a lot of recent attention in the past five to ten years of scholars who are really been looking at them to understand what this shows about these various trans figures. There’s a lot of wonderful work being done right now by a series of scholars who are looking precisely through the lens of trans studies at these stories. But they’re looking at them through their western medieval afterlives, and I think that’s one of the very important divides that’s happened here is that while Byzantine studies for a long time has relegated these as transvestite saints and women in disguise, all these sort of pejorative terms. What you actually have in the western medieval world, particularly within literary studies, is this thriving and complex space of trans studies looking at these lives, which is always a very interesting place to mediate because looking at them with a distinctly Byzantine sensibility they tell a very uniquely Byzantine story that really sort of manifests itself later in the west in ways that are both radically different, but also bear a very clear imprint of this diverse, gender diverse empire that really had very complex approaches to gender, particularly because of figures like eunuchs and so forth.
Allison Leigh: Well, I’m looking at the time. I’m so enjoying our conversation, and I have so many questions that are coming up for me and things I want to sort of further ask you to keep talking about or explain more. Alas, we still have two chapters of the book that we could or should talk about. I mean, this is always pretty loose form in terms of how we handle this. Maybe I’ll just point out to listeners that briefly that the last two chapters are continuing much of what we’ve been discussing. Chapter four is called “Queer Sensations” and talks very much specifically about to the Doubting Thomas episode from the New Testament. You do a treatment similarly where you discuss the texts and the homilies and the explications that surround this, but then also you really dig in and get back to the images as you did in chapter one.
Chapter five, called “The Ethiopian Eunuch,” is about exploring how race manifested itself in the Byzantine sphere and also deals in a really heavily with texts and then with a wide range. The most images in the book are in chapter five, which is really exciting to hear you return to that art historical mode properly the most in the last chapter of the book as a kind of grand finale. We’re running out of time, but I want to ask you about one more thing and I think it’s something I don’t know that you’ll be asked about it. So maybe it’s why I’m asking about it in this format, sort of one art historian to another. It has to do with our lives as writers and with language and tone and how we develop the arguments that we do and build the interpretations that we put forward. There is this kind of really fascinating, very righteous, very activist ethos that runs through this book. … There’s an ethical dimension to this. There’s an urgency that is really quite interesting. At the very end of the book, in the book’s conclusion, you state that “future scholarship must acknowledge that marginalization, oppression, and intersectionality are not modern constructs. They are methodologies. To say that articulating and calling out these forces is anachronistic or contrary to the historian’s project is to be complicit with oppression.” That’s an end quote. You know, this is, I think, as strong as a voice as it can get, and I wonder if you might just say something about the strength of your voice and this desire for there to be a kind of activist ethos and a call to action for what you describe before as sort of your tribe. Can you say just a little bit about that here at the end?
Roland Betancourt: Yes, of course. I mean, I think this is one of the most important aspects of the book for me. You know, there’s always the question of how are you going to convince those who need the most convincing, or the distance of how do you convince those who don’t want to be convinced. My response to that is often, you know, that can often be a very futile attempt. And I think this comes a lot from someone who very much was trained, especially as a queer, Latinx person, to really play into respectability politics, to always think of yourself, “I’ll write that book once I have tenure.” That sort of delay of sincerity or activism or whatever we might want to call it. This book really comes out of this feeling of, this far and no further. I will not continue to be complicit. I will not continue to downplay my voice out of fear of rejection. For me, that was much more powerful to reach out and be as unapologetic as possible in order to precisely encourage a new generation.
I keep saying that this is a book that I want to be obsolete in ten years because there’s been so much work done that furthers the complexity of its narratives. It doesn’t ignore it or just tosses it aside, but that really goes beyond the very short narratives that each one of these topics receives in this book. And so for me, the most important aspect here is to create a space for these lives to thrive, for scholars working on these matters to thrive, for scholars who identify with these figures to thrive. For me, it’s it’s sort of difficult, especially in the space that this book was written, particularly over the past four years essentially, let’s say it wasn’t hard to be this voice. It was almost the only thing I could possibly do. When trans health care, the trans military ban, all these things are swirling in space, there’s this constant denial, a redefinition of legal prescriptions and health care prescriptions on gender in order to deny these various aspects of trans care on so many levels, it was hard to stay quiet. In many ways, it was very easy to be bold because it was so necessary. For me, I think that I always think about the fact of how much a more careful language could so easily be co-opted by those wishing to say that trans identity is a modern invention, that queer desire isn’t actually something that exists in the past or that exists within these spaces. The reality is, and I think many Byzantines know this, like the chapter on queerness is really a chapter that builds on a lot of the amazing work that has been done by Byzantinists to really understand how oftentimes ideas of attraction to God, closeness to God, are sexualized. And in the medieval west, when we talk about nuns who are almost sexualizing their approach to Christ, who are describing themselves as brides to Christ, there’s nothing sensational there. When we see Byzantine authors working through this, there’s sort of this recoiling feeling of, oh my God, how dare they? For me, a lot of that is to understand that sexuality is part of these processes of religious devotion and that some of the Byzantine authors are very clear of it. When Symeon the New Theologian says that even his penis is Christ, why do you blush? It’s really a very complex theological point about the incarnation that now Symeon is actually turning to the author and pointing out their own discomfort with this language. So this tension of sexuality is inherently there when you have Western writers obsessed about how to prevent wet dreams and all these things so you could have a pure relationship with God. Sex is so much part of the story, and what is most shocking about this narrative is just how open, oftentimes, Byzantine writers are about these aspects and how clear, concise, and nonsensational a lot of this is. I always like to say, for me, there’s nothing provocative or shocking about there being trans and queer people in the Middle Ages. What for me has been the challenge is to be able to do justice to both the beauty of these narratives and also the pain that envelopes all of them.
Allison Leigh: Well, thank you so much for for grappling with my comments and questions. I think the takeaway there, I found myself scribbling down, is to be bold. There is absolutely a boldness to your scholarship, and I think a boldness to you as a scholar that has come through in this interview that that is very inspiring. Regardless of whether readers find themselves completely convinced, it is a powerful and it’s a brave work regardless. It’s certainly one that I have enjoyed talking to you about today. I think really this book stands to shake up Byzantine studies, to say the least.
My name is Allison Leigh. I’ve been talking to Roland Betancourt about his new book, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages. I hope many of you will check it out. Thanks for listening.
Roland Betancourt is associate professor of art history and chancellor’s fellow at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Sight, Touch, and Imagination in Byzantium.
Allison Leigh is Assistant Professor of Art History and the SLEMCO/LEQSF Regents Endowed Professor in Art & Architecture at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her research explores European and Russian art of the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries.
Marshall Poe is the editor of the New Books Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.