Women and art as diplomatic agents from the Mediterranean to Mongolia in the thirteenth century

Throughout the thirteenth century women were traded as diplomatic gifts, along with relics, textiles, exotic foods, gold and jewels. They were the sisters, nieces and daughters of kings and sultans, and were contracted in marriage to foreign rulers to form or strengthen alliances between states. They were potentially powerful outsiders at the heart of an alien court who could act as bridges between different cultures. The activities and treatment of these women have frequently been overlooked, and in many cases they are barely mentioned in historical sources.

I will be looking at a series of case studies to investigate the ways in which these women interacted with the cultures that formed their new homes. They encompass travels between Venice in the west and Karakorum in Mongolia in the east, and demonstrate the full range of roles between freedom and servitude, action and passivity, that women could adopt or were subjected to in the thirteenth century.

Two examples show the extremes. At the end of the century Simonis, a Byzantine princess, was contracted in marriage to Milutin, the king of Serbia. He was about forty-five years old, she was just five. This diplomatic alliance was condemned by many in Byzantium, and the scandal grew when it was alleged that Milutin raped his child bride leaving her unable to bear children. When Simonis tried to run away home to Constantinople she was captured and returned by her own relatives, so underscoring her powerlessness. Yet despite her passivity she had a major impact on Serbia: her barrenness was presented by her husband as evidence of her piety and chastity, and established a new paradigm of good queenship for later generations.

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Simonis and Stefan Uros Milutin of Serbia. Fresco at Gračanica monastery, 1321. Courtesy BLAGO Fund, Inc.

A generation earlier, a Christian princess from Georgia married the Muslim Seljuq sultan of Anatolia. Known only as the Georgian Lady – her name was never recorded by chroniclers – she moved between her Christian roots and her new Muslim position. As the wife and mother of sultans she was able to exert considerable power: she founded both Christian and Islamic religious buildings, and funded the tomb in Konya of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the Sufi mystic and founder of the Whirling Dervishes. Her presence made the Muslim courtiers around her interpret familiar art in new ways. A coin produced by her husband showing the sun rising above a lion (a not uncommon motif) was now interpreted by those courtiers as a crypto-portrait of her dominant influence over him, indicating their alarm at her power.

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Coin of Ghiyath al-Din Kaykhusraw II, Seljuk sultan of Anatolia, minted at Sivas, 1242. The coin was interpreted by Muslim contemporaries as showing the Christian queen’s influence over their sultan. © The Barber Institute Coin Collection, University of Birmingham, TK533; P.D. Whitting Collection, no. 4563.

I am interested not just in what these women did or had done to them, but in their agency, their ability to change court cultures even just by their presence at an alien court.

As a form of gift, these women – and many others – can be placed within the broader context of gift giving and exchange that lubricated diplomatic encounters. My project crosses the three major cultural, religious and political frontiers of the thirteenth century: between the Latin West and Orthodox East, between Christians and Muslims, and between the Mediterranean world and that of the Mongol East. The project is therefore a study of the impact of imports – women, artworks and other gifts – on the societies into which they were sent.

Dr Antony Eastmond
Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London

Antony was awarded a Major Research Fellowship in 2011; providing £87,620 over 24 months.