Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

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

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

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

Article excerpt

The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium, by Kathryn Ringrose. Chicago, July 2003. $40

This scholarly analysis of the place of eunuchs in Byzantine society joins other recent works on ancient views of human gender and sexuality that have provided perspective on the "varieties of human experience" and the social forces that reject or embrace such variation. In this case it is the curious one of Byzantine acceptance of more than two genders. Ringrose considers Byzantine perception of eunuchs-as reflected in language-and places this changing perception within the context of available information concerning the evolution of Byzantine gender theory and of the class of individuals that eunuchs constituted. The Byzantine philology of gender provides her with clues concerning the ancient perception of the eunuch's behavior, mannerisms, physical traits, negative and positive qualities. She then considers the extent to which these various attributes may have been due to physiology or socialization. Social influence on the construction of gender identity is found to be preponderant. Due to the lack of sources, these conclusions are not influenced by the views of the eunuchs themselves. The testimony of others suggests to Ringrose that increasing accession of eunuchs to positions of power in church, government, and military depended on a gradual half-millennium shift in Byzantine definitions of "eunuch gender" from negative to more positive ones, perceiving greater potential of eunuchs for holiness, asexuality, and spiritual enlightenment. …

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