Sexuality, gender and race in the Middle Ages (new texts now available)

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Roland Betancourt, Byzantine intersectionality: sexuality, gender and race in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What prompted you to write this book?

Roland Bétancourt (RB): In light of an all too familiar racist, transphobic and xenophobic rhetoric rising in America ahead of the 2016 presidential election, I was compelled to finally write this draft that was ruminating in my mind.

I say “finally” because much of this work has emerged from the processes of my ongoing research into the Byzantine Empire. The stories detailed in the chapters of the book had accumulated over the previous decade as I observed a constellation of intriguing and cohesive stories about sexuality, gender identity, and racialization through Byzantine texts that had often been omitted from our stories and lacking in a story. The tenor of these medieval conversations struck me as compelling and unique articulations of many of the themes we are familiar with today in a surprisingly modern, yet distinctly Byzantine way. This book was born out of a desire to give concrete articulation to the fascinating narratives in some of our best known and most cited Byzantine texts, which have long been overlooked in scholarship.

J: What particular topics, problems and literatures does the book address?

RB: Over the course of its five chapters, the book examines a range of issues related to sexuality, gender, and race in the Middle Ages. The book begins by presenting the ways in which early Christian and medieval sources shaped the intersectional subjectivities of their characters, detailing how sexuality, gender, and racialized identities come together to form unique conditions of subjugation.

The first chapter examines the importance given to reproductive and sexual consent in the Annunciation accounts, which leads the second chapter to focus on the sexual shame of a Byzantine empress in a historical chronicle that aims to emphasize the role of abortion and contraception in this story. .

This shifts our attention to gendered constructs, focusing on a series of stories that tell the lives of male monks who had been assigned female at birth in order to examine the wide range of gender variances that Byzantine sources have. have articulated in the secular and religious fields. With this nuanced approach to gender, the book then focuses on desires of the same gender in all-male monastic communities, an attempt to understand how these desires were mediated and expressed through textual and visual sources.

Finally, taking up the different lessons from these chapters, the focus is on the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles and explores how the identity of the figure is shaped in art as an African. black, eunuch and Christian subject. . This helps to understand how issues of gender and racialization intersect in the Byzantine world and the different identities that writers and artists negotiated to describe their figures. Throughout the book, the book weaves together legal, medical, and religious sources (lives of saints, sermons, etc.) to paint a holistic picture of the Byzantine Empire’s approach to sexuality, gender, and race. .

J: How does this book connect and / or move away from your previous work?

RB: While this book is a significant change from my previous work with a focus on gender, sexuality and race, this project would not have been possible without my past projects. In my first book, Sight, touch and imagination in Byzantium (Cambridge University Press, 2018), for example, a study of the senses and the cognitive faculty of the imagination, many of the same stories and texts come back. There, however, they are tapped for different concepts and ideas, while only obliquely showing the narratives that take center stage in this book. I was keenly aware, both in my previous work and in this project, to have healthy overlaps in order to demonstrate the complex entanglement of sexuality, gender and race across the spectrum of life. medieval.

J: Who do you hope to read this book, and what kind of impact would you like it to have?

RB: This book should be read as a road map for all the rich and exciting work that needs to be done in Byzantine and Medieval studies to better grasp the nuances of sexuality, gender and race. In particular, I hope this book will chart a course for us to think deeply about what trans studies has to offer in the field of Byzantine studies, and to recognize how critical race theory can help us rethink history. of the place of the Byzantine Empire in the Western canon. Neither ancient nor medieval, European or Middle Eastern, Byzantium stands on a disparaged point of history that offers powerful potential to offer new lines of medieval thought on issues of urgent importance today.

I hope that this book will also find its way into the hands of non-academics and non-medieval people. On the one hand, to demonstrate the richness and the surprising richness of the material offered by this academic space. Yet on the other hand, to enable people to rethink the types of questions we can ask about the past and to inspire us to think about more ethical ways of giving representation to lost and forgotten subjects.

For the layman reader, I hope this book surprises and excites them, revealing a story of early Christianity and the Middle Ages that is profoundly alien to our stereotypes of those times. The book should inspire us and demand that we view the past as different from our preconceptions, but also radically familiar in wonderfully ineffable ways.

J: What other projects are you currently working on?

RB: In the spring of 2021, I have a book to come out, titled Interpreting the Gospels in Byzantium: Sight, Sound and Space in the Divine Liturgy, which examines the dynamics of ritual performance through text, images, recitation and architecture.

One area of ​​my future research focuses on mock spaces, such as Disneyland and Las Vegas, while another is an ongoing interest in the uses of the medieval past by far-right and conspiracy theorists, particularly in the speech on the recovery of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia. . In some ways, these two projects are deeply linked around permutations from the historical past to the present.

A book project on the attraction of secrecy and the ways in which intimacies are formed around the keeping of secrets is also closely linked to these methodological objectives. This last project is formulated through various aspects of Byzantine life.

Extract from the book (extract from the introduction)

Following the intersectional approach of critical race studies and feminism, this project recognizes that identity is neither singular nor delimited by clear categories. In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to emphasize that the lived realities of marginalized people do not exist as isolated factors, but rather intersect at the intersection of gender, sexuality, race, socio-economic status, etc. Thus, intersectionality examines how the overlapping social identities create unique conditions of inequality and oppression.23 Unlike approaches that study the role of women or outsiders in the medieval world in isolation, intersectionality suggests that A foreign woman, for example, faces a series of challenges that include the struggles of those who are socially identified as both foreign and female, but she is not simply the sum of these parts. This book is titled Byzantine Intersectionality not only because it studies the intersectionality of identity across the Byzantine world, but also because the pejorative “Byzantine” speaks of the quirk inherent in these stories and the empire with which this insult was drawn. Intersectional identity is Byzantine – it is infinitely complicated and it is often characterized as devious, deceptive and corrupt.

For these reasons, I have chosen to use the expression “the Byzantine world” throughout this book: it serves as a broad term to encompass the expanse of the Greek-speaking Mediterranean, as well as contributions to this world. by its closest neighbors and allies. Ultimately, this is a book about the Byzantine Empire, which I define as the Eastern Roman Empire from the founding of Constantinople in the early 4th century until its conquest at the end of the 15th century. century. Using a definition that covers the periods of Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the early modern era, I purposefully recognize the unbroken tradition of the Medieval Roman Empire, which possessed access and intimacy with the Greek and Latin heritage of ancient Greek and Roman Mediterranean and its neighbors.

Intersectionality, however, does more than flesh out the subjectivities of people who experience the overlap of multiple identities that are discriminated against, marginalized or disenfranchised. Intersectionality also alerts us to subjects whose privilege keeps them away from the public eye. The figure of the abortion-inducing sex worker is shaped by her intersectional identity as a destitute woman of the lowest economic status, but it also makes us aware that privileged women would have been spared such defamatory portrayals in social media. texts, even when they performed the same acts. For example, the fact that an elite medical text would provide detailed prescriptions for abortion suppositories, contraceptive treatments, and late surgical methods to terminate a pregnancy demonstrates the privilege of upper-class women’s own lawsuits in matters. contraception and abortion.

As we examine the lives of characters subjected to multiple inequalities, we begin to perceive the privileges accorded to other women, men and non-binary figures in society. Privilege, and the privacy it often allows, creates the greatest gaps in historical records. Privacy creates closets that leave certain personalities a great deal of leeway, far from the judgment and agency of the public and the oppressors. These figures are generally also protected from the historian’s stylus. Thus, by articulating the intersectionality of identities deprived of their rights, we will also underline the privilege granted to people who could have shared some of these identities, but whose economic status, social rank, race, origin, etc. spared them from defamation. in the historical record, if not of an association with a marginalized identity. Intersectionality makes us deeply aware of all those hidden figures who may have made choices regarding their sexual consent, pursuing abortions and contraceptives, living like transgender monks, engaging in homosexual intimacies and being black at court, without facing the same degree of invective or slander as their poorer counterparts. This book challenges us to take risks by fleshing out the intersectional lives of the oppressed, while also offering specters of possibilities for the identities and freedoms permitted to the most privileged and neglected ranks by the historical record.


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