Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Women's Quarters

The posts called The Marrying Kind (Parts 1, 2, and 3) mentioned Zoe Porphyrogenita's nephew Michael confining her to "the women's quarters." This is a very common phrase for what was a more complex situation.

Women weaving in the gynaeceum, 500 BCE (Louvre)
Ancient Greek culture promoted separate areas for women and men in their dwellings.  The male quarters were the andron; the part of the building for women's use was called the gynaeceum. In the imperial palace in Constantinople, this space was called the gynakonitis, and was very elaborate, with its own staff and rituals.

When Zoe's third husband, Constantine Monomachos, insisted on bringing his mistress, Maria Skleraina, into the imperial palace, Zoe welcomed her into the gynakonitis. Zoe and her sister, Theodora, allowed the mistress to stand next to them during ceremonies. On nights when Constantine wanted to sleep alone, Maria would have stayed in he women's quarters.

Archaeological evidence of these areas is determined by the presence of looms, olive presses, and other items associated with women's roles, being placed separately from the general living quarters. As dwellings became larger and more elaborate, these women's areas were increasingly placed further away from the front of the house, and had fewer lines of sight to the public areas, and more doors.

Although the placement of the women's quarters might be interpreted as a way to protect the "weaker sex," archaeologists and anthropologists see this elaborate segregation as a way to keep women out of the public sphere—women were not allowed to vote, for instance—and therefore under control domestically and politically by men.

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