For this post, we welcome guest blogger Alicia Walker of Bryn Mawr College. This essay was slated to be run in March 2020, but its posting was delayed by the onset of COVID-19. We thank our readers for their patience as we move forward with our work in the midst of the new normal.
For several years I have been at work on a book that explores how images of Greco-Roman goddesses speak to Byzantine women’s subjectivity, particularly through the cultivation of physical beauty and sexual allure. The project, from its outset, has focused intentionally on elite women. There is limited evidence for the lives of any women in the Byzantine world, and non-elite women are especially underdocumented. In a project that already pushes the boundaries between historical interpretation and imagination, I made a conscious decision to stick to the medieval population for which I have the thickest evidence. Yet, in feedback on an early project description, a colleague drew attention to my dodging the sticky problem of the Byzantine 99%. Is there some way, he pressed, that I might “get at” the experience of the masses?
Textual evidence for the attitudes of “everyday” women toward questions of the enhancement of physical beauty and the projection of the self through dress and adornment is extremely rare for the Byzantine world. Most medieval references are captured in textual genres, such as hagiographic accounts, that require careful parsing to estimate their reflection of medieval realities. My thinking has been greatly aided, however, by “bootstrapping.” Bootstrapping is a term used across the sciences and social sciences (including computer science, statistics, and psychology).1 While its precise definition varies by field, it involves leveraging something to gain access to something else, often by starting with a limited, well-defined data set or operation before extrapolating to one that is more complex or uncertain. In my case, it entails using well-documented examples of women’s subject formation in order to think through less accessible ones, allowing me to identify new sources that hold potential for estimating the subject positions of “everyday” women in Byzantium.
One such example that has been fruitful for my research is a tale found in a genre of literature typically recognized for its objectivity, making it more reliable than sources that could be dismissed for ulterior motives or outright fictionalization. It recounts the story of a fisherman’s wife in a remote province. She tells her husband she is traveling to the local market, but instead engages in a much longer journey to a regional emporium because she has heard a foreign perfume maker is going to be peddling new wares there. The perfumer is also a woman and is accompanied by her husband, whose foreign origins are similarly noted. The perfume maker is well-known, and the fisherman’s wife is motivated to meet the perfumer as much as to purchase her products. Embedded in the story are many features of a standard medieval pilgrimage narrative: a challenging journey, a gathering of the devout, an encounter with a charismatic figure, and the acquisition of eulogia, holy tokens, to commemorate the experience and capture something of the power of the person and site that the pilgrim has ventured to visit.2
The fisherman’s wife travels a long distance from her small town to the regional emporium, where a large crowd of “500” “mostly middle-aged” women has gathered. Intriguingly, the perfume peddler gives each woman she meets a small icon with her image. It depicts the perfumer impeccably dressed in luxurious clothing and jewelry and elaborately coiffed, delicately cradling a bottle of perfume. Although of little material value, this memento clearly enhances the experience of the encounter and the vividness of its memory. In this respect, the icon is very much like a saint’s eulogia received by the devout at the site of pilgrimage. Among the most numerous late antique examples of such objects are those associated with the shrine of St. Symeon in Syria, where pilgrims flocked to meet the holy man who lived atop a column. His tokens typically depict an image of his face (Figure 1) or his column (Figure 2). Similarly, the perfume that the fisherman’s wife sought to obtain might be compared to the myron, or sweet smelling oil, which was often exuded from the bodies or tombs of saints and collected for dispersal to the devout.3 For example, at the late antique shrine of St. Menas in Egypt, pilgrims could buy fragrant oil in small ceramic containers impressed with the holy man’s image (Figure 3).
Sight plays an essential role in the tale of the fisherman’s wife, as it does in other pilgrimage accounts.4 She speaks of wanting “to see” the perfume maker because there is such a deficit of “glamour and culture” in her own small, provincial village. She clearly employs “glamour” in the sense of an attractiveness that is exciting and desirable, but we might also understand the word as an aura that enchants the viewer, often through manipulative, even magical means.5 In the latter respect, “glamour” recalls the ill repute of perfumers in Byzantium, who were commonly presented as charlatans or disparaged through implication of their trafficking in the occult.6 Other details recounted by the narrator – the elaborate coiffure of the perfume maker, her refined clothes and meticulous grooming, the facts that she was previously married to a well-known merchant and that the man accompanying her is her second husband – add entertaining elements of gossip and intrigue.
Most striking is how the fisherman’s wife recognizes something of deeper value in this encounter. As noted above, she associates the perfumer and her wares with “culture.” The fisherman’s wife seems to believe that by meeting the perfume maker and claiming a token of that encounter (a bottle of perfume, a small icon), that she herself might be elevated not just physically but socially, that this encounter will transform her and that she will accrue something of the perfume peddler’s glamour in the process.7 What seems, at first consideration, to be a tale of naive “housewives” sneaking about to indulge in frivolous luxuries reveals itself instead to be a rare account of provincial women’s grappling with core aspects of their identities and efforts at self-definition.
A modern commentator on this story has observed that the perfume peddler functions as a feminist icon for the provincial women who have come to see her.8 Many of her devotees intertwine her mercantile activity and success with her social survival following humiliating treatment by her first husband, the powerful merchant, who is implied to have left her, although the circumstances are not specified. Some of the provincial women credit the perfumer with having exacted revenge on a man who did her wrong. They associate her luxurious lifestyle with social accomplishment because “any woman who can ‘market beauty and sell it is powerful.’” But for others, it is simply the perfume maker’s “beauty” that compels them. They contrast her cultivated appearance with their own roughness, and they comment on her wealth and metropolitan origins as being powerful factors that differentiate her from them, and even make unlikely the possibility of a provincial woman attaining the physical allure of the cosmopolitan perfume maker. The narrator notes that the glamorous peddler and her husband had already visited forty markets and had plans to visit twenty more, attesting to the social impact, even mania, for both the perfume maker and her product. In this tale, we find a rare account of how provincial women perceive themselves vis à vis a more prominent social character of the era, and we see the crucial role played by physical beauty in the constitution of women’s economic and social power, in their assessment of other women’s success and worth, and in their own self-reflection and cultivation of selfhood.
My account has no doubt strained the credulity of the average of medievalist, and for good reason. The story of the fisherman’s wife is not a medieval tale. Rather it comes from an article in The Anchorage Daily News dated 3 April 1996, which recounts Sarah Palin’s two-hour journey from Wasilla, Alaska, to visit not Costco, as she had told her commercial fisherman husband, but the Anchorage J.C. Penney. There she stood in line with hundreds of other women to shake hands and chat with Ivana Trump, to receive an autographed photo of the New York socialite (Figure 4), and to purchase a bottle of the latest House of Ivana, Inc., perfume (Figure 5). In a stunning piece of journalistic precision, Tom Bell’s article, “Alaskans line up for a whiff of Ivana,” captures the self-perception of Sarah (who, Bell notes, “admittedly smells like salmon for a large part of the summer”) and women like her: for instance, “Tootie Keeney, a state Department of Fish and Game employee who often handles moose complaints,” who makes the astute observation that “Any woman who can ‘market beauty and sell it is powerful.’” Or “Bobbie Whitaker, owner of Me and Ms. Bobbie’s Janitorial Service,” whom Bell credits with the realpolitik assessment that “any woman could be beautiful if she had enough money. ‘I could be just as beautiful as Ivana,’ she said. ‘I would get a liposuction, get my breasts built up, take out some of my hips.’ Then she nodded toward Ivana. ‘Look at that hair and makeup. That’s money.’”9
Bell’s article is funny and could easily be read at the expense of Sarah, Tootie, and Bobbie. Some readers might take exception to how he – and, in turn, I – have characterized the good women of Wasilla and Anchorage. While one could read and recount Bell’s story in a mocking and dismissive manner, laughing “at” Sarah and her Alaskan sisters, that is not how I view the piece or its humor. I consider Tootie, Bobbie, and the other women of this tale to be savvy social commentators, who see with clarity and precision. I imagine them as the modern equivalents of the kinds of everyday women whom my colleague urged me to seek in the Byzantine world, and I believe their voices matter deeply.10 They reveal a full range of reactions to the cultivation of female beauty and the social and economic power to be achieved through its monetization. We find enraptured veneration and aspiration to emulate Ivana, to be sure, but also perceptive analysis and unfiltered critical assessment of the economic asymmetry and regional differentiation in their social status, resources, and mobility.
Bell’s article allows both the reporter and the reader to reflect on social phenomena that are often considered soft, outside “real news” or “real history” because they are mundane or inconsequential.11 And yet it is clear that, for the women who traveled hours and waited in long lines, this was a deeply significant experience, entangled with their perceptions of who they are, who they are not, and who they want to be. In other words, the article is about the role that physical allure plays in the social valuation of and by women; it is about the formation of women’s subjecthood through their assessment of their own and others’ beauty; and it is about the drive to emulate those who are seen to possess this power and wield it effectively in the world.
As a medievalist interested in Byzantine society’s attitude toward female beauty and its social currency, I strive to “get at” the subjectivity of medieval women themselves. This is, admittedly, often an exercise in critical imagination, examining sources written for and about women (albeit usually authored by men) and objects that depict and were (hypothetically) used by women; assessing what written and material sources say (and do not say) about Byzantine attitudes toward female beauty; and estimating how these attitudes would have been received, interpreted, and assimilated by women themselves. It is an exercise in speculation, to be sure, but so too are our responses to any number of other questions we might ask about the medieval world, where evidence is so often limited and, when available, is generated by the powerful, who are more often than not men. For these everyday women of Alaska – and for their Byzantine equivalents – physical beauty mattered; it shaped how they evaluated and understood themselves, how they perceived the world and peoples’ places in it.
Reading about the dress, adornment, and physical beauty of contemporary women — not only Sarah Palin as an “everyday woman” in her pre-political days or after her rise to social prominence,12 but also other well-known and not-so-well-known women today — has made me more attuned to passing remarks about Byzantine women’s beauty and to taking those comments seriously when I encounter them in late antique and medieval saints’ lives, historical accounts, biographies, homilies, letters, political encomia, novels, grammatical handbooks, mythological treatises, canon law, and funerary orations. Of course, contemporary news articles are not evidence for my medieval topic, and at present, I do not plan to cite or discuss them in my book. But they have been extraordinarily helpful in priming me to notice Byzantine evidence that has been overlooked and to situate this evidence in relation to the larger medieval social structures of which it is a part.13 It is bootstrapping, in a sense, on the back end, using contemporary evidence not to project anachronistic interpretations onto the medieval world, but instead to help home in on neglected data from the medieval era that can support reassessment of the Byzantine evidence and context. This process has expanded my awareness of where I might find fragments that bear on medieval women’s experiences and what those fragments might look like; it has also bolstered my belief that a fuller picture can be assembled from these bits and pieces.
Bootstrapping, then, offers a way to resist the “silence of the archive.”14 For to assume that the absence of certain stories means that those stories, those histories, did not exist or matter is an ethical decision that has bearing on the world today. Women’s subjecthood and the processes of its formation are not only fascinating but worthy of documentation and analysis, both in the past and now, even when they pertain to the soft history of beauty, glamour, and allure.15
I am grateful to Amanda Luyster, Molly Fulghum, Jennifer Josten, Shannon Steiner, and the Core Committee of the Material Collective for valuable input that greatly improved this essay.
1: Susan Carey, “Bootstrapping & the Origin of Concepts,” in On Learning special issue of Daedalus 133.1 (2004): 59-68, esp. 59-60 and 66-67.
2: On Byzantine eulogia, see “Part II: The Souvenirs and Blessings of Pilgrimage,” in Robert G. Ousterhout, ed., The Blessings of Pilgrimage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990); Gary Vikan, Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1982, rev. ed. 2010).
3: Béatrice Caseau, “Parfum et guérison dans le christianisme ancien et byzantin: des huiles parfumées au myron des saints byzantins,” in eds. V. Boudon-Millot, B. Pouderon, and Y.-M. Blanchard, Les Pères de l’Eglise face à la science médicale de leur temps, pp. 141-91(Paris: Beauchesne, 2005).
4: On the central role of sight in late antique pilgrimage, see Georgia Frank, The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
5: For discussion of the “secular magic” at work in the capacity of “glamourous personas” to inspire the consumption of commodities, see Nigel Thrift “The Material Practices of Glamour,” Journal of Cultural Economy 1.1 (2008): 9-23, esp. 18-21.
6: Béatrice Caseau, “Incense and Fragrances: from House to Church A Study of the Introduction of Incense in the Early Byzantine Christian Churches,” in eds. M. Grünbart, E. Kislinger, A. Muthesius, and D. Stathakopoulos, Material Culture and Well-Being in Byzantium (400–1453), pp. 75-92 (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2007), 82-85. The occult associations of perfumes and perfumers persisted in later periods. The eleventh-century historian Michael Psellos described the Empress Zoe’s industrious production of perfumes in a way that evoked an alchemist’s workshop. Michael Psellus, The Chronographia of Michael Psellus, trans. E.R.A. Sewter (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1953), book 6, 64 and 67. Elsewhere Psellos names perfumers in a list of disreputable persons engaged in diverse forms of magic, soothsaying, and quackery. Michael Psellus, Orationes forenses et acta, ed. George T Dennis (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1994), 96-97 (ll. 2642-58). It must be noted, however, that sweet scents were also associated with holy people and paradise. On these positive values for perfume, see esp. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
7: The transformative power of pilgrimage has long been recognized. The classic study remains Victor Turner, “Liminality and Communitas,” in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1969), 94-130.
8: Barbara Lippert, “Is Ivana a Feminist?” New York (December 18, 1995), 26-28, 32, 35.
9: Tom Bell, “Alaskans line up for a whiff of Ivana,” Anchorage Daily News, 3 April 1996 https://www.adn.com/politics/article/alaskans-line-whiff-ivana-april-3-1996/1996/04/03/, accessed 6 February 2020.
10: Regarding the deployment of humor to facilitate consideration of taboo subjects in Byzantine art and society, see Alicia Walker, “Laughing at Eros and Aphrodite: Sexual Inversion and Its Resolution in the Classicizing Arts of Medieval Byzantium,” in eds. Margaret Alexiou and Douglas Cairns, Greek Laughter and Tears: Late Antiquity, Byzantium and After, pp. 263-87 (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2017).
11: For analysis of the modern political power of cosmetics and the international female beauty industry, see Kathy Peiss, “Educating the Eye of the Beholder: American Cosmetics Abroad,” in On Beauty special issues of Daedalus 131.4 (2002): 101-109; Stella Ko, “‘Beauty is freedom’: The North Korean millennials wearing makeup to rebel against the state,” CNN Beauty, 3 March 2020, https://www.cnn.com/style/article/north-korea-womens-beauty-freedom/index.html, accessed 9 March 2020.
12: Sarah Palin’s $150,000 makeover bankrolled by the Republican National Committee ignited a major scandal. See Michael Joseph Gross, “Sarah Palin’s Shopping Spree: Yes, There’s more…” Vanity Fair. The Hive, 1 September 2010, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2010/10/sarah-palin-spending-201010, accessed 7 March 2020. Her eyeglasses, in particular, were discussed extensively by the media. For instance, see Rob Walker, “Political Spectacles. How Sarah Palin’s glasses fit into electoral aesthetics,” New York Times Magazine, 26 September 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/28/magazine/28wwln-consumed-t.html, accessed 10 January 2020.
13: My appreciation for the comparative study of contemporary and medieval ritual objects and social practices was spurred by Gary Vikan, “Graceland as Locus Sanctus,” in eds. Geri DePaoli and Wendy McDaris, Elvis + Marilyn: 2 x Immortal, pp. 150-67 (New York: Rizzoli, 1994). Also see Gary Vikan, From the Holy Land to Graceland: Sacred People, Places and Things in Our Lives (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums 2013).
14: Regarding the biases of archives and the necessity to challenge passive acceptance of their lacunae, see David Thomas, Simon Fowler, and Valerie Johnson, eds., The Silence of the Archive (London: Facet Publishing 2017).
15: A more recent example of such phenomena is found in the storm of commentary following the 2020 Superbowl half-time show headlining Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, which generated a windfall of reflection on female subject formation in relation to beauty, sexuality, and age. See Vanessa Friedman, “On the Runway: J. Lo and the Power of 50,” The New York Times, 3 February 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/03/style/jennifer-lopez-super-bowl.html, accessed 6 February 2020; Jennifer Weiner, “Opinion: I Feel Personally Judged by J. Lo’s Body. Are we really supposed to look this good at 50 now?” The New York Times, 4 February 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/04/opinion/jlo-superbowl-performance.html, accessed 6 February 2020.