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Female Characters and Narrative Subordination

Posted On September 17, 2020 | 10:09 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Matthew Kinloch examines the textual logics and hierarchies of gender of Byzantine historiographical narratives

Matthew Kinloch, joint fellow in Byzantine and Renaissance History at Boğaziçi University and Villa I Tatti: The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, was a 2019–2020 fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “Gender and Marginality: Protagonists and Minor Characters in Byzantine Historiography,” analyzed the subordination of female characters in the Chronike syngraphe.


Q&A with Matthew Kinloch 

Why is the Chronike syngraphe of Akropolites important and how do you approach it?

The Chronike syngraphe (History) of Akropolites has been treated as the most reliable narrative history for the period between 1204 and 1261. There are a bunch of other narratives that cover the period, but none have been endowed with the same level of authority. Because of this the history of the thirteenth century has been defined by this one text.  

With this project I’m interested in seeing how female characters are produced in Byzantine historiographical narrative. A number of people have been interested in the thirteenth-century women in this text, but nobody has systematically studied its female characters as text-grammatical units of narrative, that is, actually as characters. 

The Chronike syngraphe is a brilliant test case because, thanks to Ruth Macrides, we understand it pretty well and it’s short enough to really analyze it systematically and to get into the detail of stuff like sentence structure.


How do relational descriptions in the text contribute to the subordination of female characters? 

Anyone who sits down and reads a Byzantine history could tell you female characters don’t appear particularly often or, for the most part, in particularly prominent roles. This simple observation is my starting point. I want to understand the textual logics and dynamics that create this effect.

I’ve been thinking about how female characters are subordinated to male characters in what they are presented as doing in the story and how their actions are made meaningful within the wider narrative, but I’ve been most focused on how they are grammatically signified, identified, and named. Basically, every female character in the Chronike syngraphe is identified through her relationship to some male character, for example as the wife of X or the daughter of Y. If you can’t identify a female character without reference to a male one, then the very textual existence of female characters ends up being outsourced to their husband or father.

Flipping that around, we see no cases in this text, and very few in other Byzantine narratives, where male characters’ identification depends on female characters in a similar way. The Chronike syngraphe’s character system is hierarchical and clearly gendered, and identificatory practices are a really big part of that.


What other kinds of subordination and violence have you found in the text? 

This project is conceived as a test case for a wider book project on minor characters and character hierarchies in Byzantine historiography. Female characters are an intuitive introduction for people. It’s pretty obvious: approximately 50% of the population is presented in a way that does not take up 50% of the text, no matter how you chop it up. 

The broader project is concerned with minorness, how different types of characters are marginalized and excluded in a whole variety of ways. My next step is thinking about non-elite characters, particularly urban populations. I’ve already started doing that in this project, because eliteness intersects with gender as well as various other textual dynamics. The wives of a group of Skythians in the Chronike syngraphe offer a good example of how gender, eliteness, barbarity/Romanness, and naming practices all intersect.


Julia Ostmann was 2018–2020 postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, 2018–2020 postgraduate digital media fellow.