the moral virtue of the historian
May 21, 2020 3:34 PM   Subscribe

Dr. Leonora Neville was a guest on the podcst The History Of Byzantium to talk about Anna Komnene, the daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and a historian and author herself: Anna Komnene with Leonora Neville
Professor Leonora Neville about Anna's life and writing and how she overcame the obstacles facing a woman trying to write history.

The princess who rewrote history - Leonora Neville for TED-Ed (see also: The Rise And Fall Of The Byzantine Empire)

Dr. Neville is the author of Byzantine Gender and Anna Komnene: The Life and Work of a Medieval Historian as well as other books and articles.

Anna Komnene, also latinized as Anna Comnena, wrote a history of her father Alexios I, called The Alexiad [PDF, trans. Dawes]

Neville: Lamentation, History, and Female Authorship in Anna Komnene’s Alexiad

Byzantine Laments, Barbara Newman, London Review Of Books
Constructions of gender in antiquity have long been studied. But the subject is relatively new to Byzantine history and enables a fresh understanding of Anna’s more puzzling strategies. Modesty and seclusion remained central to the feminine ideal, as they had been in classical Greece; a good woman was rarely seen and more rarely heard. One of the few speaking roles permitted her was lamentation, for women mourned in both Attic tragedy and Orthodox liturgy. Knowing that her contemporaries might consider a princess who wrote history as being unacceptably masculine, Anna compensates by ‘performing the feminine’ to show that, despite the anomaly of her authorship, she remains a modest woman. Whenever she makes a self-authorising gesture to enhance her credibility, such as citing her classical education or acquaintance with reliable sources, she neutralises it by adopting a feminine posture of mourning. Although her laments occupy a tiny proportion of the Alexiad, they stand out by virtue of their emotional intensity, another feminine trait. Anna bewails the deaths of her childhood fiancé, her brother Andronikos, her husband, and above all her father, whose demise ends the narrative. By the canons of Byzantine rhetoric, Neville explains, such expressions of mourning evoked an audience’s pity, serving as a captatio benevolentiae. But for modern historians, Anna’s histrionic grief for a father who had died thirty years earlier seemed so excessive that they sought a different explanation for her ‘bitterness’ – and hit on disappointed ambition. (Her French contemporary Héloïse also excelled at lamenting her woes and was no less misunderstood.)
(see also The Alexiad of Anna Komnene: Artistic Strategy in the Making of a Myth, by Penelope Buckley, reviewed by Elisabeth Mincin)
posted by the man of twists and turns (3 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
One of my favourite podcasts! Thanks for this - I’m looking forward to going through all the links.
posted by hydrobatidae at 6:33 PM on May 21

I don't always listen to interview episodes right away (I tend to listen to help me fall asleep at bedtime and hearing a conversation instead of a monologue doesn't work as well for me for that) so I hadn't heard this one yet -- thanks for sharing it, and all the other links! One of the things I appreciate about the podcast is that Robin Pierson seems to try to make a point of emphasizing the agency of women in his narrative -- and describing how the biases of some of the primary and secondary sources available to us tend to either obscure that or leave us only with historical tropes like "wicked stepmother". As I recall from the non-interview narrative episodes discussing Anna Komnene and the Alexiad, we're lucky not to have this problem in her case, as she gave us history in her own voice. I'll have to make sure to check out the interview with Leonora Neville, it sounds really good!

(In case anyone's not sure if they'd be interested in a whole podcast on the history of the Byzantine empire, I definitely recommend giving it a try, maybe sampling a few episodes in to start with. I didn't really think I'd be all that into it but I started listening to scratch the itch that Mike Duncan's History of Rome podcast left when it ended, and it really is very good.)
posted by biogeo at 10:34 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

(Her French contemporary Héloïse also excelled at lamenting her woes and was no less misunderstood.)

I know intellectually, from the fact that we've been dealing with the Normans for the past few episodes and now it's Crusades Time, that we've moved from the ancient world to medieval times, but it's still kind of jarring sometimes to realize that a famous medieval person in France (which is a country that exists today) is contemporary with somebody in the Empire. But that's what you get when you hang on for an extra 1000 years.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:37 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]

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