hen a writer puts pen to paper, they are encouraged to keep a specific audience in mind. Scholars in the medieval era, a time when the literacy rate was often limited to the monastic communities in Europe, were especially beholden to their patrons to connect with their target audiences.
For instance, Bede’s 8th-century histories glorified a golden age of Northumbrian England and pointedly shied away from contemporary crises for these statements. The 10th-century Welsh scholar Asser worked alongside Alfred the Great to translate Latin works into Old English, all the while helping to craft Alfred’s argument for a unified English kingdom.
For anyone writing outside the small literate community, there would be an instant perceived conflict of credibility. In modern times, this issue arises when authors try to get picked up by publishing houses. Problems arise when access depends on who you know within that industry, whether you can penetrate their network, and whether you can find the right audience who will ensure your voice gets preserved beyond your time.
This problem is the reason why, when Anna Komnene, first-born daughter of Emperor Alexios I of Constanipoles published The Alexiad in 1148, she did so from a difficult position. Born into the purple as an imperial princess, she was expected to show unflinching loyalty to her family — a bias that would not pass 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 to be polite (the way bookstores might take a free sample of a self-published book), but it didn’t mean that scribes would dedicate their valuable time towards copying out the work for others in this pre-printing press world.
Despite all of these hurdles, she managed to create her epic tome, a document that enshrined her father’s (Alexios I, reigning from 1081 to his death in 1118) reputation as the founder of the Komnenos dynasty. The Alexiad was written to rehabilitate and cast the image of the man who shepherded 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 by being a diligent chronicler of the era. Through her writing, modern researchers are coming 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 mixture of poetic tradition and dutiful lamentation, The Alexiad stands out as a work in a world that would not allow her to set aside gender, nor its restrictions.
Anna Komnene, eldest child of emperor Alexios I, was not without significant advantages when it came to accessing materials for her work. Beyond her pedigree, Anna was known first and foremost as a devotee of philosophy and history, an unusual area of interest for a lady of the court. As a girl, she would study in secret the texts initially forbidden to her at night, until her parents got wind of the situation and eventually hired a tutor.
Anna was also wed to Nikephoros Bryennios, a scion of the previous ruling family. This was arranged as a means of binding the two noble families together under one united front. It was fortunate, then, that her new husband shared her love for scholastic pursuits, which kept her access to materials open.
The marriage expanded the circle of Anna’s extended family, some of the most powerful courtiers and generals of the Byzantine Empire. In a time where it was unseemly for a woman of her station to be seen speaking with a man she wasn’t related to, this would have been a massive boon for the budding historian.
Widowed and exiled
Two things happened to precipitate Anna’s sitting down to write her great work.
First, Anna’s husband, grandson of two former emperors, died in 1137. He had been in the middle of writing a book on Alexios’ reign himself, and it’s thought that it contained a then-popular local view of Alexios I as a tyrant.
The second event involved what historians believe to be a coup plot, or at least a visible lack of support for her younger brother, John Komnenos, to claim the imperial throne. After her husband died, Anna was forced to retire from court life. Her exile took her to the Kecharitomene monastery, located in the northern part of the city.
Thus, some sixty years after the events that catapulted her father into power, Anna took her exile in stride, sat down, and got down to work.Anna’s Alexiad, and her core audience
The text of The Alexiad departs wildly in tone from the typical scholarly tone of the time. Robin Pierson from the History of Byzantium podcast felt that it was unlikely that a “non-Byzantine audience was ever a consideration…the number of people reading Greek and understanding the context would have been so small as to be irrelevant to the authors.”
In particular, he highlighted that Anna did not attempt to shine a light on Constantinople for a foreign reader, and “her work is littered with references to the Bible and Homer with no explanation — so only a fellow Attic [Athens] Greek reader would have understood her fully.” While the Alexiad was made available to friends and copied out for local monasteries and scholars, the intended audience was local, highly educated, and influential.
Looking at the conditions that Anna was writing under — monastic conditions, and almost exclusively female-only — there has been a good deal of scholarly debate concerning just how she got access to her sources.
According to Kyle Sinclair’s 2014 paper, “Anna Komnene and her Sources for Military Affairs in the Alexiad”, Anna he had been contemplating doing this work for the previous 30 years prior to her exile. Her husband, a former commander under Alexios, had been compiling his own manuscript before he died, which subsequently became a major primary source.
In The Alexiad, Anna states outright that she had spent thirty years in the imperial court, listening to conversations between her father, his generals, and her various uncles within the government. If she had been transcribing these conversations, in a journal or with future scholarly intent, these would have been available to her in exile.
Sinclair also floats a theory that she had more access to the outside world than her writing suggested. From passages stating ‘fathers and grandfathers of some men alive today saw these things’, while lamenting the “inability to converse with friends of her father…many of [whom] have passed away’, at least some of her research may have been compiled during the reign of Manuel I Komnenos, her brother’s successor starting in 1143.
At least two of her male cousins from the court are reported to have survived well into Manuel’s reign, who could have supplied her with further information for following up on what she had on hand.
Looking at this timeline from a writer’s perspective, it’s easy to imagine Anna drafting the initial outline and drafts from her decades of collected records.
It’s just as easy to see her looking at that first draft, the one that never should never see the light of day, and dashing off a few letters to see whether some of the holes in the plot could be filled out.
Personal intrusion and addressing gender
The Alexiad held a unique structure and tone for a written history text. Anna actively intruded on the narrative to comment upon events, or express grief at reliving events involving family long dead. These are the lamentations, an explicit and targeted display of her gender and her duty to her family.
It was a striking departure from the norm, and some scholars felt it detracted from the work’s credibility; Gibbon, the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published 1776 through 1789), thought that the explicitly gendered narrative betrayed “in every page the vanity of a female author”.
As interest in classical forms grew, new texts were written that masqueraded as ancient novels while offering commentary on twelfth-century rituals and culture.
Leonara Neville’s interview on the history of Byzantium podcast, notes a particularly interesting pattern: any time Anna ‘sticks up for herself [in the Alexiad — i.e. states her credentials], she has to backtrack’ to avoid seeming arrogant. — hence the lamentations.
In her 2013 paper, “Lamentation, History, and Female Authorship in Anna Komnene’s Alexiad”, Neville further associates the lamentations as a direct path to balancing her (traditionally male and stoic) historian role as a dispassionate historian with that of the grieving wife and daughter.
The twelfth century was a time when literary circles were obsessed with classical Greek poetry and contemporary work of the period shows that fascination through literary experimentation. Her mentor, Micheal Psellos, was known for taking part in this tradition, and Anna seems to have followed suit in pursuing this style, despite Gibbon’s later protestations centuries later.
The Alexiad shows Anna take cues from the role of a male public actor, by periodically and explicitly falling into overt lamentation. Neville theorized that, “ [j]ust as by weeping Anna displays her proper performance of female gender, by overtly and explicitly stopping her lamentations she performs masculine self-control, dispassion, and rationality.”
Another theory of the lamentations is that explicitly performing her gender and then exercising an active restraint over its perceived excesses freed her to speak more freely about what she overheard and experienced. It also freed her to speak openly, and, at times, critically, of those experiences.
While The Alexiad was targetted at a small audience of ecclesiastical and court scholars, the very fact that it survives almost a thousand years later through the medieval equivalent of self-publishing her manuscript.
It did more than survive. The Alexiad remains one of the core texts remaining from the legacy of the eastern Roman Empire and provides a window into what was happening across Europe. It also provides a window into a time when the Normans were overtaking Western Europe, and where the restless energy of the realms under the Catholic Church was churned up to look upon her home city in a chaotic crusade.
Anna Komnenos lived through it all, and witnessed how this burned through Europe at the highest levels. By understanding the innate temperament of the era and bundling it into a riveting story incorporating her own voice, Anna made a place for herself as the first female historian.
Writer, armchair historian, and practitioner of the Oxford comma.