BMCR 2005.07.34

Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900

, , Gender in the early medieval world : East and West, 300-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xi, 333 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521813476. $29.99 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The collection, Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West 300-900, examines a variety of issues regarding gender in history, literary representation, and archeology for early Byzantium, the Abbasid Empire, the Carolingian Empire and Anglo-Saxon England. In her introduction, Julia Smith does an excellent job of reviewing the state of gender as a subject of study for the Early Middle Ages, and of the history of the issue for medieval studies as a whole. She also briefly outlines the development of “late antiquity” as a period division, and suggests that this categorization opened the door for more comparative work between classicists and Islamicists, as well as for thematic approaches to the period. Using as a point of departure Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Post Classical World, edited by G. W. Bowerstock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, and published in 1999, she notes the significance of the themes that were not addressed in that book: a) individual and group identities outside of religion and ethnicity, and b) the body.

According to Smith the “central lacuna of this compendium is … the social and discursive construction of sexual difference” (p. 4). The construction of sexual difference in early medieval societies is precisely the topic of Gender in the Early Medieval World. She maintains that prior to this book, studies of gender for the post-classical period have tended to focus on the fourth to the fifth centuries. While Gender in the Early Medieval World includes this period, the articles chosen for the collection extend well beyond that point, and examine gender through relatively neglected written and art historical sources, or pose new questions about texts familiar to anyone in the field. Smith argues that, as a whole, the book demonstrates that contrary to post-Enlightenment interpretations, in the early Middle Ages morality and physiology were directly linked; that the idea of a “third gender” is not a modern construct since eunuchs, virile women, and virginal males were treated as separate genders in a variety of medieval societies; that clothing and other material artifacts whether worn in life or death were vital to establishing not only gender, but other types of social, ethnic, or moral status, even as the regulation of space marked individuals’ religious, political and gendered status. All of these markers and their accompanying status were negotiable in practice, no matter how rigid the theory and rhetoric behind them. The need to constantly defend and define masculinity and masculine hegemony in counterpoint to women, eunuchs and other “marginals” points to its instability in these early medieval societies.

Smith is correct in her argument that in comparison with the later Middle Ages, relatively little has been done for the early Middle Ages regarding gender as a focus of analysis. Gender has increasingly attracted the attention of Byzantinists, especially in regard to eunuchs, and the amount of work being done on the Islamic world, both early and into the later Middle Ages and early modern period is rapidly growing. The amount of scholarship produced about gender in the early medieval west is likewise outstripped by research on Europe from the twelfth to sixteenth century. What makes this collection particularly valuable is the editors’ efforts to bring together scholarship on gender in various parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and of Northern Europe into a single, comparative volume.

The book is divided fairly evenly between “East” (= Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic societies) and “West” (= Germanic societies). However, the articles are carefully chosen to highlight certain parallel themes, both within and across the two halves. For example Martha Vinson’s article in the first half of the book, “Romance and reality in the Byzantine bride shows” finds a topical parallel in Mayke de Jong’s “Bride show revisited; praise, slander and exegesis in the reign of empress Judith” in the second half, even if ultimately Mayke de Jong demonstrates that, contrary to prior interpretation, the Franks did not adopt the Byzantine custom of bride shows. Both authors emphasize the centrality of political and gendered rhetoric in their sources and demonstrate that the portrayal of these brides varied according to male authors’ political agenda toward the women’s husbands. Leslie Brubaker, in “Sex, lies and textuality: the Secret History of Prokopios and the rhetoric of gender in sixth-century Byzantium,” likewise demonstrates that Prokopios’ depiction of Justinian as unable or unwilling to choose a “good” wife, and then to control her afterwards, was part of a gendered polemic directed primarily at Justinian.

Within the “Eastern” section, Julia Bray and Nadia Maria El Cheikh’s articles are similarly paired, for not only do they focus on gender in the Abbasid empire, but they select Shaghab, the mother of the Caliph al-Muqtadir as a central example in their arguments. Like Martha Vinson, Julia Bray underscores the importance of “romantic” narratives, whether in the form of poems, biographies, or other types of prose, in comprehending both the image and reality of slave women in the early Abbasid empire. She shows, on the one hand, that “luxury” slave women were often portrayed as the man’s “soul mate” or, in the case of one in power such as Shaghab, as the benevolent patroness and matchmaker. At the same time Bray emphasizes the importance of such slaves as cultural intermediaries between the Arab Abbasids and their non-Arab and often non-Muslim subjects. This function of cultural intermediary on the part of Abbasid slave women is very similar to the discoveries of Janet Nelson in her “Gendering courts in the early medieval west,” where Nelson demonstrates that Christian wives and abbesses frequently served as agents of “proper” courtly culture as well as of Christianity. El Cheikh’s careful study of the ways in which Shaghab exercised power through patronage, influence with her son, and command over her own staff of viziers in the context of segregated, male-female space provide interesting points of comparison with the findings of Gisela Muschiol who explores existence and the decline of the powers of bishop’s wives and other women within the Merovingian and Carolingian churches and the evidence for and meanings of the separation of women from men in churches. Yitzhak Hen, in “Gender and patronage in Merovingian Gaul” finds that, as in the Abbasid empire, women functioned as independent and powerful patrons and gift givers in their own right, and used patronage much as did men to reward and to negotiate with those of equal or greater power.

Four of the articles — those by Pohl, Harlow, Effros and Hadley — touch upon the gendered meanings of clothing in some way, and the last three deal substantially with material evidence. The articles by Effros and Hadley seriously question the ways in which clothing, jewelry, and other material remains in gravesites have been used to establish both the gender and ethnic origins of the occupants. They argue that unwarranted assumptions have been made by previous archeologists about the gender of a skeleton because of the presence or absence of jewelry or weaponry, even as earlier scholars failed to take into account inter-ethnic gift giving and exchange in their attempt to use objects in gravesites to determine migration patterns on the part of barbarian tribes. Many of the rest of the articles deal with aspects of gender ambiguity, whether the interpretations of Amazons in late antique and medieval texts (Pohl), status of eunuchs in the Byzantine empire (Tougher), the status of nuns as “between” men and sexually active women (Muschiol), or metaphors of semen and childbearing applied to Carolingian monks (Coon).

Because many of the same themes are represented in two or more of the articles within the book, the collection comes across as a model of careful selection and coherence; very few article collections are so well integrated and balanced. The articles are all of good to excellent quality, and many of them strongly contest the prevailing trends in their specific subject matter. Two lacunae do stand out, however. Given the focus on “East-West”, readers may be surprised to find nothing in the book on early Islamic or Visigothic Spain. Likewise, given the amount of research that has been done on eunuchs in the Islamic world, including an article on this topic to pair with Tougher’s piece on eunuchs in Byzantium would have strengthened the collection. Nevertheless this book is essential reading for scholars focusing on medieval gender or the history of the early Middle Ages, and sets an admirable example by its comparative approach. Equally valuable is the editors’ decision to integrate articles focusing on textual analysis with those dealing with material culture; too often these two types of evidence are considered separately with minimal reference to one another. By including articles that take both approaches, the editors insure that the book presents a wide range of methodological approaches common to scholars of the early Middle Ages and explores how gender may be applied to all of them. Thus, archeologists and art historians as well as scholars of literature and history should find Gender in the Early Middle Ages an important contribution to their fields. The book will be of particular use to graduate students wishing to get an overview of the issues and trends in the field. Individual articles or even the entire book could be used for advanced undergraduates with basic background in medieval history.


1) Julia M. H. Smith, “Introduction: gendering the early medieval world”

2) Walter Pohl, “Gender and Ethnicity in the early Middle Ages”

3) Mary Harlow, “Clothes maketh the man: power dressing and elite masculinity in the later Roman world”

4) Shaun Tougher, “Social transformation, gender transformation? The court eunuch 300-900”

5) Leslie Brubaker, “Sex, lies and textuality: the Secret History of Prokopios and the rhetoric of gender in sixth-century Byzantium

6) Martha Vinson, “Romance and reality in Byzantine bride shows”

7) Julia Bray, “Men, women and slaves in Abbasid society”

8) Nadia Maria El Cheikh, “Gender and politics in the harem of al-Muqtadir”

9) Bonnie Effros, “Dressing conservatively: women’s brooches as markers of ethnic identity?”

10) Janet Nelson, “Gendering courts in the early medieval west”

11) Gisela Muschiol, “Men, women and liturgical practice in the early medieval west”

12) Yitzhak Hen, “Gender and the patronage of culture in Merovingian Gaul”

13) Ian Wood, “Genealogy as defined by women: the case of the Pippinids”

14) Mayke de Jong, “Bride shows revisited: praise, slander and exegesis in the reign of the empress Judith”

15) Lynda Coon, “‘What is the Word if not semen?’ Priestly bodies in Carolingian exegesis”

16) Dawn Hadley, “Negotiating gender, family and status in Anglo-Saxon burial practices, c. 600-950”