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Byzantine Lives and Loves

Monday, September 19, 2022 - 07:00

This article is, of course, the one that brought the entire collection to my attention, when Ursula Whitcher cited it as one of the strands of inspiration for her story "The Spirits of Cabassus" published as part of this year's fiction series. Direct references to female same-sex desire are rare in many eras, and the tantalizing glimpses we get aren't always put in a positive light in the original sources. But for a historical fiction author, those glimpses can be the spark to kindle a fire. Because the glimpses can be fragmentary and offered up in biased acounts, there's often a temptation to expand them into a more complete story--one that centers and is sympathetic to the sapphic figure. I have a whole laundry list of historic anecdotes that I'd like to turn into fiction, when I have the time.

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Full citation: 

Efthymiadis, Stephanis. 2019. “Single People in Early Byzantine Literature” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Efthymiadis, Stephanis. “Single People in Early Byzantine Literature”

This is a relatively general article, reiterating the themes of how social changes under Christianity created a context in which not marrying (or not re-marrying) could be considered a viable life choice, whether it involved a retreat into an ascetic community or continued presence in the secular world. Singlehood itself was not the goal, but rather an acceptable mode in which one could devote oneself to religious causes and activities.

The discussion is anecdotal, presenting various stories of different types of unmarried life. One of particular interest to the Project for tangential reasons is worth quoting:

A woman named Martha, suffering from chronic illness, went to a shrine “where other women, mostly suffering from demonic possession, lodged, separated by curtains and awaiting a cure. Being a kind and good-hearted person, she never missed an opportunity to serve and console those of her companions who were in pain. In the event, the saints visited her a few times, but to her disappointment, they granted her only partial relief, causing her to raise her voice in protest. It was under these troubled circumstances that a woman who had moved in next to her fell in love with her. Her name was Christina, and she was a married woman, the wife of one of the clergy of the Church of Saint Laurentius. Oddly enough, her infatuation functions as a catalyst in the story. As she was about to step into the curtained-off space Martha occupied and set about seducing her, the saints were forced, as it were, to intervene and offer Martha a complete cure.

“Thanks to this unique – or at least very rare –attestation of (would-be) lesbian eroticism in Byzantium, we once again gain an insight into the life of a single woman at the troubles she might have faced because of her singleness.”

[Not: The event and its framing may not be entirely positive, but it brings the potential for acting on same-sex desire into view at a time when evidence is otherwise scarce.]

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