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Asien-Orient-Institut UFSP Asien und Europa (2006–2017)

The Gender of Authority: Celibate and Childless Men in Power

Ruling Bishops and Ruling Eunuchs, 400–1800

Conference, August 28–30, 2013


Almut Höfert, Matthew Mesley and Serena Tolino


A cooperation between the History Department and the URPP Asia and Europe


University of Zurich, Room KO2 F-152, Karl Schmid-Strasse 4, 8006 Zurich


From antiquity to modernity, pre-modern ruling systems in different parts of the world often shared a common feature: the participation of men who were either physically unable or normatively forbidden to father children. On the one hand, there were the childless eunuchs who fulfilled a variety of functions at courts in the Middle East, Byzantium and China; they were much more than simply guardians of the harem. Due to their specific “gender”, the eunuchs formed an integral part of the different ruling systems; indeed, they held a central position in court politics, and their loyalty towards the reigning dynasty was not conditional on nepotism or favouritism towards their family, since they were childless. On the other hand, we have the ruling priests: the celibate bishops both in the Byzantine Empire and Latin Europe. Whereas the Eastern Church tolerated eunuchs as priests, the Western Church demanded that a priest was not castrated, and that instead he needed to have the willpower and resolve to remain celibate. Although this rule of celibacy was far from being followed thoroughly by men of the cloth, celibacy was a central feature of the ideal priest long before the reform movements of the eleventh and twelfth century. Bishops, who formed an integral part of the ruling elites in both the Western and Eastern Church were subject to the same rules surrounding celibacy, and were prevented from fathering legitimate children. It is also noteworthy that not just bishops but eunuchs were also linked to specific forms of sacredness: for example, the eunuchs guarding the prophet’s grave in Medina from the 12th century onwards, or the involvement of eunuchs in the sacred imamate in Fatimid history. Despite some fundamental differences between ruling bishops and eunuchs (nobility versus slavery, church versus military, non-castration versus castration etc.) it is a striking feature of pre-modern ruling systems that such men, including those who were childless or fathered illegitimate offspring, were often integrated into the elite. Without aiming at a strict comparison between the two, this conference wants to take this phenomenon as a starting point in order to address the following questions:

(1)  What were the political and economical consequences of integrating men who were childless or without any legitimate children into the ruling elites and the respective networks of family and kinship?

(2)  If we take the definition of gender by R. Connell in his classic study on Masculinities (Gender as a social practice in relation to the “reproductive arena”), we can expect specific gender conceptions for both priests and eunuchs. How should we view these men: as a third gender; a hybrid gender; or as an asexual gender? Were they always gendered in a specific way or only in certain contexts or environments? And how did the actors perceive their own role in this respect? Is gender still “a useful tool of historical analysis” (Joan Scott) even, or should we adopt different approaches?

(3)  What was the relationship between these men and a divinely legitimized rule in respect to sacredness?

In asking these questions, this conference aims to shed light on the culture of political rule in a period before a strict biological dichotomy of the sexes might be said to have existed. We hope that the ensuing discussion and debate will open up new perspectives on the connections, parallels and peculiarities that can be discovered between politics and gender on a pre-modern global level. The papers will explore these themes within the Middle East, the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity and Byzantium, Latin Europe, China, and Southern Asia.

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