Medieval Mondays: Zoe Porphyrogenita

Hello everyone! This is the start of a new feature, Medieval Mondays, in which I will tell you about ten of my favourite lesser known medieval women. We begin with Zoe Porphyrogenita, my favourite medieval Byzantine Empress.*

Zoe was born in about the year 980, the daughter of Constantine VIII, and thus the niece of his brother and co-emperor, Basil ‘the Bulgar Slayer’. She was the second of three daughters, with an elder sister who apparently caught smallpox, joined a convent, and vanished from the historical record, and a younger sister, Theodora.

Zoe enters the historical record properly in her early 20s, when she was suggested as a potential bride for Otto III of the Holy Roman Empire (who had a Byzantine mother himself). Unfortunately, Otto died before any marriage could take place. Unusually, this appears to have been the only marriage suggested for Zoe. Basil was himself unmarried, and doesn’t seem to have been all that fussed about ensuring the succession of the Empire. Zoe and her sister Theodora spent most of their lives in the women’s quarters together. It did not lead to a convivial relationship.

Basil died in 1025, and Constantine followed in 1028. At this point, Zoe stepped onto the political stage.

A word about sources. The majority of our information about Zoe comes from Michael Psellos, who I can say without hesitation did not like Zoe. At all. He spends a lot of time explaining why things that went wrong were Zoe’s fault, and how Zoe was clearly a murderess and harlot, saying that To put it quite candidly (for my present purpose is not to compose a eulogy, but to write an accurate history) neither of them was fitted by temperament to govern. They neither knew how to administer nor were they capable of serious argument on the subject of politics. For the most part they confused the trifles of the harem with important matters of state.” Psellos is all about how amazing Psellos is.

So, on her father’s death in 1028, Zoe, aged 50, was married to her third cousin Romanos. Psellos says that Romanos held out hopes that they would have a child “even in the face of natural incapacity”, but presumably everyone else had put two and two together and made four. By five years in, things had gone sour. “Two things more than any other vexed [Zoe]: the fact that Romanus did not love her, and that she herself was unable to squander money.” Apparently, despite being “past the age for love” Zoe met a man called Michael the Paphlagonian and “at once fell victim to his charm, and from some mystic union between them she conceived a love for him.” Romanos died very shortly afterwards, and Zoe married 

*Second favourite Byzantine Empress of all, because Aelia Eudoxia, who went off to Jerusalem, joined a convent, and wrote Homer/Bible crossover fic, exists.

Five Things on a Friday

  1. These cakes are some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. And they look delicious. I expect to see this style of decoration on GBBO next series or so…
  2. “A’ghailleann”: On Language-Learning and the Decolonisation of the Mind

  3. Body on the Moor: Why did this man travel 200 miles to die here? Unsolved mysteries are an enduring interest of mine– see also, the Taman Shud man.
  4. The ‘Bat Man’ of Los Angeles

What I’m Reading Wednesday: The Kate Kane: Paranormal Investigator series, by Alexis Hall


The Kate Kane series belongs to that sadly underpopulated genre: lesbian paranormal detective romance.  Set in London.

Our heroine is a supernatural private investigator, a thirty three year old faery princess and a teen romance survivor.

With a dead partner, a vampire stalker and an ex-girlfriend who might be a super villain, her life, like her breakfast, is on the rocks.

From book one, you can expect a ill-conceived riot of fedoras, hot vampires, sewers, swarms of intelligent rats, werewolf It Girls, puddings, boylesque performers, murders, tentacle monsters, sex demons, nightclubs, biker wizards, blues bars, magic swords and ninja zombie nuns.  Oh, and karaoke.

The first time I heard about the Kate Kane books, I heard the words ‘lesbian paranormal investigator’, and found my fingers trending inexorably towards Amazon’s ‘Buy Now’ button.

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Five Things on a Friday

  1. Two wonderful people have worked out the legal position if you have fallen victim to sex pollen in modern US law, and in 13th century canon law. Thank you, o benefactors.
  2. Ten historical Hungarian castles for you to admire!
  3. Of course one of the oldest handwritten documents discovered in Britain discusses beer deliveries.
  4. Down Goes Brown is on the Graun. For those of you who aren’t entirely certain what this Stanley Cup thing is…
  5. And, if you are wondering how to keep your pearls happy, The Court Jeweller is here for you. Selflessly, I volunteer to wear pearls around the house. You know, to perk them up.

Five Things For A Friday

  1. I made chicken chili over the weekend. This is another recipe that hits the sweet spot of being 90% things which you already have, though we tend to bulk by things like chicken when they’re on offer. This was useful when I realised that I had picked up drumsticks instead of skinless and boneless chicken.
  2. The short, but eventful, life of the 5th Marquess of Anglesey.000sp73chenry-cyril-paget5th-marquis-of-anglesey
  3. Ella Risbridger on the importance of BBC Food.
  4. A zoo in Nagasaki has a Guinea Pig Bridge. And some sweet genius has written a song. 

Tredegar House, and the Morgans of Tredegar


I am currently visiting my parents in Gloucestershire, and we took the opportunity to visit Tredegar House, near Newport. Tredegar House was the home of the Morgan family, as in the famous Captain Morgan, but I’m not going to discuss him today– or William Morgan, builder of the house, who married two fabulously rich heiresses, one of whom was his cousin. The second, Elizabeth Dayrell, absolutely hated him; she used to call the maids into the bedroom to show them ‘how much he looked like a monkey’, and they had furious rows. Eventually, she attempted to stab him, and was committed. Nor am I going to discuss Lady Rachel Morgan, who nearly bankrupted the family by the simple expedient of refusing to die, or their famous horse, Sir Briggs, which served in the Crimea, and took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade. (So did two of the sons of the house, one of whom was Sir Briggs’ owner, but Sir Briggs outlasted him on the field)

No, instead, this post is about Evan Morgan, 2nd Viscount Tredegar, and his sister Gwyneth.

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Five Things on a Friday


    1. I made paneer and potato curry last night, mostly using things we had already. That is the pot after we had eaten half of it. Hurrah for BBC Food, recipe site of my heart!
    2. “Further Arguments in Support of Yudah Cohen’s Proposal to Bluma Zilberman” by Rebecca Fraimow.  I am better-looking than Hershel Schmulewitz. This is not vanity; it is plain fact. Isn’t it much more pleasant to have a man who’s decorative around the house than one who isn’t? I read this short story recently, and made happy noises. Short and sweet and perfect.

    3. John Rykener Revisited: Transvestite Male Prostitute or Biting Political Satire? by Jeremy Goldberg. A really interesting look at John/Eleanor Rykener, who may have been a man who dressed as a woman, may have actually been trans, or may, as this article suggests, not have existed at all.

    4. A thought provoking review from Smart Bitches Trashy Books.  The comments are actually worth the read!
    5. And, if you have been watching Eurovision, and wondering just how to win the elusive prize, Sweden has it all in hand, with this useful guide.