Roland Betancourt, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Roland Betancourt (RB): In light of an all too familiar racist, transphobic, and xenophobic rhetoric rising in the United States in advance of the 2016 presidential election, I was compelled to finally write this project that had been ruminating in my mind.
I say “finally” because much of this work emerged from the processes of my ongoing research on the Byzantine Empire. The stories detailed across the book’s chapters had been mounting over the previous decade as I observed a constellation of intriguing and consistent stories about sexuality, gender identity, and racialization across Byzantine texts that had been often left out of our narratives and that have lacked a systematic history. The tenor of these medieval conversations struck me as compelling and unique articulations of many themes that we know well today in ways that were surprisingly modern, yet distinctly Byzantine. This book emerged from a desire to give a concrete articulation to fascinating narratives in some of our most well-known and cited Byzantine texts, which have long been overlooked in scholarship.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RB: Over the course of its five chapters, the book looks at a series of issues clustering around sexuality, gender, and race in the Middle Ages. The book begins by showcasing the ways in which early Christian and medieval sources contoured the intersectional subjectivities of their characters, detailing how sexuality, gender, and racialized identities come together to form unique conditions of subjugation.
The first chapter considers the importance placed on reproductive and sexual consent in narratives of the Annunciation, which lead into the second chapter’s focus on the sexual shaming of a Byzantine empress in a historical chronicle that aims at emphasizing the role of abortion and contraception in this narrative.
This shifts our attention to gendered constructions, focusing on a series of stories that tell the lives of male monastics who had been assigned female at birth in order to look at the wide range of gender variance that Byzantine sources articulated across secular and religious fields. With this nuanced approach to gender, the book then turns its focus to same-gender desires in all-male monastic communities, an attempt to understand how these desires were mediated and expressed by textual and visual sources.
Finally, taking together the various lessons of these chapters, the focus moves on to the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles and explores how the figure’s identity is contoured in art as a Black African, a eunuch, and a Christian subject. This allows us to understand how questions of gender and racialization intersected in the Byzantine world and the various identities that authors and artists negotiated in describing their figures. Throughout, the book weaves in legal, medical, and religious sources (saints’ lives, sermons, and so on) to paint a holistic picture of the Byzantine Empire’s approach to sexuality, gender, and race.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
RB: While this book is a significant departure from my previous work in its emphasis 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, several of the same stories and texts recur. There, however, they are being mined for different concepts and ideas, while showing only obliquely the narratives that take center stage in this book. I was quite conscious, both in my past work and this project, to have healthy amounts of overlap in order to demonstrate the complex enmeshing of sexuality, gender, and race across the spectrum of medieval life.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RB: This book should be read as a roadmap 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, it is my hope that this book will chart a path forward for thinking deeply about what Trans Studies has to offer the field of Byzantine Studies, and for acknowledging how Critical Race Theory can help us rethink the history of the Byzantine Empire’s place in the western canon. As neither ancient nor medieval, neither European nor Middle Eastern, Byzantium lies on a disparaged cusp of history that offers powerful potential for offering new lineages of medieval thought on matters that are of pressing importance today.
I would hope that this book also finds its way into the hands of non-academics and non-medievalists as well. On the one hand, to demonstrate the richness and surprising wealth of material that this academic space has to offer. Yet, on the other hand, to permit people to rethink the types of questions that we can ask of the past and to urge us to think of more ethical ways of giving representation to lost and forgotten subjects.
For the lay reader, I would hope that this book surprises them and excites them, revealing a history of early Christianity and the Middle Ages that is deeply foreign to our stereotypes of those periods. The book should inspire us and demand that we think of the past as different from our preconceptions, but also radically familiar in wonderfully ineffable ways.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RB: In Spring 2021, I have a forthcoming book, entitled Performing the Gospels in Byzantium: Sight, Sound, and Space in the Divine Liturgy, which looks at the dynamics of ritual performance across text, images, recitation, and architecture.
One area of my future research focuses on simulacral spaces, such as Disneyland and Las Vegas, while another is an ongoing interest in the uses of the medieval past by the far right and conspiracy theorists, particularly in discourses over the reclamation of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia. In some ways, both these projects are deeply entwinned around the permutations of the historical past in the present.
A book project on the allure of secrecy and the ways in which intimacies are formed around keeping secrets is also closely aligned to these methodological goals. The latter project formulates itself across various aspects of Byzantine life.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)
Following the intersectional approach of critical race studies and feminism, this project acknowledges that identity is neither singular nor delimited by neat categories. In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to stress that the lived realities of marginalized people do not exist as isolated factors alone but instead come together at the intersection of gender, sexuality, race, socioeconomic status, and so on. Thus, intersectionality looks at how the overlap of social identities creates unique conditions of inequality and oppression.23 Unlike approaches that study the role of women or foreigners 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 socially identified as being both foreign and female, yet she is not merely the sum of those 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 to the inherent queerness of these stories and the empire from which that slur was taken. Intersectional identity is byzantine—it is infinitely complicated, and it is often characterized as devious, deceitful, and corrupt.
For those reasons, I have chosen to use the phrase “the Byzantine world” throughout this book: it serves as a capacious term to encompass the span of the Greek-speaking Mediterranean, as well as the 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 foundation of Constantinople in the early fourth century until its conquest in the late fifteenth century. In using a definition that spans the late antique, medieval, and early modern periods, I purposely acknowledge the unbroken tradition of the medieval Roman Empire, which possessed an access to and intimacy with the Greek and Latin heritage of the ancient Greek and Roman Mediterranean and its neighbors.
Intersectionality, however, does more than flesh out the subjectivities of people who experience the overlap of several discriminated against, marginalized, or disenfranchised identities. Intersectionality also alerts us to the 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, yet it also makes us aware that women of privilege would have been spared from such libelous representations in texts, even when performing the same deeds. For example, that an elite medical text would provide detailed prescriptions for abortive suppositories, contraceptive treatments, and late-term surgical methods for terminating a pregnancy demonstrates the privilege of upper-class women’s own pursuits of contraception and abortion.
In examining the lives of figures subjected to multiple inequities, we begin to perceive the privileges afforded to some other women, men, and nonbinary figures in society. Privilege, and the privacy it often enables, create the greatest lacunae in the historical record. Privacy creates closets that allow certain figures ample room to maneuver, away from the judgment and agency of publics and oppressors. Such figures are usually also safe from the historian’s stylus. Thus, in articulating the intersectionality of disenfranchised identities, we will also be outlining the privilege afforded to those persons who might have shared in some of these identities, but whose economic status, social rank, race, origin, and so on spared them from vilification in the historical record—if not from any association with a marginalized identity. Intersectionality makes us keenly aware of all those hidden figures who were able to make choices about their sexual consent, pursue abortions and contraceptives, live as transgender monks, engage in same-gender intimacies, and be black at court, without facing the same degree of invective or libel as their poorer counterparts. This book challenges us to take risks in fleshing out the intersectional lives of the downtrodden, while also providing spectrums of possibility for the identities and freedoms allowed to the more privileged ranks and neglected by the historical record.