1. Gender in the Premodern Mediterranean

Megan Moore

[print edition page number: 1]


Here it thunders now over the Mediterranean, high and lonely,

this anachronism in primal red, in yellow purer

than can be found anywhere today, a purity

begging to be polluted . . . of course Empire took its way

westward, what other way was there but into those

virgin sunsets to penetrate and to foul?

— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Thomas Pynchon’s brief reflection on the power of “a nineteenth-century wilderness” sunset thundering over the Mediterranean in Gravity’s Rainbow imagines war-torn identities as constructed through fluid connections between self and place. In this short passage, gender and geography collide, as the Mediterranean metonymizes empire, with its attendant dynamics of despoiling and befouling, situating the process of expansion as the destruction of virginity, the corruption of a mythical, perfected femininity in the service of patriarchy. Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reflection on the perfection of an era that never existed, Pynchon’s corrupted “virgin sunsets” nonetheless build upon a long tradition of Mediterranean contact and conquest that relies on gender politics as an integral way of figuring power, where desecration of gender norms announces power and victory.

Pynchon’s play on gender and empire resonates with academic discussions of identity, although, unlike him, we are mostly unwilling to combine the long story of the Mediterranean with nineteenth-century romanticism. Although area studies such as Mediterranean Studies have become insightful tools for approaching intersectionality, we still tend to conceptualize gender practices as highly localized. Indeed, incredibly careful and thorough studies of the intricacies of local practices of gender, race, and class have lent credibility to burgeoning studies of identity politics, describing the personal in ways that are both intellectual and political. Intersectional work from the past two decades, such as that of Anne McClintock (Imperial Leather) or Kathleen Brown (Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs), exemplifies how reading a panoply of sources in order to isolate highly specific cultural locales may help us to better understand[2] the identities constructed there.[1] Because of this careful work on intersectionality, scholarship now seeks to explore the nuances of conflicting identity categories to contextualize our discussions, thereby avoiding essentialist categories such as “feminist” or “woman” or “masculine.” However, discussions of gender remain essentially tied to a highly localized space — either ideological, socio-economical, or even geographical. Yet, if we look to Pynchon’s highly successful mashup of WWII, the Mediterranean, and the gender politics of romanticism, we might inquire, should they be?

In this volume we try to respond to the question: what happens when we take a step back from the highly local, or the highly individual, to explore the ways in which an area and its constraints interlace with practices of gender? In Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s The Repeating Island, for example, the Caribbean island is a structure unto itself, with constants that expand beyond borders of language or empire; likewise, the essays in Gender in the Premodern Mediterranean explore how the culture of the sea interfaces with gender performance. One of the tenets of this volume is that cross-culturalism affects the possibilities of gender: whereas reading from the perspective of a highly nationalized culture might produce one set of gender norms, the premodern Mediterranean, with its normalization of hybridity and cross-cultural exchange, represents a unique vantage point for understanding how cultural melding impacts gendered performances. The sirens of this volume invite us to better understand how the premodern Mediterranean, in all its fluidity, permitted and even embraced gender practices that are at turns hegemonic (imperial princess), despondent (impoverished widow), lucrative (savvy sea-faring traders), and surprising (ferocious Saracen women in blackface).

We are by no means the first to read premodern gender in its larger cultural context. Critical studies of premodern gender have recently addressed gender and authority, liturgy, aging, narration, piety, and affect, as in Eric Dursteler’s recent investigation of Mediterranean women who used religious conversion to acquire power in his Renegade Women or Jutta Sperling and Shona Kelly Wray’s collection Across the Religious Divide, among many others.[2] While there are many important anthologies and monographs that explore gender in a premodern context,[3] to my knowledge, no major studies have systematically sought to compare the practices of gender in the Mediterranean across boundaries of religion, culture, language, and geography within the premodern period.[3] The prevalence and importance of gender studies in almost all disciplines means that there are several fundamental studies of a more localized nature, yet none have focused on the ways that gender and area studies coalesce in the premodern period. As a site of unusually widespread economic, cultural, and agrarian exchange for the premodern period, the Mediterranean provides a unique vantage point for understanding how cultural contact and gender practices were co-constitutive and deployed for specific purposes. We begin here with the premise that the exchange facilitated by the Mediterranean made possible the gender positions that negotiated a spectrum of identities upon its shores.

This volume explores the ways in which gender was performed in the Mediterranean as well as how gender practices helped to shape Mediterranean cultural practices. In the interest of representing a spectrum of positions, the volume contains essays spanning gender practices from the early medieval to the late Renaissance. While this time frame is certainly almost as expansive as the sea itself, the volume is not meant to represent every culture or gender practice in the Mediterranean but, rather, to show a nebulous and complex web of gender performances, the very variety of which is made possible through the mixing on its coasts. The essays in this collection both situate gender performances within their particular cultural context, and respond to the comparative focus of this volume, in which we seek to determine to what extent the Mediterranean impacted gender performances and permitted new kinds of gendered possibilities.

The field of Mediterranean Studies has gained traction, but to date, few monographs have considered gender in a cross-cultural Mediterranean construct.[4] Many of the essays in the past ten years have rightly sought to elucidate gender in Muslim or Jewish contexts, but few studies seek to contextualize these practices (or even those of Christians) within a broader premodern Mediterranean context. Our research tools themselves reflect this paucity. Even many of the most refined databases offer geographical divisions that divide the Mediterranean and resist thinking with it: Brepols’ IMDB, for example, offers “Eastern Mediterranean,” “Iberia,” “Italy,” and “Africa” as limiters. Likewise Early English Books Online offers geographical limiters based on nationalized borders (presumably relating to place of publication). While the digital humanities — in their most basic form as databases detailing publications within premodern studies and in their more complex form as tools such as GIS software, N-gram, and Wordle — offer us many advantages in researching premodern identities, they also limit and constrain our research choices by seeking to normalize modern political paradigms by mapping them onto medieval and early modern geopolitical constructs. The practice of limiting inquiry by nationalized linguistic paradigms — essentially mapping them to current geopolitical paradigms — underscores[4] the concerns expressed in recent digital humanities scholarship on the cultural practices embedded in cartography.[5] The geocultural and digital limitations imposed on Mediterranean research resonate with earlier scholarship about identity, which largely obscured non-canonical races, classes, and genders, if not on purpose then by omission.[6] In service of recognizing, recovering, and analyzing non-canonical identity positions — permitted precisely by the premodern and through its Mediterranean — we have written essays designed to begin scholarly dialogue about gender practices that efface borders and bridge cultures. Moreover, while gender is constructed through the Mediterranean Sea, our essays here argue in part that the fluidity of gender practices helps produce some of the most visible facets of the premodern Mediterranean itself, its power structures.

Mediterranean Studies

As the explosion of scholarship in area studies would suggest, it is no surprise that scholars have turned to the Mediterranean as a promising site of analysis, a place not only with its own history (a “history of the Mediterranean”) but also one that itself affects cultural practices, one that produces “history in the Mediterranean.” To that end, it is worthwhile understanding the particularities of the premodern Mediterranean, not only to see what it offers as a scholarly framework but also to recognize its limitations in functioning as a site that produces identity.

As the fundamental works by Fernand Braudel and by Nicholas Purcell and Peregrine Horden tell us, the Mediterranean is a fully functional category through which to read cultural history.[7] Starting with the ancient Greeks, the region has had a thoroughly annotated and deliberated history replete with documentation of its cross-cultural philosophy, economy, art making, and war mongering. For some of today’s scholars, thinking with the Mediterranean has helped break down disciplinary and nationalist constraints on scholarship. As Sharon Kinoshita and Brian Catlos, co-founders of the Mediterranean Seminar, have explained,[5]

Though because of the dominance of modern national paradigms, the weight of teleological historical traditions, and assumptions about the rigidity of ecumenical divisions, the premodern Mediterranean is frequently regarded as an anomaly, it was central to the historical developments and cultural transformations that produced Modernity.[8]

For premodern purposes, the Mediterranean is a way of exploring cultural exchange in a time better known in the popular eye for its associations with warfare (the Crusades, civil wars, and Ottoman invasions), disease (the Plague), and archaic political systems based upon violent physical retribution (fictionalized in The Game of Thrones). Yet paying attention to the particularities of this region reveal its importance — not in figuring the archaic but in constructing the modern. As a site of analysis, the Mediterranean offers an escape from common assumptions about power and nation (as in studies of the courts of Aragon, the Medici, or the Komnenoi, to name but a few).

While scholarship on specialized locales has offered us a much fuller picture of daily life in the premodern period — and in many instances has offered us a clearer vision of gender practices in those locales — exploring Mediterranean dynamics offers us a chance to think with diaspora and emigration as the norm, even in a period reputed for its lack of mobility — geographic, social, or otherwise. We can then ask how localized paradigms function on a larger scale and depend on our knowledge of highly localized practices and also how they are made possible precisely through the cultural slippage that is the hybridity of the Mediterranean contact zone. We may think of the Mediterranean as a band of nebulous interactions, instead of as a neat body of water or a particular geopolitical space; it is a zone that produces particular identities unique to the kinds of contact on which it depends, such as the African merchant who negotiates customs along the Spanish coast.

There is, of course, much work on the Mediterranean from fields as disparate as premodern medicine, history, geography, art history, archaeology, math, astronomy, and literature; the diversity attests to the draw of the approach and the recognition of its value in providing a valuable framework for analysis. The work in this volume draws on constructions of the Mediterranean first proposed by Braudel and then refined (and even contradicted) by Horden and Purcell.[9] While Michael Herzfeld has long been a vocal critic of the validity of “Mediterranean” as a construct, others have worked to unpack and refine its utility, focusing in many cases on how individually disparate practices fit into larger[6] paradigms made possible through the sea.[10] Historians such as David Abulafia and Palmira Brummett and cartographers such as Grant Parker have worked to destabilize totalizing definitions of the Mediterranean,[11] seeing instead its diversity, what Brummett has claimed as an area “more often composed of fragments: separate seas, stretches of coast, zones of livelihood, points of departure, and points of arrival.”[12] For Brummett, the Mediterranean becomes a tool through which hegemony (both in premodern texts and in the scholarship that examines it) is exposed, analyzed, and rebutted:

For me, that sea is indelibly fragmented into its ports, islands, coasts, and their attendant interiors. It is divided into a set of city-linking itineraries, routes for the transmission of ideas, goods, and military forces. If I do imagine the Mediterranean as a whole, it is not a space divided into Christian and Muslim “halves” [. . .] It is not marked by ecological zones but by complex, overlapping, ethnolinguistic, commercial, and cultural identities.[13]

For Brummett, the Mediterranean is not only a site where history happens but also a site through which particular histories have been constructed. Her call to consider the Mediterranean as a category of analysis highlights the sometimes divergent purposes of scholars working in this field, but it points to both the flexibility of the construct and its potential to revise received notions of identity, center, and hegemony.[14] Her call resonates with Patrick Geary’s scholarly project to clean up the “history of Europe’s nations,” which he has called a “toxic waste dump, filled with the poison of ethnic nationalism.”[15] While not specifically grounded in the Mediterranean, Geary’s The Myth of Nations questions the integrity of a supposed premodern French nationalism, in the process highlighting[7] the very dynamics Mediterranean studies seeks to question. Likewise, Sharon Kinoshita advocates a Mediterranean that

[m]ost obviously . . . displaces the nation as the default category of analysis that, even in our purportedly postnational age, continues to “ghost” our literary imaginings [. . .] Such a move is indispensable for the Middle Ages, a period in which “nation,” in the sense of the nation-state, is an unwieldy anachronism.[16]

The work conceptualizing the Mediterranean seeks to highlight the ways in which our received notions — of East and West, of Muslims and Christians — rely on deeply seated and clearly unstable binaries, leaving out so many sites of interaction, of hybridity and cross-cultural exchange.[17] While conceived before the explosion of interest in Mediterranean scholarship, economic histories by Angeliki Laiou and Olivia Constable show a complex web of trade and exchange stretching well back into late antiquity and undergirding the Mediterranean as a category of analysis. Their work highlights a set of networks that trouble a consideration of the shoreline predicated uniquely upon a traditional east-west geography, and studies such as those by Avner Greif invite a much more complex formulation of the economic Mediterranean, including its ties to the African slave trade.[18]

Both northern and southern shores are integral to figuring the Mediterranean experience, as scholars of Al-Andalus such as David Wacks and Brian Catlos have most forcefully pointed out.[19] Indeed work on the trading networks in Italian cities, especially in the late Renaissance and early modern periods, shows that north-south exchange was the norm for cities stretched all along the shores and that our intense interest in formulating an east/Muslim and west/Christian dichotomy may be more a legacy of nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics than pertinent to premodern studies.[20] Most recently, Lisa Lampert-Weissig has built off of Mary Louise Pratt’s notion of “contact zones” to reconceptualize Iberia as a zone of interaction, a gradient of cross-culturalism, pluralism, and hybridity, rather than a strict division between north and south or even Islam[8] and Christianity.[21] It is in this vein that we consider the Mediterranean to be both a way of disrupting stark binaries such as East and West, or Muslim and Christian, and a zone for exploring gradients of identity, seen most forcefully in gender practices such as those of Byzantine eunuchs or the premodern Italian stage actors considered by the contributors to this volume.

Contemporary historians’ uses of Mediterranean and sea studies to revise nationalized identities resonate with the questions posed by literary scholars, who have advocated for a Mediterranean that encapsulates a diaspora of identity positions and who have most forcefully used the Mediterranean to interrogate received notions about premodern national paradigms. In medieval French studies, one of the first and most widely cited examples is the rereading of the Song of Roland within a Mediterranean geopolitical context. Whereas the Roland has long been read as a testament to the birth of “French” identity, scholars attentive to the nuances of a Mediterranean methodology have reread that text and the birth of its interpretation in late nineteenth-century France as more enmeshed in modern politics than thoroughly grounded in medieval culture. Sharon Kinoshita, Patrick Geary, and Michelle Warren have separately argued through their Mediterranean readings of the Roland and its nineteenth-century century appropriations that we must reconsider the construction of “self” and “other” in this text;[22] their readings reveal not only the ways in which the text is itself a piece of medieval propaganda but also how others — namely, nineteenth-century scholars such as Gaston and Paulin Paris and Joseph Bédier — disregarded the Mediterranean context of the Roland in favor of the geopolitics of nineteenth-century France’s struggle for cultural and political sovereignty in the face of Prussian power.[23] Kinoshita, for example, writes:


Disengaging the Roland from this colonial context, in which alterity is implicitly or explicitly cast in the taxonomic categories of racialized difference, brings into focus the fluidity characterizing medieval notions of difference. This in turn reveals “France” and “Europe” to be not geographical entities given in advance, but ideological constructs with their own deeply complicated history of conquest, colonization, and acculturation, in ways that continue to resonate, for example, in political debates on multiculturalism in France or in the emergence of the European Community.[24]

As Kinoshita points out, the Mediterranean is not merely a location in which a text is set; it is a location through which a text constructs identities, sometimes to the detriment of highly specific and localized identities. The Mediterranean is not only a zone of interaction but also a weapon of representation, sometimes deployed to blur localized constructs.

The methodology of Mediterranean studies has become so useful that it seeps into many analyses that are not intentionally focused by geocultural specificity; we take this to be a testament to its utility. In a literary study, Jane Burns has carefully traced the path of textiles that make their appearance in medieval French romance, a genre traditionally more closely aligned with northern Celtic myth than with the ebb and flow of the Mediterranean. Though not intentionally invoking the Mediterranean, her methodology and work in Sea of Silk and Courtly Love Undressed reveal the Mediterranean as integral to imagining and fashioning community — in this case, the community of nobility — in literature of the medieval period.[25] Similarly, studies by Karla Malette, Lynn Ramey, Marla Segol, Nina Zhiri, Lisa Lampert-Weissig, and myself in French;[26] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Suzanne Akbari in English;[27] Krijna Ciggaar in Byzantine studies;[28] Eric Dursteler, Marie Kelleher, María Rosa Menocal, David Wacks, and David Wasserstein in Spanish,[29] to name but a few, have all advocated for not only recognizing the importance of the Mediterranean in premodern cultural studies but also for reconceptualizing our commonplaces — east and west, north and south, other and self.

Pervasive within early modern studies, the Mediterranean has become integral to figuring the premodern self, for example in recent scholarship tying English theater to the Mediterranean; exploring the expansive role of Ottoman contact and rule; and examining the impacts of trade networks and printing[10] technologies.[30] Yet in studies of Mediterranean convergence, if gender has a role, it is often to support a larger argument about the Mediterranean or to delve deeply into highly local practices, not highlighted as a primary way of approaching the Mediterranean rather than functioning. This collection of essays seeks to differ by offering examples of larger Mediterranean paradigms through regional studies of gender practices spanning from late antique and early medieval religious texts to early modern Venetian theatrical performance.

Gender Studies and the Mediterranean

Both early and more contemporary scholars of gender studies share a common desire to explore gender positions from which to articulate and claim identity, while simultaneously exposing the assumptions of patriarchy on which not only society but also scholarship is framed.[31] In the case of the most recent feminist work from the United States, this has resulted in criticism of gender studies itself, which too long ignored how particular identity positions (race, class, religion, ethnicity, disability, etc.) affected the practices of gender. Post-second wave feminist reflections such as This Bridge Called My Back sparked a new attention to intersectionality and to the privileges of first-world feminism; the attentiveness of these activists and scholars has proven useful for considering intersectionality in medieval and early modern scholarship, even if we often lack the voice of the repressed in our paucity of sources.[32]

Several excellent edited volumes can help guide the introductory student or scholar through major work in the field; recently, scholarship attentive to the multiple ways identity is constructed in terms of race, class, gender, ethnicity,[11] and religious and sexual orientations has helped nuance the dialogue.[33] While some of the most strident criticism of white upper-class feminism has been launched in the past few decades by scholars and activists involved with modern (American) culture, medievalists and pre-modernists have by no means ignored the nuances of these identity positions, however hard that may be in a period in which sources remain extremely scarce. In fact, medievalists and early modernists have recently revealed how these conversations about gender are often dominated by assumptions about modernity. Like women of color calling for a reformulation of “women’s” experience, scholars whose subject and work were often marginalized or excluded for their lack of relevance have greatly enriched the understanding of gender as a concept. Premodern voices nuance our dialogues about identity, and by recognizing alternate concepts of family, love, sexuality, and power they reveal much about modern assumptions about the hegemony of a singular, “modern” experience of gender.

Perhaps more important to our project, several scholars have already worked extensively on gender in the premodern period, with carefully researched scholarship that has fundamentally altered our understanding of the horizons of premodern existence.[34] Work by Jane Burns, Jane Chance, Elizabeth Robertson, Caroline Walker Bynum, Roberta Krueger, Karma Lochrie, and Peggy McCracken helped to propel the importance of gender in a historical period from which sources about non-hegemonic identity positions are relatively scarce.[35] Beyond this foundational scholarship, other collections have expanded our understanding of gender in particular social milieux: some have focused on[12] gender and class, with a particular attention to the experience of the poor;[36] others have approached the question of religious difference through gender;[37] still others have looked at gender and exoticism;[38] or gender as an expression of hegemony.[39] As in this study, premodern gender studies have used print sources, architectural features, and cultural artifacts to explore gender in an increasingly expanding world of “texts,” in Barthes’ sense.[40]

Taken together, we see that both Mediterranean and gender studies are interested in how intersectionality impacts identity; both fields systematically reject monolithic categories of identity, and both invite consideration of how a spectrum, how zones of interaction, construct identity. Rather than focus on a singular performance as representative, both fields seek spectrums of exchange, contact, and fluidity as ways of conceptualizing existence. In the long premodern period of this volume — a time span, of course, naturally prone to societal evolution and change — the Mediterranean is nonetheless useful because it is predicated on a lack of searching for a singular position of geocultural stability; rather, it is constituted through the exchanges it facilitates — its power lies in its base in evolution, rather than its departure from an imaginary, fixed point of nationalized, localized identity. Likewise, while working from the early medieval to the early modern, the essays here join together in showcasing the power of the Mediterranean as a methodological approach that nuances our understanding of identity–and in particular, its interwoven gender structures — in the premodern. The intersection, then, of premodern gender studies and Mediterranean studies is particularly fruitful, and the essays here, while divergent in subject matter and time period, come together around the shores of the sea they take as integral to figuring identity, as they identify how gender and the Mediterranean are co-constructed,[13] not only in times of war but also in spiritual undertakings, cross-cultural trade, and in theatrical depictions.

Contributions to this Volume

This volume stems from an intersection of the latest work on gender studies and a scholarly commitment to retheorizing the medieval and early modern experience as constitutive of, produced by, and contributing to the Mediterranean. The essays here seek to illustrate how these categories are mutually constructive, and though there is a wide variety of geographic, disciplinary, and theoretical approaches used here, hardly any volume of Mediterranean Studies could be totally representative of the plethora of identity positions constructed there; we still would invite further conversation from Byzantinists and Islamists, for example, in order to enrich our understanding of the variety of ways in which gender and the Mediterranean were co-constitutive in the premodern period. Likewise we hope the volume spurs conversation about intersectionality in the Mediterranean among scholars who do not necessarily consider gender as a primary approach to their work.

In Chapter 2, “Ambrose, Augustine, Perpetua: Defining Gender across the Mediterranean,” Margaret Cotter-Lynch questions received notions aligning early Christian communities with narratives that reify gender difference, about women that are “overly influenced by later ideological accruals in which gender binaries are in fact re-established through the trope of virtuous women ‘becoming male.’” Cotter-Lynch suggests that we should redirect our attention to Mediterranean gender paradigms evident in texts such as the Passio Perpetuae that reveal a wider range of gender positions and, she suggests, offer models for later constructions of gender identity in the Mediterranean. According to Cotter-Lynch, the story of St. Perpetua, a twenty-two-year-old early Christian martyr and nursing mother, reveals that although Perpetua’s religion is clearly demarcated, her gender is neither clear nor important. Reading the progression of the Perpetua stories reveals the Mediterranean roots of gender paradigms, in particular “an increasing emphasis on gender dichotomy and hierarchy, until Augustine’s sermons overwrite Perpetua’s story with St. Ambrose’s paradigm that ‘[o]ne who does not believe is a woman and should be designated in the name of that sex, whereas one who believes progresses to perfect manhood.’” Through readings of the Perpetua tradition over time, Cotter-Lynch argues that “this version of Perpetua, who overcomes her femininity to ‘become male,’ then dominates the medieval tradition and becomes a model for later Christian women. Augustine thus codifies an understanding of gender that, paradoxically, by allowing for the possibility of holy women ‘becoming male,’ simultaneously asserts the inherent hierarchy of male over female and indelibly yokes gender definitions to sexuality for the next 1600 years.”[14]

Bronwen Neil’s “Visions, Female Sexuality, and Spiritual Leadership in Byzantine Ascetic Literature of the Sixth and Seventh Centuries” continues the discussion of gender in the ascetic movement, focusing primarily on dreaming within the Dialogues of Gregory the Great and the Sayings (Apophthegmata) of the Egyptian desert elders. Neil’s careful analysis explores what these monastic sources reveal of Byzantine and western views of female sexuality and spiritual leadership, especially as this was manifested in visions. She evaluates the differences and similarities between eastern and western Christian perceptions of dreams and their spiritual value to determine in what ways they contribute to what she innovatively constructs as a Mediterranean theory of dreaming.

In “Bearers of Islam: Muslim Women between Assimilation and Resistance in Christian Sicily,” Sarah Davis-Secord explores “the intersections between religious identity and gender within cross-confessional environments,” in particular by looking at gender roles described in the travel narratives of Ibn Jubayr, a Muslim who visited Sicily in the twelfth century. Building off of — but frequently nuancing — work on intercultural marriage by scholars focused on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cross-culturalism in the Iberian peninsula, Davis-Secord shows that in medieval Sicily, women were at the heart of the struggle not only — as is commonly thought — for cultural assimilation but also for cultural preservation. Women were key to the preservation of endangered — and sometimes outnumbered — disempowered minorities, and in her readings of Ibn Jubayr she highlights how their public performances of religion and gender coalesced to preserve Muslim heritage. Tying her argument about localized Sicilian practices of gender and religion to a larger Mediterranean context, Davis-Secord reads women’s performances of public and private identities as integral to the preservation of Mediterranean religious diversity, even in the face of medieval colonialism.

Anna Akasoy argues in Chapter 5 that the Qur’an permits mystics the opportunity to paint alternate gender paradigms that were scrutinized and targeted by Ibn Taymiyya, revealing not only their alterity but also their power. Akasoy cites Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya as one example of an eighth-century mystic who “used the language of love in order to describe her relationship to God. While filled with intense longing and anxiety over her own piety, Rābiʿa’s expressions are neither erotic nor operate with gender as a relational category. It rather appears as if gender dissolved in the sole focus on God.” Akasoy continues her study of gender fluidity and mystical conceptualizations of God with the poetics associated with the figure of Laylā among medieval poets, concluding that “the symbol of Laylā functions as a unifying force for diverse allegorical approaches to God and thus as an effective poetic framework for paradox and coincidentia oppositorum.”

In Chapter 6, “Navigating Gender in the Mediterranean: Exploring Hybrid Identities in Aucassin et Nicolete,” Meriem Pagès explores how literary depictions of gender and genre entwine in the Mediterranean text Aucassin et Nicolette. Covering a spectrum of gender and racial positions and beginning with Aucassin’s utter failure to conform to norms of masculinity, Pagès reads episodes such as[15] the men’s childbirth scene in order to conceptualize the Mediterranean as a site for fluidity. In the second part of her essay, Pagès explores these shifting identity positions in terms of performativity, focusing in particular on Nicolete. In this reading of Nicolete’s ambiguous gender and racial positions, the Mediterranean was not only a unique site for creating and performing alternate gender roles but also was shaped by the kinds of gender-ethnicity identity politics nobles performed there. Pagès’s reading ultimately suggests that the Mediterranean facilitates the expression of different gender possibilities, thereby challenging the generic conventions of literary representation in Aucassin et Nicolette.

Elena Woodacre offers an excellent historical overview of Mediterranean women’s rule in Chapter 7, “Gender and Authority: The Particularities of Female Rule in the Premodern Mediterranean,” claiming that the Mediterranean may have been more amenable to women’s rule than northern Europe. She explores women’s rules through a series of “case studies from the Byzantine empresses of late antiquity to Aragonese queen-lieutenants in the fifteenth century” designed to highlight mechanisms of gendered access to power unique to the Mediterranean. Her nuanced discussion of Byzantine empresses’ power reveals that practices of feminine authority were entwined with alternate constructions of masculinity, in that, as Woodacre argues, empresses’ authority depended upon the power and reach of their eunuchs. Using numismatic and other evidence to support her claims, Woodacre admits that while women’s power may have been more expansive in the Mediterranean, nonetheless “it has to be acknowledged that these women were later displaced in the line of succession by the birth of brothers [. . .] [T]he fact that women were accepted as potential heirs and viable claimants is important” and, in her analysis, permitted by gender structures unique to the Mediterranean.

In Chapter 8, “Religious Patronage in Byzantium: The Case of Komnenian Imperial Women,” Vassiliki Dimitropoulou explores women’s contributions to artistic and architectural building programs by focusing on religious patronage by Byzantine imperial women, in particular the Komnenoi. By focusing on the establishment of monastic communities at Kecharitomene, Pantokrator, Pantepoptes, Pammakaristos, and Chora, Dimitropoulou is able to explore how Komnenian imperial women engaged their power and assets to invest in religious establishments. Despite the limitations placed on Byzantine women, she reads Byzantine women’s generosity as a kind of compelling exemplarity that created a Mediterranean economy of aristocratic women’s gift-giving to monastic communities, in both large- and small-scale donations: “the number of projects in which Komnenian women were involved and the large scale of these projects meant that they set a very high standard that women from other Mediterranean cultures strove to emulate.”

Erith Jaffe-Berg explores the role of gender in Jewish community theater in Chapter 9, “Jewish Women and Performance in Early Modern Mantua.” Reading archival sources against the commonly accepted work of early modern Jewish[16] dramatist and director Leone de’ Sommi, Jaffe-Berg argues that, contrary to scholarly assumptions that women did not participate in public theater, her archival evidence from Mantua suggests that women’s participation may have been the very cause for its eventual cessation in 1649. Although de’ Sommi’s Quattro dialoghi in material di rappresentazioni sceniche provided nuanced appreciation of women’s work in the theater, scholars have assumed that because there were no mentions of Jewish women working in, attending, or appreciating theater, their participation was nonexistent. Yet the state archives tell a different tale, one that Jaffe-Berg argues depicts women as “active participants, and audience members and perhaps collaborators, in the producing of plays.” Continuing the conversation of others in this volume, Jaffe-Berg’s work on gender and performance suggests that women had an important role to play in negotiating cross-cultural and cross-confessional confrontation, interactions, and social structures spurred uniquely through Mediterranean trading networks.

Finally, Katarzyna Lecky explores how the gender possibilities others have conceptualized here as proper to the Mediterranean play out in the Renaissance in her chapter entitled “The Politics of Mediterranean Marriage in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.” Lecky focuses on the romance of cross-cultural marriage as a site that “offered a manageable metaphor for thinking through the complex diplomacies of trans-Mediterranean relations.” Her readings of Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare situate cross-cultural marriage as a microcosm that performs “the dramas of trade and conquest playing out between the yoked societies of the Christian West and the Muslim East.” Focusing on the intersection of larger public economic interests and individualized familial love interests, Lecky argues, for example, that in Chaucer, marriage is a site of negotiation employed “in order to draw out the dialectic of coverture and consent, endogamy and exogamy, and enslavement and equity.” This dialectic, as she notes, fails in many texts and may metonymize larger concerns about cultural confrontation, as exemplified in her reading of how in Shakespeare the “dissolution of Othello’s and Desdemona’s cross-cultural union evokes the breakdown of their conjoined bodies politic and stages a concurrent decomposition of their social stature.” Yet, despite acknowledging the tensions inherent in negotiating cross-cultural encounters, Lecky’s readings convincingly suggest a highly productive Mediterranean in which gender and community are co-constructive, where “cross-cultural unions have the potential to engender [multinational] citizens . . . who maintain their former alliances while embracing their new community.”

Taken together, these essays reveal Mediterranean power structures, cross cultural identities, and gender fluidity to be deeply interdependent. From Perpetua’s lessons on the transformations of gender ambiguity in the ancient Mediterranean, to medieval Christian dogmatic approaches to model gendering, to the unique historical position of power inhabited by Byzantine eunuchs, to the ways in which the Mediterranean imaginary helped frame Shakespeare’s deployment of gender, the essays in this volume explore models of gender constructed[17] in concert not with micro-particulars but with a broad, connected sea. Not only does the Mediterranean permit the articulation of many non-hegemonic gender positions but its very structures — its multilayered identities — are also constituted through them.


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———. The Two Italies: Economic Relations between the Norman Kingdom of Sicily and the Northern Communes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

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———. “Deconstructing the Map.” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 26, no. 2 (1989): 1–20.

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———. Women, Men, and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

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———. “Medieval Mediterranean Literature.” PMLA 124, no. 2 (March 2009): 600–608.

———. “Pagans Are Wrong and Christians Are Right: Alterity, Gender, and Nation in the Chanson de Roland.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31, no. 1 (2001): 79–111.

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———. The Kingdom of Sicily, 1100–1250: A Literary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

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———. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Paris: Hachette, 2009.

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———. Exchanges in Exoticism: Cross-Cultural Marriage and the Making of the Mediterranean in Old French Romance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

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———. “Images of Effeminate Men: The Case of Byzantine Eunuchs.” In Masculinity in Medieval Europe, ed. Dawn Hadley, 89–100. London: Longman, 1999.

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  1. K. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs; McClintock, Imperial Leather
  2. Dursteler, Renegade Women; Sperling and Wray, Across the Religious Divide.
  3. Stafford and Mulder-Bakker, Gendering the Middle Ages; Brubaker and Smith, Gender in the Early Medieval World; Fenster and Lees, Gender in Debate. Woodacre, Queenship in the Mediterranean; Brubaker and Smith, Gender in the early medieval world: east and west, 300–900. 
  4. See, for example, Moore, Exchanges in Exoticism. Winer, Women, and Community in Perpignan; Burns, Sea of Silk; Rosen, Unveiling Eve: reading gender in medieval Hebrew literature.
  5. Harley, “Deconstructing the Map”; Harley, “Cartography, Ethics and Social Theory”; Belyea, “Images of Power”; Crampton, “Maps as Social Constructions.” See also Summerhayes, “Embodied Space in Google Earth.”
  6. We have only to turn to the Hereford mappamundi to see the ways in which the scientific idea of mapping is directly tied to cultural constructions of racial and gendered hegemony; this volume highlights these kinds of constructs as deeply tied to cultural geography. 
  7. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II; Horden and Purcell, The Corrupting Sea. See also Harris, Rethinking the Mediterranean
  8. http://humweb.ucsc.edu/mediterraneanseminar/info/mission.php. Visited on 14 March 2015.
  9. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II; Horden and Purcell, The Corrupting Sea.
  10. Herzfeld, “Practical Mediterraneanism”; Marino, “Mediterranean Studies and the Remaking of Pre-Modern Europe.”
  11. Abulafia, “Mediterraneans”; Abulafia, “What Is the Mediterranean?”; Abulafia, The Western Mediterranean Kingdoms 1250–1500; Brummett, “Visions of the Mediterranean”; Finucci, Mapping the Mediterranean; Parker, “Mapping the Mediterranean.”
  12. Brummett, “Visions of the Mediterranean,” 9.
  13. Brummett, “Visions of the Mediterranean,” 10–11.
  14. In this, the Mediterranean can be understood as a construct that naturally interrogates traditional dialogues about power by redefining centers and peripheries, building off of the work by Homi Bhabha and others in postcolonial studies (for example in his The Location of Culture). For intersections of the premodern and postcolonial, see Akbari, “From Due East to True North”; Ingham and Warren, Postcolonial Moves; Baker and Fuchs, “The Postcolonial Past”; Davis and Altschul, Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World; Gaunt, “Can the Middle Ages Be Postcolonial?”; and Lampert-Weissig, Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies.
  15. Geary, The Myth of Nations, 15. 
  16. Kinoshita, “Medieval Mediterranean Literature,” 602.
  17. See, for example, Mallette, European Modernity and the Arab Mediterranean.
  18. Lopez and Raymond, trans., Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World; Abulafia, The Two Italies; Abulafia, The Western Mediterranean Kingdoms 1250–1500; Day, “The Levant Trade in the Middle Ages”; Laiou, “Exchange and Trade, Seventh–Twelfth Centuries”; Greif, “Reputation and Coalitions in Medieval Trade”; Hunwick, “Black Slaves in the Mediterranean World”; Goitein, A Mediterranean Society; Ashtor and Ḳedar, East-West Trade in the Medieval Mediterranean
  19. Catlos, The Victors and the Vanquished; Wacks, Framing Iberia. See also Menocal, The Ornament of the World.
  20. Darling, “The Renaissance and the Middle East”; Arbel, Trading Nations.
  21. Lampert-Weissig, Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies, 50–55; Pratt, Under Imperial Eyes
  22. Kinoshita, “Pagans Are Wrong and Christians Are Right”; Geary, The Myth of Nations
  23. See the analyses of nineteenth-century scholarship, for example, in Warren, Creole Medievalism
  24. [9] Kinoshita, “Pagans Are Wrong and Christians Are Right,” 103.
  25. Burns, Sea of Silk; Burns, Medieval Fabrications; Burns, Courtly Love Undressed.
  26. Mallette, European Modernity and the Arab Mediterranean; Mallette, The Kingdom of Sicily; Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature; Segol, “‘Floire et Blancheflor’”; Segol, “Medieval Cosmopolitanism and the Saracen-Christian Ethos”; Stahuljak, Bloodless Genealogies of the French Middle Ages; Stahuljak, “Going Global, Getting Medieval”; Lampert-Weissig, Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies; Moore, Exchanges in Exoticism.
  27. Akbari, “From Due East to True North”; J. Cohen, The Postcolonial Middle Ages; J. Cohen, Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain.
  28. Ciggaar, Western Travellers to Constantinople; Ciggaar, “Encore une fois Chrétien de Troyes et la ‘matière Byzantine’”; Ciggaar and Teule, East and West in the Crusader States; Ciggaar, “L’émigration anglaise à Byzance après 1066.”
  29. Menocal, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History; Menocal, The Ornament of the World; Wacks, Framing Iberia; Dodds, Menocal, and Balbale, The Arts of Intimacy; Wasserstein, “Byzantium and Al‐Andalus.” 
  30. Vitkus, Turning Turk; Greene, A Shared World; Goffman, The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe; Rothman, “Interpreting Dragomans”; Hulme and Sherman, “The Tempest” and Its Travels; W. Cohen, “The Undiscovered Country”; Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference; Fuchs, “Conquering Islands.” 
  31. While the struggle for gender equality is far from over, gender studies themselves have worked their way into public, private, and academic discourse and have become mainstream enough to have departments at many large universities, centers for public policy, and have helped us to rearticulate the look of equality within legal and social structures. As such, it may not be possible to offer an overview of such an expansive field here, but a few markers will help indicate the orientation of this volume’s essays. Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva first shaped the corners of the field, and since then others such as Judith Butler, Susan Bordo, Chandra Mohanty, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Judith Halberstam have expanded on the questions they asked about the feminine experience, using their questions about hegemony first to theorize and then to interrogate a spectrum of gender positions.
  32. Moraga and Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back
  33. For a short but by no means exhaustive sample, see Alcoff and Mendieta, Identities; Andersen and Collins, Race, Class, and Gender; Jordan and Weedon, Cultural Politics; and Disch, Reconstructing Gender
  34. Lochrie, McCracken, and Schultz, Constructing Medieval Sexuality; Bullough and Brundage, Handbook of Medieval Sexuality; Stafford and Mulder-Bakker, Gendering the Middle Ages; Karras, From Boys to Men; Fenster and Lees, Gender in Debate; J. Brown and Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy; Krueger, Women Readers and the Ideology of Gender; Hadley, Masculinity in Medieval Europe; McCracken, The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero; Tougher, “Images of Effeminate Men”; James, Women, Men, and Eunuchs; Gaunt, Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature; Hall, Things of Darkness; Ferguson, Dido’s Daughters; Matchinske, Writing, Gender and State in Early Modern England; Farmer, Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris; Skinner, “Gender and Poverty in the Medieval Community.”
  35. While by no means exhaustive, seminal works include: Burns, Bodytalk; Krueger, Women Readers and the Ideology of Gender; Lochrie, McCracken, and Schultz, Constructing Medieval Sexuality; Gaunt, Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature; and Bynum, Jesus as Mother. In addition to this list, see the more extensive surveys offered in Burns, “Medieval Feminist Movement”; and Robertson, “Medieval Feminism in Middle English Studies.”
  36. Hall, Things of Darkness; Korda, Shakespeare’s Domestic Economies.
  37. Aers and Staley, The Powers of the Holy; Galatariotou, “Holy Women and Witches.”
  38. Kinoshita, Medieval Boundaries; Moore, “Boundaries and Byzantines in the Old French Floire et Blancheflor.”
  39. Hadley, Masculinity in Medieval Europe; Fowler, “Mourning, Melancholia, and Masculinity in Medieval Literature”; Tougher, “Images of Effeminate Men”; Matchinske, Writing, Gender and State in Early Modern England; McNamara, “Women and Power Through the Family Revisited”; Aers and Staley, The Powers of the Holy. See also alternate gender positions researched in James, Women, Men, and Eunuchs; Tougher, “Byzantine Eunuchs”; Tougher, “Two Views on the Gender Identity of Byzantine Eunuchs”; Galatariotou, “Holy Women and Witches”; and James, “Goddess, Whore, Wife, or Slave.” 
  40. Anchored by studies such as those of Beilin, Redeeming Eve; Hamlin, “Female Mourning and Tragedy in Medieval and Renaissance English Drama”; Rose, “Where Are the Mothers in Shakespeare?”; Wall, The Imprint of Gender; Ferguson, Dido’s Daughters; Korda, Shakespeare’s Domestic Economies; Hall, Things of Darkness; Matchinske, Writing, Gender and State in Early Modern England; Amussen, An Ordered Society; Perry, Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville; Smith, Entiendes?; and Fuchs, “Border Crossings.” 

About the Author

Megan Moore holds her PhD from the University of Michigan and is currently Assistant Professor of French at the University of Missouri, where she focuses on medieval Mediterranean Studies, with special emphasis on gender in Old French and medieval Greek culture. Her first monograph, Exchanges in Exoticism: Cross-Cultural Marriage and the Making of the Mediterranean in Old French Romance (2014) explores how Old French literature imagines women to be fundamental to the creation and exchange of culture around the Mediterranean, specifically between Byzantium and western Europe. She has also published essays on East-West relations in Old French literature, as well as on feminist pedagogy and on Hellenism in Byzantium.


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