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Anna KomneneThe Life and Work of a Medieval Historian$

Leonora Neville

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190498177

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190498177.001.0001

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(p.175) Conclusion
Anna Komnene

Leonora Neville

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Anna Komnene responded tactfully to the constraints her culture’s ideas about gender placed on her writing. Rather than using a pseudonym or hiding tensions, she allowed readers to see her efforts to be simultaneously demure and powerful, loyal and impartial, humble and authoritative. While Anna’s efforts at tact may have worked for her contemporaries, later readers’ misinterpretations of Anna’s self-presentation have led to negative evaluations of her character. While little can be proven about what happened on the night that Alexios died, modern depictions of Anna as consumed with ambition are not supported by current interpretations of medieval evidence or the politics of her era. Changes in our methods of historical analysis and advances in our understanding of Byzantine culture now allow us to recognize Anna, not as an embittered schemer, but as one of the greatest intellectuals of her era who succeeded in creating a masterwork of history.

Keywords:   gender, character, Anna Kommene, medical evidence, historical analysis, Byzantine culture

In Anna’s culture, the deeds of men in war and politics were commemorated by men. These were inappropriate subjects for women to talk about, let alone write about. A woman who wrote about such matters could only be deeply transgressive, immodest, and concerned with male things rather than female things. A woman who would dare to impose her judgment and organizational view on the deeds of men, and tell others what to think of them, could only be arrogant and inappropriately conceited.

Anna did not shy away from these problems. She could have written under a pseudonym, or she could have used her rhetorical powers to gloss over or submerge the challenges of writing history as a woman. Rather she opted to address her unique challenges openly. She did not smooth over problems, but held them up for her audience to see the tensions. In trying to write with the power and authority necessary to preserve Alexios’s memory, and yet exhibit proper feminine humility, Anna was striving to write politely and with tactful deference to her culture’s conceptions of correct behavior. The study of how she endeavored to write in a tactful manner has illuminated some fundamental structures of her society: “Tact, after all, is merely the play of light on the surface of a culture’s submerged ideology: even the most superficial appearances depend ultimately upon profound structural tensions.”1 Anna’s writing exposes the tensions at the heart of her project, and her society, as she invites her audience to observe her deft weaving of contradictory cultural impulses.

Tension aptly characterizes Anna’s need to present herself as a good daughter, naturally displaying deep affection for her father, and to disregard her natural love for her father in order to write truthful history. While Anna’s historical impartiality causes her to write negatively about her father, when (p.176) she deems it appropriate, she does prove herself to be a devoted daughter. Wherever possible she strives to make Alexios personally look good, even when he is experiencing failures.

There was tension in any Byzantine author’s dual mandate to be a provider of moral exemplars (and hence to some extent, the moral model himself) and to remain humble and self-effacing. For Anna, this tension was unusually acute because, as a woman, she needed to insist more strongly on her moral and intellectual qualifications while enacting a level of humility appropriate for a modest, good woman. Anna’s extreme concern to present herself as a pitiable woman indicates her understanding of the difficulties she faced as a female author, given the negative associations between self-aggrandizement and authorship in Byzantine culture. However hard her contemporaneous male rhetoricians worked to efface their authorship and present themselves modestly, writing was far less problematic for them than for Anna. Further, Byzantine culture held strong negative associations between women and power. Female empowerment was considered the source of discord and trouble. Anna’s choice to write history was transgressive, not merely in a general sense that women did not write histories in the twelfth century, but in that the assertion of authority inherent in writing set her up against the strong cultural imperative for women to avoid placing themselves in positions of power. For Anna to exert the power of authorship and have any hope of not being seen as deeply objectionable, she needed to present herself as profoundly humble. Anna’s self-presentation as the object of pity is always in tension with the strength and authority she does exert through the act of narrating men’s deeds in the public sphere. Framing her history with lamentation and proclamations of personal suffering mitigates some of the effrontery of her act of history writing. It does not resolve or eliminate the inherent tension, but endeavors to deal with it tactfully.

Tact also seems to be the pervasive guiding principle in Anna’s interactions with her culture’s fundamental conception that authority should rest with men. She does not combat this ideology, but uses traditional strategies that empower women while upholding prevailing ideas of proper authority. Like the women discussed in chapter 1, whose financial self-determination was enabled through their performances of extreme feminine weakness that constrained men to help them, Anna’s calls for pity were calls for her audience to support her efforts. In evoking support from her audience by playing the piteous widow, Anna used the moral logic of her culture to enable her authorial creativity. Anna also freely takes the opposite tact of transcending her natural female weaknesses through strength of character and innate nobility. Just as every female saint was an extraordinary exception to the rule of women’s weak nature, and just as every woman undertaking a legally binding transaction had the exceptional strength to act without “womanly simplicity,” Anna had the exceptional strength of character that allowed her to overcome her natural female emotionalism to write dispassionately.

(p.177) Anna could not resolve these tensions, but she treated them with great tact, and masterfully wove them into a strong, taut textual fabric. All her methods and strategies—her presentation as a mourning widow and object of pity, her balancing of historical impartiality with familial devotion, her careful policing of the boundaries of the discourse of history, her use of documents to efface and strengthen her authorship, her efforts to humbly and modestly substantiate her historical abilities—work to help Anna craft an authorial persona as both a good woman and a good historian. If this book has in any way enabled readers to approach Anna’s history with a better understanding of the cultural difficulties that led to the emotional peculiarities of her text, it will have succeeded.

The failure of later readers to understand Anna’s efforts at tact have led to negative interpretations of her character. Although our medieval evidence does not allow us to prove much of anything about who felt or did what on the night that Alexios died, modern depictions of Anna as wholly consumed with imperial ambition are not supported by current interpretations of medieval evidence or the politics of her era. Anna’s efforts to appear humble and modest may well have worked for her contemporaries, but they have not for most of her modern readers. To Gibbon her history everywhere expressed the “vanity of a female author,” and to many of her nineteenth- and early twentieth-century readers, pride and arrogance were her chief characteristics, along with ambition. These modern readers shared a dislike of female power with Anna’s contemporaries, but were worlds away from the other aspects of her culture that allowed her humbling strategies to function. “Modern” and medieval cultures of historiography were different enough that much of Anna’s rhetoric did not work for her modern readers, yet they were sufficiently alike in attitude toward female authorship that Anna’s great fear—that by writing history she would be seen as transgressive, arrogant, and unnatural woman—has been realized by readers’ responses to her work for the past several centuries.

Now, in the second decade of twenty-first century, we read ancient and medieval texts with far more attention to the rhetorical purposes of their authors’ exposition and growing awareness of the differences between ancient and contemporary historical practices. Scholars of ancient historiography are developing ever-more refined understandings of what truth and lying meant for the writers of ancient history, and how these ideas differ from those of the contemporary academy. Lebeau seems to have worked with the assumption that everything an ancient history said was true, in the same way that he understood truth, and his job was to fit all the bits together. That is not the approach scholars would now take to Choniates, Zonaras, or any of the other sources for Anna’s biography. Lebeau’s intellectual world is nearly as foreign to us as Anna’s. It is time to let our interpretations of the medieval material be freed from a narrative of political history developed in the 1770s.

(p.178) Our judgments about whether Anna’s history writing made her arrogant are also, for the most part, no longer constrained by a cultural prejudice that women’s intellectualism is a sign of vanity. While women academics continue to cite their own research in footnotes at significantly lower rates than their male colleagues in order to avoid the appearance of self-aggrandizement,2 Anna may at last have found an audience that would not presume that a woman who liked writing history would be conceited. We now are able to perceive clearly how diligently she worked to be considered modest and gracious. With these changes—in our methods of analysis, contemporary academic culture, and understanding of Anna’s authorial strategies—Anna can emerge primarily, not as a thwarted and embittered bloodthirsty schemer, but as one of the greatest intellectuals of her era and a woman who succeeded in creating a masterwork of history.

I have used the metaphor of Anna weaving the tense and conflicting threads of her discourse into a taut, strong fabric because I think Anna would have liked it. The norms of her culture told her that as a woman she was fit only for weaving with spindle and distaff. Yet she skillfully wove with words, creating a textual fabric of such strength and power that it has successfully stayed the onrush of the river of time and saved the memory of Alexios’s glorious deeds from oblivion for eight centuries and counting. Working with supple, silken strength, Anna succeeded in creating a history of her father and her era that will endure for centuries yet to come.


(1.) Glenn W. Most, “The Stranger’s Stratagem: Self-Disclosure and Self-Sufficiency in Greek Culture,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 109 (1989): 127.

(2.) Robin Wilson, “Lowered Cites,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 17, 2014.