This is Part 14 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Jes Battis. You can find the rest of the series here.
Castration is a spectre that looms large in Game of Thrones. Three of the principal characters in the show—Varys, Grey Worm, and Theon Greyjoy—have undergone various forms of castration. A core of Daenerys Targaryen’s army, “the Unsullied” (a title that itself bears unpacking), is made up entirely of castrated men. But how common were eunuchs in the actual Middle Ages? Does Game of Thrones exaggerate their importance to medieval culture, or simply reveal how central they were? Eunuchs were actually quite a vexed subject in the Middle Ages. Some medieval eunuchs became so voluntarily, but many did not. Not all Eunuchs defined their gender in a fixed way: some, like Peter Abelard, identified as male, while others identified (or were read) as belonging to a gender spectrum. We see a lot of Eunuch-phobia in medieval texts, which were trying to grapple with people who didn’t adhere to strictly masculine or feminine roles. But the religious chastity of some eunuchs was also valued. This made matters even more complicated, since eunuchs were both celebrated and attacked, often in the same sentence.
Eunuchs and Orientalism
Eunuchs were often considered a “foreign problem” within medieval Europe, in much the same way that gender diversity has often been read as “foreign” by European colonizers in the post-medieval world (and even today). Eunuchs always seemed to be coming from elsewhere, bringing their unwelcome cultural politics along for the ride. In his book The Manly Eunuch, historian Matthew Kuefler notes that early medieval theologians would have been accustomed to “the visible presence of eunuchs all around in the households of the wealthy.” They criticized what were, essentially, migrant workers, while acknowledging the stereotypical qualities that would have made them excellent bureaucrats and managers—there was a widespread belief that their supposed lack of desire made them focused on their jobs and “safe” around women. Ancient historian Piotr Scholz, in his book Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History notes that eunuchs “generally came as slaves from Byzantium, where they had been castrated for psalmody.” China also had a community of eunuchs who worked as bureaucrats and archivists. As a workforce, they were primarily fashioned beyond the borders of continental Europe, which meant that they were framed according to stereotypes about the East, or the “Orient.” This is central to understanding medieval eunuchs as well as their depiction in Game of Thrones, as is the concept of Orientalism.
Orientalism is a term coined by Edward Said in 1978 to refer to the way the “West” views the “East”—as exotic, alluring, inscrutable, and threatening; this view continues to be perpetuated in popular culture. As a result of their perceived origins, Eunuchs often become shorthand for “exotic” in medieval texts. For example in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century Arthurian romance Parzival, a “foreign” (Italian) eunuch named Clinschor reacts to love in much the same way that the Grinch reacts to singing. Since many medieval European countries had laws forbidding the creation of eunuchs, their presence was seen as a kind of creeping foreign influence. But they also provided an essential service—the word eunuch literally means “bed guardian,” and eunuchs, in addition to being archivists and bureaucrats, were often confidantes and what we might now call hospitality managers.
Eunuchs had a shifting place in the medieval gender spectrum. The most popular forms of medieval literature included bodies of all kinds. The thirteenth-century French adventure story Silence features a central character who is gender non-conforming—as Gabrielle Bychowski explored in her article “Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?” But it is not just Silence themself who embodies this: in the poem, there is a character who is the personification of Nature (and who argues, at length, with “Reason” about Silence’s gender). Nature is personified as having “at least a million molds” (l. 1887) for different people. This implies that medieval readers were primed to see humanity as full of possibilities, including gender diversity—even if medieval society overwhelmingly was constructed around male privilege. Chaucer even describes one of his pilgrims, the Pardoner, as a “gelding” (eunuch), but also as a “mare” (which could mean many things!). Medievalists like Carolyn Dinshaw and Kim Zarins have read the Pardoner as queer, nonbinary, and intersex, while pointing to ways in which the medieval gender spectrum was broad enough to admit many identities.
Gender was complex in the Middle Ages, as it still is today. In his book Making Sex, Thomas Lacqueur discusses how philosophers like Galen (CE 130–210) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) supported a one-sex model in which men and women were essentially inversions of each other. Galen writes:
All the parts, then, that men have, women have too…[turn] outward the woman’s, turn inward, so to speak, and fold double the man’s, and you will find them the same in both in every respect.
But scholar Michelle Sauer, in her book Gender in Medieval Culture, is quick to point out that
the one-sex body is never an egalitarian one; instead, it is slanted in favour of the idea that the male is the primary form, and that women are in some way inadequate.
Nevertheless, for some medieval thinkers, there was a certain amount of play. The Galenic model saw bodies as containers full of “humoral” substances—as in, the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. These were each assigned attributes: hot and dry, or cold and wet. Too much of one or another could create physiological changes. In Humoring the Body, Gail Kern Paster describes bodies as leaky vessels full of unstable materials sloshing around. This instability meant that bodies were always transitioning, never simply one thing. Eunuchs were often seen as combining both masculine and feminine characteristics, mixing humors, in ways that could be both beautiful and dangerous. They endured public scrutiny and criticism, but could also be folded into the structure of societies like medieval Byzantium, as singers, guardians, and vital bureaucrats.
Eunuchs and Byzantium
Several medieval literary figures provide parallels to Varys and the other eunuchs of Game of Thrones. They show that there was a broad scope of treatment of eunuchs in various positions—secular, religious, and literary—in the Middle Ages. For a thousand years, Byzantium was one of the cosmopolitan centers of the world. In The Perfect Servant, her book on Byzantine eunuchs, Kathryn Ringrose describes eunuchs as an indelible aspect of Byzantine culture:
Accepted for centuries as a functionally legitimate group, eunuchs were a feature of Byzantine society throughout its history, a history that traditionally extends more than a thousand years from the founding of Constantinople in 324 to its capture by the Turks in 1453.
Eunuchs were also prized for their voices, and Ringrose mentions “the chorus of eunuch singers who provided music both at [Byzantine] court and in the church.” Even beyond the Middle Ages, the seventeenth-century craze for opera ensured that eunuch performers (like the famous soprano Farinelli) continued to dominate the stage.
Beyond singers and courtiers, eunuchs could also be warriors. For example, Narses was a general and politician who served two Byzantine emperors from 478–573 CE. His early life is shrouded in mystery. Historian Michael Edward Stewart notes that:
most of what we know of his life before 530, and in particular, how and when he became a eunuch, is based on conjecture rather than concrete evidence.
Much like Grey Worm from Game of Thrones, Narses controlled an army. But he was also the imperial treasurer, putting him on a more equal footing with Varys. At one point, he governed much of northern Italy. The Empress Sophia—wanting to put him in his place—apparently sent him a distaff (a yarn spinning tool) and told him that he ought to be weaving with the ladies. Narses replied:
I will weave such a web around you that you’ll not be able to break through it as long as you live.
That’s some shade from a powerful eunuch.
Some Byzantine writers defended eunuchs. Theophylact of Ohrid was an eleventh-century rhetorician, who left us with biblical commentaries and over 100 detailed letters. His brother, Demetrios, was a eunuch. Theophylact wrote Defense of Eunuchs for his brother’s sake—the first two lines are: “My brother is the reason for this treatise / he is a eunuch, a model of honest life.” This remarkable text takes the form of an overheard argument between a person (possibly a courtier) and a eunuch, whose nephew has just been castrated. The courtier disapproves of what he sees as lax morals, and criticizes the older eunuch for passing these on to his nephew. But the eunuch—“a living refutation of the accusation”—responds that only foreign eunuchs are immoral. Local eunuchs from Greece, like himself, are upstanding citizens! Here was can see exoticism at work on a number of levels, as different countries tried to justify their treatment of eunuch citizens.
There are two important details to take away from this dialogue. The first is the older eunuch’s refutation of criticism: “No matter how much you call us criminals, vice does not reach us.” Eunuchs, he claims, aren’t the ones to be afraid of in this hostile world. The second detail occurs in the epilogue, when both the eunuch and the other speaker embrace and kiss each other civilly. The nephew—a eunuch child—has been there the whole time, listening silently.
The eunuch took into his arms the child, his nephew, who was sitting nearby them and listening attentively, and gave him numerous kisses, since he was happy about the debate concerning the child, which had unfolded without harm.
In the end, the eunuch child is loved, held, and valued.
The western Catholic Church had extraordinarily mixed feelings about eunuchs. This can be seen in the life of Peter Abelard, the twelfth-century philosopher and theologian who was castrated as punishment for his affair with Héloïse d’Argenteuil. Abelard describes his downfall in a letter, often called the Historia Calamitatum [“Story of My Misfortunes”]. In the Historia, Abelard recounts how Fulbert, the uncle of Héloïse, hired men to sneak into their bedroom and castrate him: “They cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.” In Part XIV of the letter, Abelard discusses positive representations of eunuchs, including:
that eunuch of great authority under Queen Candace who had charge of all her treasure, him to whose conversion and baptism the apostle Philip was directed by an angel.
But how did other medieval religious thinkers conceptualize eunuchs more generally? There was a distaste for any bodies that weren’t “virile,” but at the same time, philosophers celebrated chastity as an ideal. In his influential Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas notes that “it is not lawful for a man to maim himself for the sake of the soul’s welfare.” Here, he’s speaking of Christian saints like Origen, who castrated themselves to become more chaste. But, always the contrarian (since debate was at the core of medieval education), he also adds:
It may happen that although the removal of a member may be detrimental to the whole body, it may nevertheless be directed to the good of the community.
Eunuchs are larger-than-life characters in Game of Thrones. Varys commands an army of child-spies to do his bidding. He shamelessly manipulates the politics behind the Iron Throne. Grey Worm is a perfect soldier because he (supposedly) lacks worldly desires. Grey Worm both plays into, and disrupts, Orientalist fantasies around what a eunuch could be. He is “Eastern,” and comes from a cultural context not widely understood by other protagonists from Westeros (like Tyrion, who often seems turned off by the “excess” of the Eastern courts). Unlike Missandei, who has mastered a number of languages, Grey Worm has to slowly, painfully learn the dominant language used by Daenerys and her companions. He exerts physical power, rather than political influence. He’s much closer to the general Narses, or even to Demetrios, the eunuch brother of Theophylact. When Demetrios died, Theophylact mourned him in a letter:
[He was] the brother on whom my breath depended, who was really everything to me, who would throw himself into the path of fire and swords so that I could live relaxed and free from pain.
Grey Worm also throws himself into the path of fire and swords—proving that a eunuch in Westeros can be a warrior, a strategist, a lover, and a politician. He short-circuits the “scheming eunuch” narrative. Even if his home in Essos is often full of Orientalist trappings, Grey Worm himself manages to emerge as a singular character.
By contrast, Theon Greyjoy is castrated (in the show) by the psychopath Ramsay Bolton as part of a torture that seeks to strip him of personhood—Ramsay forces Theon to become a new person called only “Reek” in the process. But Reek/Theon continues to be a positive force in the show, even as he works to overcome the after-effects of his trauma. In the finale to season Seven (“The Dragon and the Wolf”), Theon wins a fight after his attacker, Harrag, kicks him between the legs—only to find that he is immune. Theon wins not because he’s stronger, but because he is more resilient—especially because his opponent can’t quite reckon with his nontraditional male body.
In another example, in the Season One episode “Fire and Blood”, Varys verbally spars with consummate schemer Littlefinger before the Iron Throne. Both characters use words rather than weapons. And more, both characters are linked to sexuality: Littlefinger runs a brothel and manipulates his victims through sex; by contrast, Varys knows everyone’s sexual proclivities, though his own remain a mystery. Littlefinger tries to dehumanize Varys by speculating on what might lie beneath his robes. Varys responds, playfully: “Do you spend a lot of time wondering what’s between my legs?” Littlefinger tells Varys what he pictures, and Varys responds: “I am flattered, of course, to be pictured at all.” He refuses to play this game and retains the dignity of his private body.
This scene is about power. These two political instigators stand framed by stained-glass windows, their position equal. Varys remains unmoved by Littlefinger’s taunts, telling him: “You can do better.” We get a sense of how someone like Varys—who can be read variously along a gender spectrum—could have dealt with people’s aggressive curiosity. Varys uses male pronouns, but his clothing and aesthetic is nonbinary, and as a trained actor, he can take on a variety of tones and appearances. We know little about his own desires, or how he experiences his gender, since his perspective is limited (probably because he knows too much!).
Game of Thrones wants us to underestimate characters like Varys, Theon, and even Grey Worm. But then, it pulls the rug out from under us again and again. Ultra-masculine characters like Sandor Clegane and Euron Greyjoy are presented as figurative or literal monsters; this also suggests that Martin, and by proxy showrunners Benioff and Weiss, has something interesting to say about masculinity in general. And while eunuchs were (and are) sometimes regarded by society as less-than-men, it is telling that the final line Bran Stark says, to thank Theon for sacrificing his life, is “You’re a good man. Thank you.”
While the show plays with stereotypes about eunuchs, it also taps into a rich discussion of their complex role in the Middle Ages. They were politicians, generals, and philosophers. They frustrate our assumptions, while arguing for the sovereignty of their own bodies.
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Jes Battis (he/they) teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Regina, with a focus on queer medieval studies and popular culture. Their current project is a monograph that examines wizardry and neurodiversity in medievalist YA fiction. They’ve also published the “Occult Special Investigator” series, and the “Parallel Parks” series (as Bailey Cunningham) with Ace/Penguin.