Gendered Nature: Depictions of Femininity in later Byzantine Literature

A report by Imke Fleuren.

On the 23rd of January the Research Training Group 1876 welcomed Miss Kirsty Stewart from the university of Oxford to give a lecture on "Gendered Nature: Depictions of Femininity in later Byzantine Literature". Miss Stewart studied medieval history and is currently working on her PhD dissertation concerning the representation of nature, and specifically animals, in Palaiologan literature.

According to Miss Stewart, concepts of man and nature can be seen as a key element in the Byzantine literature. It should be noted that almost all of these texts were created by male authors, who use the various landscapes, plants and animals to describe and depict women, both in a positive and negative way.

Miss Stewart demonstrates the function of landscapes in late Byzantine literature by discussing three romances, namely Velthandros and Chrysandza, Kallimachos and Chrysorroi, and Livistros and Rodamni. Within these stories, several different landscapes are found, that each act in a different way.

Wild and untamed landscapes, such as the sea and woodlands, can be seen as a representation of a dangerous place outside of human control. In both Kallimachos and Chrysorroi and Livistros and Rodamni, the main role of the witch occurs in the wilderness, which emphasizes the dangerous character of her personality.

The garden, on the other hand, is often described as a paradise-like environment and can be seen as the realm of the heroine. Just like a garden, the heroine needs to be looked after, and it is the hero that fulfils this role. The walls of the garden can be interpreted as a symbolic reference to virginity, and entering the garden as sexual conquest. On a small-scale level, individual garden-plants are used to describe and reflect the heroine’s beauty. In all three romances, the rose is used for this purpose. Similar imagery of the rose can also be found in Classical, Western and Persian literature. The garden is thus used as a medium to make the heroine look as pure and beautiful as nature, while simultaneously emphasizing her sensuality or modesty.

Just as landscapes and plants, animals are used as a reference to human behaviour or a specific gender as well. This is not only true for the Palaiologan texts, but can also be seen in Classical and hexaemereal texts and the Physiologos. The three discussed romances clearly show that landscapes, and in particular the garden, are used as a backdrop for the characters and story-line, while individual plants are primarily used to depict beauty. Animals, on the other hand, are in Byzantine literature used to depict desirable or inappropriate behavioural traits.

Depictions of animals as a reference to a specific gender are, however, not always straightforward, because they are grammatically gendered in Greek. This is, for example, the case in An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds. Also, some animals, such as the bear or deer, seem to change gender and the ox even has both genders. Consequently, wider ideas of gender cannot automatically be distilled.

Luckily, references to specific genders are not always dubious. In a positive way, women are frequently described as birds. In Byzantine texts, these birds often have a prophetic role and can appear in dreams, such as the black eagle in Livistros and Rodamni.

There are on the other hand also examples of women being described and depicted in a negative manner. A clear example of this can be found in the role of the fox in the Synaxarion of the Honourable Donkey. It becomes apparent that the fox behaves like a female character of the worst type: cunning, talkative, wicked and too clever for her own good. This example clearly shows how women were expected to behave in society by doing the exact opposite.

Miss Stewart emphasizes the fact that the character of the fox could be further interpreted in several different ways, including various political or social meanings that we cannot read, because we are too far removed from the events. However, an interesting interpretation in the form of a possible religious connection of the Synaxation of the Honourable Donkey is worth mentioning. The whole tale seems to be based around the idea of false sacrifice and the acts of confession. According to Miss Stewart, it is possible that the author is drawing a direct connection with the heretical Bogomils. Animals associated with heretics and paganism can be seen in other texts, for example in the Panarion and in the Apocrypha.

All the examples give a clear picture of the various uses of nature in different types of texts. Miss Stewart has clearly demonstrated this for the case of gender, and more specifically the female gender in Byzantine texts. Landscapes and individual plants and animals are used to express certain concepts and ideas, not only in the Palaiologan texts, but also in, for instance, the Classical, Western and Persian literature. The various texts clearly draw on each other, but are at the same time representative of their own period and express the concepts and ideas of the society writing them.


  1. Diese Assoziationen zu spezifischen Landschaften sind außerordentlich spannend, da in unserer heutigen Sicht nur wenig davon übrig ist. Im europäischen Mittelalter scheint heiß-kalt, naß-trocken ein häufiges Zuordnungsschema, das beispielsweise auch Einfluß darauf hatte, wie man Abfälle entsorgt hat, bzw. ob/ wo man Dünger eingesetzt hat. Jenseits der gender-Forschung ist diese Umweltwahrnehung möglicherweise recht wirkmächtig auf die Mensch-Umwelt-Interaktion.


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