No longer in the margins
UCI professor's new book foregrounds marginalized identities of the Middle Ages
By Annabel Adams
Many would consider the legacy of the Byzantine Empire (also known as the Eastern Roman Empire) to be its lasting contributions to art and literature. This legacy includes references to and conversations about matters that most would consider contemporary—issues that until recently have remained at the margins. These include matters of reproductive consent, sexual shaming, trans and nonbinary genders, queer intimacies, and racial identity. Scouring medieval medical guides, religious texts and archival records, Roland Betancourt, Chancellor’s Fellow and professor of art history and visual studies at the University of California, Irvine, has compiled and analyzed these longstanding conversations to reveal a richer past with undeniable connections to the present. This groundbreaking research is the basis for his new book, Byzantine Intersectionality (Princeton University Press, 2020), the first work of scholarship to approach Byzantine texts and works of art through an intersectional lens.
“My goal is to attend to the people who often go unnoticed in traditional historiography — or deliberately ignored,” he says.
Each chapter of Byzantine Intersectionality is what Betancourt calls a “minuscule intersectional history.” Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to demonstrate how gender, sexuality, race and socioeconomic status do not exist as isolated factors, but rather as intersecting factors that affect people’s lived experiences. It is with that lens that Betancourt challenges his readers to see both the marginalized identities of Byzantine figures as well as the possibility for the identities and freedoms afforded to the more privileged ranks. These histories include eunuchs (figures assigned male at birth, who were castrated and lived their life as a third gender, identifying neither as male nor female), transgender monks, an empress ridiculed for her sexuality in a manner we would call “slut shaming” today, and differently-abled persons, among others.
Typically, historians are trained to avoid using explicitly modern terms or interpreting records in ways that might risk being called anachronistic. Betancourt, however, defies this notion, noting that identities are always in flux and that histories themselves are products of the people writing them.
“In academia, we are constantly developing terms to better describe ideas and situations in history,” he says. “For instance, just because there was no term for rape in antiquity does not mean that rape was not happening in antiquity. By applying modern terms with clarity and nuance, we as scholars are able to translate and more accurately explain what we are seeing in the past, even when the past could not fully explain it in its own language.”
Setting the tone for his anachronistic approach, Betancourt dedicates the book to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, Chelsea Manning, Matthew Shepard, and Marsha P. Johnson. Each chapter loosely corresponds to one of their stories — Dr. Ford and Anita Hill with sexual consent, Monica Lewinsky with the deep scars of “slut-shaming,” Chelsea Manning with coming of age as a transgender subject of empire, Matthew Shepard with the sufferings of queer figures, and Marsha P. Johnson for the contributions of Black transgender women through history. Betancourt’s hope is that these important and well-known figures provide a framework for understanding the historical details that might otherwise be unfamiliar.
“While writing each chapter, I had these figures in the back of my mind, orienting how I addressed each topic, and illustrating how the discriminations that Byzantine figures were subjected to are not at all a thing of the past — they are still plaguing us today.”
In fact, what surprised Betancourt in his research was not finding evidence of transgender people, people of color, and non-normative people in the archive, but rather of reading medieval authors describing these experiences and identities in language so similar to that which we would find today.
“When transphobia emerges in these medieval texts, it emerges in similar formats as today, enacting similar types of rhetorical violence. As a historian, I have been able to document the historical figuration of transphobia in the past, and it is concerning the degree to which some primary sources — sources attacking and ridiculing medieval trans people — read like contemporary, far-right pundits complaining about trans people on the news. In positive accounts of trans people, on the other hand, you do not find as many lurid details about people’s bodies and the struggles trans people have in pursuing a host of gender affirming practices.”
The act of translation itself can belie the rich and nuanced stories of the past. There are sites and social media pages dedicated to poking fun of how historians and archaeologists have often willfully obscured sexual reality through sanitized interpretations or translations that downplay certain aspects of race, gender, and sexuality.
“It is distressingly comical to open a Loeb Classical Library edition of an ancient text and notice that whenever there is any mention of something sexual, it rarely gets translated into English. Early twentieth-century translators leave such language in Latin so only scholars at a certain level will be able to understand it — and even then, only as a sort of euphemism,” he says.
In many of Betancourt’s undergraduate courses, students have a chance to explore these historical gaffes and to make their own memes about them. His inventive courses—from an undergraduate course titled “Image Collision” to a graduate seminar called “The Ontological Turn”—have earned him awards for excellence in pedagogy. His Disneyland course, which examines the visual connections between the theme park and medieval places of worship, generated national buzz.
Whether it’s through his courses or his new book, Betancourt hopes his students and readers will gain a new understanding of the past, “one that includes them and represents them, allowing them to know they are not alone -- in the past, but also in the present,” he says.
Byzantine Intersectionality is now available for purchase from Princeton University Press here and Amazon here.
With reporting by Megan Cole