Creating, Performing, and Transgressing Borders and Boundaries

NetMAR at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds (2022)

The EU-funded project Network for Medieval Arts and Rituals (NetMAR), which will participate in the upcoming International Medieval Congress in Leeds (IMC; 04-07 July 2022), takes now the opportunity to share with the NetMAR blog readers a preview of its two sessions and six papers that will be delivered by some of the project’s PhD candidates and young researchers.

For this year, the IMC organising committee has chosen ‘Borders’ as the special thematic strand of the congress, aiming to ‘bring together medievalists of all fields interested in both the theory and practice of borders in all their variety, from physical boundaries and material borders to dynamic social and spatial relationships’. As the IMC organising committee further elaborates, ‘[b]orders can be linked to power and the formation of states, to definitions of self and other, to violence and military engagement, to belonging and becoming, to material and symbolic construction, to relational and perspectival production of space, to mapping and discourse, to experience and theory, to negotiation and performance. Borders can also be found in frescoes, textiles, clothing, ceramics, or coins, with practical, symbolic, or aesthetic functions’ (

The NetMAR research team, which specialises in interdisciplinary exchange involving Byzantium and the Western Middle Ages, has devised two sessions scheduled for the 5th and 7th of July 2022 that focus on questions concerning the relations of borders with gender performance, on the one hand, and with mobility and identity, on the other. Within the framework of the two sessions, NetMAR will draw on expertise deriving from core aspects of the project’s research. In addition, the two sessions will offer the opportunity to discuss the findings of six highly qualified young researchers involved in the project and to gain insights into their doctoral theses and current research.

Blurred Gender Boundaries in Medieval Culture

(Session 632, Tuesday 5 July 2022: 11.15-12.45, GMT+1)

In medieval cultures, gender boundaries are not only subject to rules different from those of modern Western societies. In certain contexts (e.g. courtly and religious), they are much more fluid than one would generally assume. This is evident, for example, in works of literature, which offer some leeway for the negotiation of gender roles, as revealed by an examination of central male and female characters of such diverse texts as Rudolf von Ems’ ‘Barlaam’ and Eilhart von Oberge’s ‘Tristrant’. Furthermore, with the roles of celibate priests and eunuchs medieval societies developed groups of elites that could – to a certain degree – be characterised by a non-binary gender status.

The latter will be explored by Kouadio Guy-Stéphane Ulrich Kouamé (PhD candidate in medieval history at the University of Bamberg) who will approach priests and eunuchs as ‘boundless servants’ in medieval Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic world. The history of medieval societies was strongly marked by elites without offspring. These individuals were protagonists in the functioning of these great cultural areas. Priests played an important part in many sectors of medieval society. It was, however, their liturgical function which required continence and purity that obliged them to observe the law of celibacy and thus remain childless – in theory at least. Their purity gave them dispensation to cross the limits between the sacred and the profane by serving as intermediaries between God and mankind. In fact, they transgressed and defied, without doing something wrong, the prohibitions that sinful men and women usually had to respect. Transgressing without wrongdoing with regard to social and sacred barriers also defined the particular scope of movement of Byzantine and Arab-Muslim eunuchs. They, too, were childless through castration and functioned as versatile agents who served in all sectors of society: they were considered ‘perfect servants’, but by closer inspection, they were, like priests in the Latin West, ‘boundless servants’ since they could penetrate the world of both women and men; they also had unlimited access to sacred spaces that neither men nor women could tread upon without committing a crime. Being neither women nor men, they could come and go between these different worlds, defying visible and invisible barriers. In his paper, Kouamé will show how these childless individuals distinguished themselves through their ability to transcend limits without breaking the rules.

The session’s two subsequent papers concern works of Middle High German literature, each of which transgresses the boundaries of medieval gender roles in its own way. Anna Ernesti (PhD candidate in medieval literature at the University of Bamberg), will analyse text and picture interrelations along with reader guidance in manuscripts and prints of Eilhart of Oberge’s ‘Tristrant’, the first written transmission in German language of the popular Tristan material. She will focus on the Heidelberg Manuscript H and the early Augsburg Printings A1 and A2. These late medieval books represent a change from verse (H) into prose (A1/A2), as well as a replacement of drawings with woodcut prints, and thus mark a transition from one medium into another. By taking these changes and the design and composition of the woodcuts into consideration, Ernesti will show how readers were manipulated in their perception of the adulterous love between Tristrant and Isalde. The transgression of social borders is inherent in the material; no editor of the Tristan story can avoid shielding the hero from negative reception tendencies and presenting him in a favourite light. Ernesti will identify the strategies of framing the adulterous couple through which these transgressions can be presented in a positive light.

Michaela Pölzl from the University of Bamberg finished her PhD thesis on narrations of education and models of intergenerational transfer in Middle High German literature in 2021. In her paper, she will focus on Rudolf von Ems’ second surviving work, a very popular German version of the pan-European phenomenon that was the ‘Barlaam and Josaphat’ material. The story of these two fictional Christian saints (most likely based on the life of Siddhārtha Gautama) tells of the conversion of an Indian prince (Josaphat) against the will of his father and king. The young prince finds himself at the centre of what Pölzl calls an ‘educational triangle’ (in relation to the narrative motif of the love triangle), consisting of God/God’s representative Barlaam, Josaphat’s father and himself. Josaphat finds himself subjected to educational influences from two parties pursuing opposing educational goals. In many narrations of the resulting conflict appear striking resemblances to the stereotypical plot structure of the so-called ‘bridal-quest schema’(for details regarding the schema, see the blog-post by Janina Dillig on 30 May 2022; – though here it is not an unwed king who sends a messenger on a perilous journey to woo a distant princess on his behalf, but it is God that sends the hermit Barlaam as his messenger to win Josaphat over to Christendom.

Barlaam leaving the hermitage on divine mission (Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XV 9, fol. 45):

Pölzl’s paper will explore the effects of reading Rudolf’s ‘Barlaam’ as a story of divine courtship on the depiction of the Indian prince and it will show how this makes visible various strategies of the character’s feminisation.

Crossing Borders: Correlations of Mobility and Identity in Medieval Societies (Session 1530, Thursday 7 July 2022, 09.00-10.30, GMT+1)

Borders and boundaries contribute to the construction, consolidation, reinforcement or even loosening of identities, with the potential of creating a sense of belonging and security, as well as a sense of entrapment or exclusion. The second NetMAR session at IMC will explore in interdisciplinary approaches the meaning of mobility in ‘mixed societies’, especially with regard to questions of collective identity.

Savvas Mavromatidis (PhD candidate in medieval art at the University of Cyprus) will examine changes in the appearance of grave slabs in late medieval Cyprus, as a result of cultural contacts during the short period of the island’s Venetian rule (1474-1571), focusing on what these changes could tell us about the cultural values of the society that produced them. Cultural boundaries are characterised by a material pervasiveness. The way with which a society handles issues related to death and burial reflects its cultural values. The funerary monuments per se focus on a plethora of what we call ‘borderlines of embodiment’: dying, death, and bereavement. Funerary art is one of the areas where the different components of Cypriot society met. Through this kind of art, (cultural and ethnic) boundaries seem to have been reshaped or have evaporated. Mavromatidis’ paper will deal with a group of burial slabs, which contain inscriptions and various iconographic elements with strong Renaissance influences and references to the macabre element, vanitas, melancholy, the uncertainty of human existence, and the impossibility of avoiding death. No human effigy is observed on these slabs. This distinguishes them from those of the Lusignan period and from others produced in the same period that continue to bear an effigy. In these ways, we cross the boundaries of the previous period: chronological, but above all cultural boundaries. The aim of the paper will be to explore the ways in which the new Renaissance forms entered Cyprus and how the Cypriots instrumentalised them in their attempt to communicate with the dominant Venetians in the new socio-political system, so as to express and promote their social aspirations and identities.

Following Mavromatidis, Marina Ilia (medieval historian from the University of Cyprus) will present a paper that will deal with another aspect of the Venetian rule of Cyprus. Based on sources rarely taken into account, she will examine the role of family as a social and economic unit in rural areas of the island, allowing new insights into the significance of mobility of these units. Despite the great scholarly interest on Venetian rule in Cyprus, one of the most important parts of the population: the Cypriot inhabitants of rural areas, remains insufficiently examined, even neglected. The very few published relevant documents, including the catastico of Marathasa (a complex of nine settlements in the mountains) are not widely studied, while other relevant documents, such as the catastici of Aradippo (a settlement next to the south shore) and Kato Koutrafas (a village in the mainland) remain unexplored up to this day. Ilia’s paper will focus on local and regional networks between villages and the main motives for mobility between them.

The session will conclude with a paper by Sara Moure López (PhD candidate in art history at the University of Santiago de Compostela) that will deal with the representation of the city of Babylon in thirteenth-century copies of the Castilian Beatus tradition. In the codices New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, Ms M.429 and Paris, BnF, NAL 2290, the city of Babylon is depicted on the verge of destruction as a fortified construction threatened by flames. Considering the remarkable differences between these two illustrations, the main purpose of the paper will be to analyse the façade of the city as a sort of curtain that can hide from the viewer what is happening inside. In so doing, López will explore the question of what kind of emotions the contemplation of the accursed city could have evoked in the monastic and courtly audiences of these manuscripts – especially in light of their own experiences in the ongoing military campaigns against the Almohads.

Arroyo Beatus: Paris, BnF, NAL 2290, f. 166r (detail):

NetMAR blog readers are warmly invited to attend the two NetMAR sessions on 05 and 07 July 2022 to learn more about the exciting research of NetMAR’s young scholars and to discuss their fascinating topics with them. The IMC 2022 will be a hybrid event; one could thus join the sessions at Leeds or online. More information about the IMC 2022 programme can be found at For information on registration and conference fees, visit

Session 632: Crossing Lines? Manifestations of Blurred Gender Boundaries in Medieval Culture

  • Kouadio Guy-Stéphane Ulrich Kouamé: Guarding and Crossing the Boundaries Between the Sacred and the Profane: Priests and Eunuchs as ‘Boundless Servants’ in Medieval Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World
  • Anna-Maria Ernesti: Exploring Isalde’s Space: Gender Boundaries in Eilharts ‘Tristrant’
  • Michaela Pölzl: Courting the King’s Son: Strategies of Feminisation in Rudolfs von Ems ‘Barlaam’

Session 1530: Crossing Borders: Correlations of Mobility and Identity in Medieval Societies

  • Savvas Mavromatidis: (De or Re)constructing Identities in Venetian Cyprus Through Funerary Sculpture
  • Marina Ilia: Movement as a Socioeconomic Aspect of Rural Life in Venetian Cyprus
  • Sara Moure López: On the Threshold of the Accursed City: Babylon as a Visual Border in the Late Castilian Beatus Commentaries

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s