Lecture of Prof. Dr Leonora Neville “Byzantine Gender”

On Friday, the 19th of November 2021, Prof. Dr Leonora Neville of the University of Wisconsin-Madison was the guest of the Forvm Romanvm club, lecturing on “Byzantine Gender”. She pointed out that the theory on the biological differences between men and women is rooted in Galen’s work, according to which men are naturally “dry” and “hot”, more rational and with a higher degree of self-control, while women are “moist” and “cold”, more susceptible to emotions and urges. Natural predispositions, however, could be changed, and typically male characteristics were considered superior: it is a trope in hagiographies of female saints to describe them as manly and able to overcome the weakness of their sex. Another important factor were the archetypal models, coming first and foremost from the Holy Scripture, but also from the Antiquity (Greece and Rome), which served as ideals that one could emulate or compare with. Prof. Neville particularly focused on the ethical emulation of antique role models, pointing out the differences between the Antiquity and the Middle Ages regarding ethical notions. For example, the Spartan king Agesilaus who ruled in the 4th century BC served as an example of sophrosyne – self-control and chastity – even in the 12th century AC, although the meaning of the term had changed significantly throughout the ages. Medieval Rhomaian authors often used concrete stories and anecdotes from the lives of antique heroes to illustrate Christian virtues, interpreting their actions from a different angle, but with the same core values; it was particularly common to use Plutarch’s texts to this purpose. After the lecture a very broad discussion ensued, with the subjects ranging from the perception of the “male” and “female” emotions and behaviour in Rhomaian culture, to the inadequacy of the term “Byzantium”.