How a 12th century princess managed to capture and retain contemporary credibility as Europe’s first female historian

Source: Copyright belongs to Hannah Tysoncover for Anna of Byzantium (Tracy Barrett)

OOWhen a writer puts pen to paper, they are encouraged to keep a specific audience in mind. Medieval scholars, a time when literacy was often limited to monastic communities in Europe, were especially indebted to their patrons for connecting with their target audiences.

For instance, Bede Eighth-century histories glorified a golden age of Northumbrian England and ostensibly avoided contemporary crises for these statements. The tenth-century Welsh scholar Asser worked alongside Alfred the Great to translate Latin works into Old English, while helping to craft Alfred’s argument for a unified English kingdom.

For anyone writing outside of the small, literate community, there would be an instantly perceived conflict of credibility. In modern times, this problem arises when authors attempt to be picked up by publishing houses. Problems arise when access depends on who you know within that industry, if you can penetrate their network, and if you can find the right audience that will ensure your voice is preserved beyond your time.

This problem is the reason why, when Anna Comnenus, eldest daughter of Emperor Alexios I of Constanipoles published The Alexiad in 1148 she did so from a difficult position. Born in the purple as an Imperial Princess, she was expected to show unwavering loyalty to her family – a bias that would not go unnoticed.

Magnifying the problem was that she was a woman in a medieval kingdom, where the emperor represented the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Local monks might accept a copy for politeness (much like bookstores might take a free sample of a self-published book), but that didn’t mean scribes would spend their precious time copying the work for them. others in this pre-world of printing.

Despite all these obstacles, she managed to create her epic tome, a document that enshrined the reputation of her father (Alexios I, reigning from 1081 to his death in 1118) as the founder of the Komnenos dynasty. The Alexiad was written to rehabilitate and project the image of the man who guided Constantinople through the firestorm years of the First Crusade. In the process, she retained her own credibility as a historian through the creation of one of the clearest portraits of the inner workings of the Byzantine court known to date.

Anna accomplished all of this while clearly maintaining her identity within the work as an avid chronicler of the times. Thanks to his writings, modern scholars come to the conclusion that The Alexiad survived to this day because she understood and anticipated both her target audience and the objections they would raise to the credibility of her voice.

Using a unique blend of poetic tradition and dutiful lamentation, The Alexiad imposes itself as a work in a world that would not allow it to set aside the genre, nor its constraints.

picture by Rashid on Unsplash — Haiga Sophia in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople.

Anna Comnenus, eldest daughter of Emperor Alexios I, was not without significant benefits when it came to accessing materials for his work. Beyond her pedigree, Anna was known above all as a lover of philosophy and history, an unusual area of ​​interest for a lady of the court. As a child, she secretly studied the initially forbidden texts at night, until her parents got wind of the situation and ended up hiring a tutor.

Anna was too married to Nikephoros Bryennios, a descendant of the previous ruling family. This was arranged as a way to bind the two noble families together under one front. He was therefore happy that his new husband shared his love for school activities, which gave him access to materials.

The marriage expanded Anna’s extended family circle, some of the Byzantine Empire’s most powerful courtiers and generals. At a time when it was unseemly for a woman of her position to be seen talking with a man she was unrelated to, it would have been a boon for the budding historian.

Widowed and exiled

Two things happened to rush Anna sit down to write her great work.

First of all, Anna’s husband, grandson of two former emperors, died in 1137. He was writing a book about the reign of Alexios himself, and it is believed that it contained a then-popular local view of Alexios I as a tyrant.

The second event involved what historians believe was a coup plot, or at least a visible lack of support for his younger brother, John Komnenos, to claim the imperial throne. After her husband’s death, Anna was forced to retire from court life. Her exile led her to Kecharitomene Monasterylocated in the northern part of the city.

So, some sixty years after the events that catapulted her father to power, Anna takes her exile in stride, sits down and gets to work.

Anna’s Alexiadand its target audience

picture by Maria Lupan on Unsplash

The text of The Alexiad deviates greatly from the scholarly tone typical of the time. Robin Pierson of the History of Byzantium podcast felt it was unlikely that a “non-Byzantine audience would ever have been considered…the number of people reading Greek and understanding the context would have been so small that it would not have been relevant to the authors”.

In particular, he pointed out that Anna had made no attempt to shed light on Constantinople for a foreign reader, and “her work is littered with references to the Bible and Homer without any explanation – so only a fellow Attic [Athens] The Greek reader would have understood it perfectly. While the Alexiad was made available to friends and copied for local monasteries and scholars, the intended audience was local, highly educated and influential.

Access sources

picture by Campaign creators on Unsplash

As for the conditions in which Anna wrote – monastic and almost exclusively female conditions – there has been much scholarly debate about how she gained access to her sources.

According to Kyle Sinclair’s 2014 article, “Anna Komnene and her sources for military affairs in the Alexiad”, Anna, he had been considering doing this work for 30 years before his exile. Her husband, a former commander under Alexios, had compiled his own manuscript before his death, which subsequently became a major primary source.

In The Alexiad, Anna bluntly states that she spent thirty years at the imperial court, listening to the conversations between her father, his generals and his various uncles in the government. Had she transcribed these conversations, in a journal or with future scholarly intent, they would have been available to her in exile.

Sinclair also theorizes that she had more access to the outside world than her writing suggested. From passages stating that “the fathers and grandfathers of some men living today saw these things”, while lamenting “the inability to converse with his father’s friends…many of them [whom] died,” at least some of his research may have been compiled during the reign of Manuel I Comnenussuccessor to his brother from 1143.

At least two of her male court cousins ​​are said to have survived well into Manuel’s reign, who may have provided her with additional information to follow up on what she had at hand.

Looking at this timeline from a writer’s perspective, it’s easy to imagine Anna writing the initial outline and drafts of her decades of collected material.

It’s just as easy to see her looking at that first tryone that should never see the light of day, and writing a few letters to see if some of the plot holes could be filled.

Personal intrusion and consideration of gender

The Alexiad had a unique structure and tone for a written history text. Anna actively intruded on the narrative to comment on events or express her grief by reliving events involving a long-dead family. It is the wailing, an explicit and targeted display of her gender and her duty to her family.

This was a striking departure from the norm, and some scholars felt that it damaged the credibility of the work; Gibbon, author of The story of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (published from 1776 to 1789), thought that the explicitly gendered narrative betrayed “on every page the vanity of an author”.

As interest in classical forms grew, new texts were written that masqueraded as ancient romances while offering commentary on 12th-century rituals and culture.

Interview with Leonara Neville on the history of the Byzantium podcast, notes a particularly interesting pattern: each time Anna ‘defends herself [in the Alexiad — i.e. states her credentials], she has to back off to avoid sounding arrogant. — hence the lamentations.

In her 2013 article, “Lamentation, History, and Female Authorship in Anna Komnene’s Alexiad“, Neville further associates the laments as a direct path to balancing her (traditionally masculine and stoic) role as an unbiased historian with that of grieving wife and daughter.

The twelfth century is a time when literary circles were obsessed with classical Greek poetry and the contemporary work of the time bears witness to this fascination with literary experimentation. Her mentor, Micheal Psellos, was known for his participation in this tradition, and Anna seems to have followed suit in continuing this style, despite Gibbon’s later protests centuries later.

The Alexiad watch Anna draws on the role of a male public actor, periodically and explicitly falling into overt laments. Neville speculated that ” [j]Just as in crying Anna displays her own performance of the feminine gender, in overtly and explicitly stopping her lamentations she exercises masculine self-control, impartiality and rationality.

Another theory of laments is that performing her genre explicitly, and then exercising active restraint over her perceived excesses, freed her to speak more freely about what she heard and experienced. It also freed her to speak openly, and sometimes critically, about these experiences.

Whereas The Alexiad was intended for a small audience of ecclesiastical and court scholars, the very fact that it survives almost a thousand years later thanks to the medieval equivalent of self-publishing its manuscript.

He did more than survive. The Alexiad remains one of the main remaining texts from the legacy of the Eastern Roman Empire and offers a window into what was happening across Europe. It also offers a window into a time when the Normans overran Western Europe and the restless energy of the kingdoms under the Catholic Church was stirred to watch his hometown in a chaotic crusade.

Anna Komnenos has been through it all and witnessed how it scorched Europe at the highest level. By understanding the innate temperament of the time and bringing it together in a compelling story incorporating her own voice, Anna has carved out a place for herself as first female historian.

Academic sources:

Neville, Leonora. Lamentation, history and female paternity in Anna Komnene Alexiad. Greek, Roman and Byzantine StudiesVol.52:1 (2013).

Sinclair, Kyle. Anna Komnene and her sources for military affairs in the Alexiad. Byzantine Studios 2 (2014) 143-185.