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Women and public space: Social codes and female presence in the Byzantine urban society of the 6th to the 8th centuries

Women and public space: Social codes and female presence in the Byzantine urban society of the 6th to the 8th centuries

By Jeanette Lindblom

PhD Dissertation, University of Helsinki, 2019

Abstract: Against the background of a post-structuralist paradigm the present study takes advantage of various theoretical considerations evolving in the 20th century. Traditional methods of historical research are employed, whereas propositions raised within movements such as the Annalists, the so-called linguistic turn, hermeneutic analysis and gender studies have influenced the way the source material is apprehended and utilised.

A selection of different source types serves to represent a broad spectrum of society. These sources include legal texts, papyri, historical texts and chronicles, hagiographies and other religious texts, epigrams, laudatory poems and other poetry, as well as non-textual material such as manuscript illustrations and mosaic decorations. The connection between the sources and the society producing them ensures that the broad selection of relevant material reflects cultural attitudes and practices.

The aim of the study is to sketch a picture of female presence in public space in the urban milieu of the Byzantine Empire in the 6th to the 8th centuries. The ideological framework of society with its norms, traditions and ideals is juxtaposed with narrated praxis. Women’s public presence is viewed from different horizons, taking into consideration aspects such as location, occasion and the diversity within the female population, such as the division into social groups and civil status.

The study begins with a theoretical discussion and a review of the main concepts, previous research and the relevant source material, followed by an overview of the cultural and ideological framework within which women operated. The focus in the subsequent chapters is on women’s presence in public in four segments of society: religious, financial, political and social life. Thereafter the discussion turns to female movability, gender correlations and the relationship between ideals and praxis, and chronological shifts, viewed from the four perspectives.

Whereas many previous studies concentrate on one category of women, or treat all women as an entity, this study considers the whole spectrum of women in society and the differences in their situations. Although the basic framework of female behaviour was relatively homogeneous in ideological terms, the study shows that factors such as social class, civil status, locality and circumstances affected the way in which women were present in public and how this presence was evaluated by the surrounding society. Further, there was some chronological fluctuation in both attitudes and praxis regarding women’s presence in public space. An interesting finding is the idea of gender symmetry, also displayed in public space. This was at its peak during the 6th century, when the female public presence generally seems to have been slightly more prevalent than in later centuries.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Helsinki

Top Image: Byzantine Marble Portrait Bust of a Woman with a Scrolllate 4th–early 5th century – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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