Byzantine mosaicTo counter the popular belief that gender-bending is a relatively modern-day phenomenon, Prof. John Arnold will give a talk on Saturday, Sept. 26th from 3—4pm in Ketchum Hall at SUNY Buffalo State about the history of non-binary gendered people, particularly the eunuchs of Constantinople.  Eunuchs formed a visible and powerful group in the ancient city.

Castrated men such as Eutropius and Narses held high political and military positions even though they were deprived of the prime markers of male authority, the ability to penetrate and impregnate.  As such, eunuchs stood opposed to the uncut male bodies that normally wielded power.  Eunuchs were dangerously exposed to political opponents who construed their absent genitalia as signs of femininity and who used misogynistic language to marginalize eunuchs as “queer.”

If you want to read up on your history before Prof. Arnold’s talk, here’s a quick primer for you. According to the article,

“The Byzantine empire was a melting pot of East and West, with the Eastern Orthodox church reigning supreme and influencing almost all aspects of people’s lives, while the pagan elements from the time when Emperor Constantine relocated Rome to Byzantium as an intended new capital for the Roman empire, provided for an interesting and strange mixture of pious and fanatical Orthodoxy with a simultaneous exploration of ancient thought and lifestyle. As might be expected in such a situation there were many contrasts within the empire’s way of life and belief-system, the Byzantine eunuch being one of these.”

Prof. Arnold’s talk will also counter the common-held belief that the Middle Ages were somehow ignorant or backwards in regards to many of the values we hold today. In the battle for gender equality and LGBTQ rights, we often hear proponents of reform accuse conservatives of “trying to bring us back to the Middle Ages” when in fact these statements do a great injustice to history.

John Charles Arnold is Associate Professor of History at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses on the ancient and medieval worlds.  His research concerns angel veneration in early Christianity and the sanctuary of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy.