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

The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium. By Kathryn M. Ringrose (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003. xiv plus 295 pp. $40.00).

In recent years there has been a notable increase of interest in the subject of eunuchs. Studies have ranged from general overviews of the eunuch in history (P.O. Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History, 2001) to specific investigations (D. Ayalon, Eunuchs, Caliphs and Sultans: A Study in Power Relationships, 1999; L. Engelstein, Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale, 1999; S. Nanda, Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India, 1999; S.-s. H. Tsai, The Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty, 1996) to edited collections (S. Tougher, Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond, 2002) and individual articles (A.K. Grayson, "Eunuchs in Power: Their Role in the Assyrian Bureaucracy," Alter Orient und Altes Testament 240, 1995, 85-98; W. Stevenson, "The Rise of Eunuchs in Greco-Roman Antiquity," Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, 1995, 495-511).

Kathryn Ringrose has contributed to the field from the early 1990s with several articles on Byzantine eunuchs, and the appearance of this book marks the culmination of her investigations. Like much of the other work on eunuchs hers is primarily concerned with gender identity. Taking as her timeframe AD 600-1100 (since, she asserts, eunuchs were particularly prominent in this period), Ringrose sets out to show that Byzantine eunuchs constituted a third gender, that they were acculturated to the role of the 'perfect servant', and that attitudes to eunuchs changed over time as they were normalized in society.

To pursue her argument Ringrose has divided her book into two sections topped and tailed with an Introduction and Conclusion. Part I (Chapters 1-4) is entitled 'Gender as Social Construct' and investigates eunuchs in Byzantium as a generalized social category whilst Part II (Chapters 5-9), 'Becoming Protagonists', considers specific individuals. The lengthy introduction covers much ground, and establishes her views that Byzantine eunuchs formed a third gender but not a third sex, and that gender is socially constructed. Chapter 1 "looks at the ways in which Byzantine culture talked about eunuchs" (p. 33) and concludes that "language routinely sets eunuchs outside the norms of male or female gender" (p. 50). Chapter 2 explores the notions about eunuchs found in the medical lore inherited by Byzantium from the classical world. Chapter 3 argues that eunuchs were acculturated into Byzantine society and that "by the tenth century the gendered status of eunuchs had improved and been normalized in society" (p. 86). Chapter 4 examines the presentation of eunuchs in particular narratives, especially Symeon Metaphrastes' tenth-century version of the story of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, which happily accepts him as a eunuch. Moving on to specific individuals, Chapter Five considers religious eunuchs and Chapter Six mostly military eunuchs. Chapter Seven explores the 'perennial confusion' (p. 143) between eunuchs and angels, Chapter Eight focuses on eunuchs as palace staff, and Chapter Nine highlights how eunuchs became integrated into Byzantine society, no longer the foreign isolated outsiders of the later Roman empire (an issue central to my own work on Byzantine eunuchs). The Conclusion reviews her arguments but also makes particular use of the twelfth-century Defence of Eunuchs by Theophylact of Ochrid to support her case.

Ringrose's book certainly provides much food for thought. Stimulating questions and discussions surface: Why did the West not develop similar usage of eunuchs? Why were eunuchs not allowed to become the city prefect (eparch) of Constantinople? The lack of a eunuch voice is noted, and the presentation of the way eunuchs spoke is begun to be investigated.

The use of eunuchs to define imperial space is explored. The different understandings of Matthew 19.12 ('Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven') are set forth. The contrasting understandings about gender identity between the modern West and Byzantium are well established.

However some of the book's central theses can be questioned. Whilst it is possible to understand eunuchs as forming a third gender in Byzantium, the concomitant arguments seem less persuasive. Contending that eunuchs were acculturated to the role of perfect servant, Ringrose herself acknowledges the lack of good evidence for the training of eunuchs (but strangely does not harness comparative evidence, such as the training of Ottoman eunuchs). Even if we were to accept that eunuchs were acculturated to this role it does not necessarily follow that they thus constituted a third gender. The view that a more positive construct of eunuchs evolved by the tenth century (or eighth, or ninth: confusingly the date given varies) is also debatable. Ringrose tends to fall back on Theophylact's treatise to support this view, despite its being written to counteract the negative views of eunuchs that still endured. Whilst Ringrose explains these as the survival of anachronistic rhetoric, perhaps it was the case that a choice about how to characterise eunuchs had existed much earlier and simply persisted (the starting date of 600 tends to obscure this, despite references back to the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries).

Further, some aspects of the book are puzzling. Key issues and points can be confined to footnotes (e.g. the definition of eunuchism; Leo VI's law allowing eunuchs to adopt; the existence of a eunuch eparch), whilst Ringrose's list of identifiable eunuchs would have made a useful appendix. The emphasis placed on Justinian being imagined in the tenth century to have had a eunuch chamberlain seems odd, since in reality he had had a key chamberlain, Kallinikos. The assertion that the etymology of the word eunuch altered from 'guardian of the bed' to 'well-minded' to reflect the more positive view of eunuchs in the middle Byzantine empire can be questioned as it is apparently found in the fourth century (P. Guyot, Eunuchen als Sklaven und Freigelassene in der griechisch-romischen Antike, 1980, p. 20 n. 14). The use of images is undeveloped, though Ringrose concedes this. It would also have been helpful to have supporting material for the concept of the perfect servant (and the idea of the ultimate master could also have been raised). Indeed the bibliography has notable omissions, such as some of the other recent work on eunuchs (e.g. Grayson and Tsai) but also work on Byzantium (e.g. Mullett on Theophylact of Ochrid).

Thus as a guide to Byzantine eunuchs this book has its limitations, not least its restricted chronology. Despite this it provides much to ponder on, especially the question of gender identity in Byzantium. Indeed Ringrose raises the possibility of multiple gender identities which deserves to be more fully explored.

Shaun Tougher

Cardiff University
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Author:Tougher, Shaun
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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