Eunuchs and the Spatiality of Power in a Comparative Context

AHA Session 180
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Murray Hill West (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Shaun Tougher, Cardiff University

Session Abstract

This panel seeks to make comparative connections between the roles of eunuchs in relation to the spatial in the Byzantine, Fatimid, and Mughal contexts, drawing on source materials ranging from narrative histories and administrative manuals to manuscript illustrations and seals. Examining the disparate spaces of the court, the palace, the city, and the empire, our papers track links between eunuchs and the exercise of power and influence. We will thus seek to reconstruct the complex social worlds in which such eunuchs moved, especially in relation to architectural, ritual, topographic and/or imagined spaces. What is unique about how we see eunuchs relating to these spaces? How does that unique relationship to space in turn shape their relationship to power? In answering these questions, our papers will attest both to how these roles were informed by the particular kinds of access eunuchs had, through often being placed in close proximity to the ruler and his family, as well as how such roles also go beyond questions of mere proximity. In looking at such figures the question of their slave status must also be addressed: how can we variously read our sources for evidence of, alternately, eunuch agency and intentionality or constraint and compulsion? Yet analyses of these same sources must also take into account the frame of “eunuch-ness” and its potential to obscure the ways in which these figures functioned as accepted members of the elite. Exploring both case studies of individual eunuchs of stature who left behind significant textual and material archives, as well as the fainter traces of low-status, often unnamed eunuchs, the panel will demonstrate the productivity of comparisons of eunuchs’ navigation of the spatial dimensions of power across these wide-ranging geopolitical contexts while remaining sensitive to both subtle and radical differences between them.
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