Tag Archives: medieval

A Short Bibliography For The Study Of Eunuchs, Marginality & Gender in The Pre-Modern World

A number of people asked me to expand on my Forbes column from last week, which addressed the long history of eunuchs around the world and in Game of Thrones. This is a short reading list focused on scholarship in English for those wishing to begin to read about the subject. I am neither an expert on eunuchs nor a global historian of modern history. As you will see below, my expertise is firmly in Greco-Roman and early Byzantine history–so please forgive my ignorance of modern eunuchism. If you wish to add to the bibliography (and feel free to do this), please simply submit a comment with a new citation. It will be added and you will be credited for your contribution. Many of these resources are admittedly not open-access materials (my apologies), but I wanted to note just a few of the major works that can be either checked out from the library or accessed through academic publication databases.


The monk Sabas instructs the emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates. Bibliothèque National de France MS Coislin 79, f. 2bis-r (ca. 1078-1081).

Ancient Greco-Roman and Near Eastern Eunuchs: 

Burke, Sean D. 2009. “Reading the Ethiopian Eunuch as a Eunuch: Queering the Book of Acts.” Dissertation. Graduate Theological Union.

_____2013.Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch: Strategies of Ambiguity in Acts. Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

Guyot, Peter (Hildesheim), “Eunuchs”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth Schneider. Consulted online on 22 August 2017

Devecka, Martin. “The Traffic in Glands.” The Journal of Roman Studies 103 (2013): 88-95.

Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd (trans.) 2010. Ctesias’ History of Persia : tales of the Orient Routledge.

Long, Jacqueline. 1996. Claudian’s In Eutropium, or, How, when, and why to slander a eunuch. University of North Carolina [Contributed by Jeroen Wijnendaele] 

Matthews, Lydia. “XANTHUS OF LYDIA AND THE INVENTION OF FEMALE EUNUCHS.” The Classical Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2015): 489–99.

Reusch,Kathryn. 2013. “That which was missing”: the archaeology of castration.” DPhil. University of Oxford. [Contributed by Adele Curness]

Tougher, Shaun and Ra’anan Abusch (ed.) 2002. Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond. Duckworth. 

Uroš, Matić. “Gender in Ancient Egypt: Norms, Ambiguities, and Sensualities.” Near Eastern Archaeology 79, no. 3 (2016): 174-83.

Late Antique and Byzantine Eunuchs: 

Greatrex, Geoffrey, and Jonathan Bardill. “Antiochus the “Praepositus”: A Persian Eunuch at the Court of Theodosius II.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 50 (1996): 171-97.

Kuefler, Mathew. 2001. The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, gender ambiguity, and Christian ideology in late antiquityUniversity of Chicago [Contributed by Robin Whelan]

Neil, Bronwen, and Lynda Garland. 2016. Questions of gender in Byzantine society. London: Routledge.

Ringrose, Kathryn M. 2007. The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Tougher, Shaun. 2010. The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society. Routledge.

De Wet, Christopher Len. 2015. Preaching Bondage: John Chrysostom and the Discourse of Slavery in Early Christianity. UC. 256-67.

Islamic Eunuchs

Ayalon, David. 1999. Eunuchs, caliphs and sultans : a study in power relationshipsHebrew University. [Contributed by Kameliya Atanasova] 

Marmon, Shaun Elizabeth. 1995. Eunuchs and sacred boundaries in Islamic society. Oxford. [Contributed by Kameliya Atanasova] 

Ottoman Use of African Eunuchs

Junne, George H. 2016. The black eunuchs of the Ottoman Empire: networks of power in the court of the sultan

Ehud, R. 1984. “The Imperial Eunuchs of Istanbul: From Africa to the Heart of Islam,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3: 379-390.

Chinese Eunuchs: 

Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. 1996. The Eunuchs in the Ming dynasty. New York: State University of New York.

Indian and Pakistani Eunuchs: 

Jaffrey, Zia. 1996. The Invisibles : a tale of the eunuchs of India.

Khan, Shahnaz. 2016. “What is in a Name? Khwaja Sara, Hijra and Eunuchs in Pakistan,” Indian Journal of Gender Studies 23.2. 218-242.


“Eunuch,” In Our Time. BBC Radio 4, February 26, 2015. 


Höfert, Almut et al. 2018. Celibate and Childless Men in Power: Ruling Eunuchs and Bishops in the Pre-Modern World. Routledge. [Contributed by Peter Kruschwitz]

These resources are just a start point for addressing the key issues of eunuchs, gender, and marginality. I invite you to keep the citations and conversation going in the comments section or on Twitter.

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Students and instructors standing around ancient relief sculpture of a pair of eunuchs in the Oriental Institute’s Assyrian room (1943, Life Magazine). 

Other Syllabi And Bibliographies Addressing Marginality And Inclusion: 

For many years now, I have taught a course on marginal & outcast peoples in the ancient and modern world [HONR 1670_Outcast Syllabus] that stemmed from my book on the construction of occupational disrepute in Roman antiquity. I am delighted to see my colleagues in medieval and early modern studies taking the topic to new (and exceptional) levels. This following the events at the Leeds Medieval Congress this summer (2017) and the rise in white nationalist marches, attacks, and demonstrations this year. Of particular note is Jonathan Hsy’s Twitter thread on #Inclusive Syllabus, which is explained below. I would also direct you to Dorothy Kim’s blog, “In the Middle,” and the “Medieval People of Color” tumblr. You can even contribute to the crowd-sourced bibliography on race and medieval studies begun by professors Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski. 

‘Pie Zeses’: Toasting To A New Year

Another year of blogging is almost in the proverbial books and I must say that while 2016 was a wretched year socio-politically, it was professionally quite satisfying. My first book, Trade and Taboo was published and I even began writing for Forbes regularly. There is no doubt that I have much to be thankful for as I sit here sipping coffee at my home in snowy Iowa City. In the midst of all the self reflection that accompanies the end of the year, I began mulling over the use of toasts as oral rites of passage in our lives. They are oft- overlooked rituals used to help us to move forward, even if they memorialize the past. Greeks and Romans frequently raised a glass to the Gods, to their health or to a handsome lover, and their exclamations can tell us a great deal about the things they held dear in life–just as our own toasts at 11:59 pm likely reveal our own personal anxieties or the people we cherish. As I wrote about a few years ago on this blog, epigraphic texts on ancient cups, bowls and drinking vessels often enshrine such ephemeral exclamations for posterity, so try out a few of these as you raise your glass tonight.

Dignitas Amicorum Pie Zeses Vivas!” (“Worthy among your friends! Drink that you may live. May you live!”) A toast to a fruitful 2017, amici, and please feel free to leave comments below concerning what you want to hear about on the blog or perhaps how you will be toasting tonight.


Late antique Roman mosaic with an asarotos oikos “unswept floor” now on display in Switzerland at the Chateau de Boudry. 

The Midas Touch: Alchemy in the Medieval and Early Modern Eras

It has been a splendid week doing talks and research in southern California (you can see all my slides for the talks here). One of the highlights of this trip was a special visit to the Getty in L.A. to see two adjacent exhibits (one at the Getty Museum and the other at the Getty Research Institute) on the manuscripts, handbooks, recipes, dyes, and material culture connected to alchemy. I have posted a review of the exhibits over on the Forbes blog, if you would like to read the full post, but I am including a number of pictures of their selection of recreated pigments for your enjoyment below.

One significant lesson that these exhibits underscore is that while alchemy is often marginalized and demeaned for being a failed science (in terms of its objective to turn base metals into gold), like many things in life, failure often creates opportunity. In the case of alchemy? We got many new pigments, inks, metals, and scientific approaches to metallurgy as a result of the intense interest in finding a means for transmuting matter (the mythical philosopher’s stone!). I would say this is a proverbial silver lining, but perhaps it is also a golden one.

Note that all alchemy images and materials connected to the exhibits are Open Access and available via the Getty Research Institute’s section on the Internet Archive.




A Short History of Demons, Exorcism, And Possessed Women

Since last’s week accusation by Alex Jones that Hillary Clinton and President Obama were demons that smelled of sulfur, I had begun to think about the role of demons, exorcism, and demoniacs in early Christian texts. Over on the Forbes blog, I discuss how the subject of demons has a rich past in the religion, but it must be said that from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, accusations of demon possession have often shown gender bias. That is to say that women are frequently cast as more susceptible to possession than men of power are–particularly in the demon possessions mentioned in the 13th century. Moreover, male priests and saints are often then relied upon to cast the demons out. As this post explores, accusing Hillary Clinton of being a demon is not simply an outlandish thing to do, it carries serious and long-held misogynist undertones.

Please note that this story contains a number of images from the Public Domain made freely accessible by the British Library Manuscripts Library. The British Library is, after all, probably the best and safest place to find demons.


Image via the British Library: “Dante and Virgil observing Satan swallowing his victims, with figures of those who betrayed their benefactors, such as Brutus and Judas Iscariot, frozen in ice below, from Canto 34 of the Inferno” (illustration from 1370)

Searching for the String: Labyrinths in Classical and Medieval Art

In Lucca, inscribed on one of the church of San Martino’s piers, is a Latin inscription and an accompanying illustration of a labyrinth dating to the 12th century. Thousands of pilgrims have traced their fingers along its grooves in the past 800 years, each using the etching to outline the difficult path taken by the believer to achieve salvation.

The maze and the accompanying inscription from the Cathedral at Lucca (Image via Wikimedia).

The maze and the accompanying inscription from the Cathedral at Lucca (Image via Wikimedia).


“Here is the labyrinth which Daedalus of Crete built; which no one is able to exit from who is within (it), except for Theseus, thanks to Ariadne’s thread.”

When I first saw the etching, I was rather surprised that a Christian church referred to an event from Greek mythology; however, use of the labyrinth as a metaphor for life’s odysseys and for the journey taken during the afterlife is almost continuous from antiquity to early modern period. Alternately known as a Chemin de Jérusalem, a daedale, or a meandre, labyrinths were puzzles that spatially represented human journeys.

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The 13th century labyrinth in the church floor at Chartres.

The use of space as allegory is a tool employed both by architects and by writers. The word labyrinth (Gr. λαβύρινθος) was originally a Greek technical term used when describing architecture and did not always specifically apply to the labyrinth of Knossos. Our first citation of it is in the 5th century BCE historian Herodotus, when he describes an Egyptian building (Litinas 2011: 455-6).

Labyrinth coins from the island of Crete, where the ancient structure was supposed to have been constructed, date to the early Hellenistic period. This coinage continued into the Roman era (See a collection from the ANS here), and helped people to quickly identify the source of their coinage. Many Hellenistic depictions have a 7 circuit labyrinth.

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A silver tetradrachm from the American Numismatic Society (1991.60.26) with Apollo on the obverse and the labyrinth on the reverse (200-67 BCE). Photos via the ANS’s Numismatics.org

The use of the labyrinth as an icon spread during the Roman period. Roman artists built upon the previous Greek, circular design, and refashioned it as a quadrant. These quadrangle labyrinths often took the shape of a rectangle or square, and were commonly placed in mosaics within elite Roman households. One of the most famous of these labyrinths is in a house in Pompeii, known as the ‘House of the Labyrinth.’ At the center of a monochromatic pavement is a colorful emblema of Theseus wrestling and killing the minotaur. We don’t know the patron’s reasons for using this theme, but it is clear that viewers must have worked through it clockwise (Fisher 2004: 6).

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Theseus wrestles the minotaur in the center of the labyrinth of cubiculum 42 within the ‘House of the Labyrinth’ at Pompeii.

It was not just elites who referenced the myth. A first century graffito from Pompeii noted: ‘Labyrinthus / hic habitat / Minotaurus’:  ‘Labyrinth. Here lives the Minotaur.’ Roman labyrinths were probably amusing to manually trace or to walk through, and, much like the garden mazes that became popular in early modern Europe, were a source of spatial escapism that diverted one’s attention while touring a house, eating, or milling about a peristyle waiting from the feast to begin.

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Graffito from the Pompeian peristyle of the House of the Lucretii (9.3.5, 24) = CIL IV, 2331.

The  tale also continued to fascinate the Roman literati. Daedalus’ construction of a labyrinth is referred to by Virgil as an ‘inextricabilis error’ (Aen. 6.27) in the epic tale of the Aeneid. The poet recounts that the inventor fled Crete and went to Cumae, where he chiseled a drawing of his labyrinth on the temple doors that opened onto the passage into the underworld. Not long thereafter, Aeneas is warned that while it is easy to enter the underworld, it is much harder to find your way out. Daedalus’ creation of the Labyrinth was not without its problems. In his Metamorphoses (8.167-8), Ovid reminds us that the builder almost got lost in his own creation: “He, himself, was scarcely able to return to the threshold” (vixque ipse reverti ad limen potuit). Even the creator was not omniscient.


Mosaic of Theseus and the labyrinth from Paphos, on the island of Cyprus (image via Wikimedia) dating to the ca. 3rd century CE.

In her game-changing book, The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle AgesPenelope Reed Doob explored the use of the labyrinth as a metaphor. Classical and medieval labyrinths were visually portrayed as unicursal, i.e., a maze where one finds the end simply by following along one set path. However, classical texts themselves often described multicursal labyrinths. For instance, we know that the labyrinth of Knossos must have been multicursal, because Theseus needed a string to guide him. Doob believes that cathedral labyrinths from the high medieval period cast Christ as Theseus, who killed hell just as the Athenian hero cut down the minotaur.  Tellingly, the multicursal labyrinths hinge on the choices of the individual, whereas the unicursal labyrinth hinges on the choices of the creator. It was not until the Renaissance of the 15th century that humanists began to depict non-symmetrical, chaotic, and more confused labyrinths. This was perhaps a direct reflection of new way of thinking about human agency and the divine.

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Depiction of a unicursal labyrinth on the island of Crete in a Mappa Mundi from c. 1300 CE, now at Hereford Cathedral. See interactive map here.

As scholars such as Doob and, more recently, Craig Wright, have explored: the symbol of the labyrinth or the maze manifests in every artistic genre from visual arts to architecture and music. The meanings of the icon can change, but the tendency to collapse human time, experience, and hardship into a visual representation does not.

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Theseus escapes the labyrinth and the island of Crete in the mid 3rd. c. CE North African mosaic now at the Penn Museum.

On a more personal level, November 11th marked the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut, the famous author and a notable participant in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop here in Iowa City, where I now live. To mark the occasion, I watched an animation of a lecture he gave at NYU in 1970 on what it takes to be a writer. In it, he noted that even when authors believe they are creating fiction, they are writing about themselves on some maddening level. Perhaps my fascination with the ordering, mapping, and allegorizing of space in the past few years is further proof of this salient point.

Who doesn’t want to know that there is a correct, predetermined path or perhaps some salvific string that Ariadne will one day supply us? The “spatial turn” in Digital Humanities that I have referred to now in the past two posts is more than just an outgrowth of new technologies and new information, it stems from the continued struggle to combat an overwhelming amount of disordered knowledge both on the internet and in our lives. There is no doubt that it would be easier if there were just a unicursal labyrinth to follow…and, well, who’s to say there isn’t?


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Movie poster for the 1986 film ‘Labyrinth’ with David Bowie and a maze filled with teen angst (Image via Wikimedia).