Kassia: A Bold and Beautiful Byzantine Poet
by Mary Wellesley & Peter Toth
It’s Women’s History Month and to celebrate we are running a series of posts about medieval women. Today’s focus is an enigmatic poet who lived in 9th-century Constantinople. Kassia (b. 805/810, d. 843x867) was courageous, highly educated and beautiful. She was so beautiful, in fact, that the Emperor of Constantinople - Emperor Theophilus (d. 842AD) - wanted her as his wife. Not taken with the idea of becoming Empress, Kassia rejected his advances and chose instead to become an abbess and poet.
Kassia came from a noble family and was well-educated. In a letter to her, Theodore the Studite (d. 826) - one of the most important theologians of the 9th century - wrote that he was ‘astonished’ by her erudition, especially in one so young. He went on, ‘the fair form of your discourse has far more beauty than a mere specious prettiness’.
Theodore the Studite (right) from the Theodore Pslater, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 27v
Yet it was her prettiness that caught the eye of the Emperor in the year 830 CE. In this year, according to a number of Byzantine chroniclers, Kassia appeared in a ‘Bride Show’. These were events in which commissioners were sent throughout the empire to find possible wives for the Emperor and would bring them back to Constantinople to be displayed (some historians dispute whether they actually happened). According to the chroniclers, at one such show, Theophilus saw Kassia and, struck by her beauty, remarked ‘Ach, what a flood of base things come through woman’. Kassia, surefooted, replied, ‘but also from woman better things spring’. Her response – both witty and candid – espouses the Christian idea that through the Virgin Mary, Jesus brought redemption to mankind.
After rejecting the hand of the Emperor, Kassia became a nun at a convent in Xerolophos, Constantinople’s seventh hill. There she became a prolific poet and composer. Of the hundreds of hymn composers from the Eastern Church, only four women can be positively identified and only one of these – Kassia -- had her works incorporated into official service books for use in church worship. She also wrote secular works. The British Library holds a collection of her epigrams. In it she displays her sharp mind and sharp wit. She speaks disparagingly of thoughtlessness, writing, ‘There is absolutely no cure for stupidity.’ She went on, ‘knowledge in a stupid person is a bell on a pig’s snout’.
Kassia's Epigrams from Works of Demetrius Cydones and others, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th Century, Add MS 10072, f.94r
Kassia was also courageous. 9th-century Constantinople was rocked by fierce debate over the legitimacy of religious images, but just as she was unafraid to reject the advances of the Emperor, so too Kassia stood up to defend the veneration of the icons. In one of her verses she writes, ‘I hate silence when it is time to speak’. And her courage was not only demonstrated in her writing, but in her actions too. In another of his letters to her, Theodore thanks Kassia for helping one of his disciples who has been imprisoned by the authorities for his defence of icon-worship.
An image of the destruction of icons from the Theodore Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 88r
Kassia’s best known and most popular work is a hymn for Holy Wednesday, in which she gives voice to a nameless woman from the gospels. The woman appears in an episode in the gospels, whereby Christ, dining in the house of a wealthy man, is anointed by a woman (Matthew 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 3-9), whom Luke describes as having led a sinful life (Luke 7: 36-50).
The anointing of Christ's feet from Xanthopulus and Ephraem the Syrian, Eastern Mediterranean, 4th quarter of the 14th Century, Egerton MS 3157, f. 45v
A fine copy of Kassia’s poem survives in a 16th-century manuscript held by the British Library, where Kassia imagines the woman’s lament.
Kassia's Hymn for Holy Wednesday, from a collection of Hymns and Canons, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th century, Add MS 39618, f. 8v
The text reads as follows:
"Woe is me, for the love of adultery surrounded me with darkness:
A lightless night of sin.
Accept the springs of my tears,
As you who disperse the waters of the sea From the clouds.
Bow down to the sighs of my heart,
As you bent the heavens, by your inapprehensible incarnation.
I kiss your purest feet and wipe them with my own tresses.
I kiss your feet whose tread Eve heard in Paradise
Where, frightened, she hid herself in fear.
Who can count the multitude of my sin and the depths of your judgment?
Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Redeemer of my soul
Do not turn away from your handmaiden, as your mercy is boundless."
(Translation modified and adapted from Anne M. Silvas, cited below.)
You can hear what Kassia’s poem probably sounded like here. Happy Women’s History Month!
Anna M. Silvas, ‘Kassia the Nun c.810-865: an Appreciation’, in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200, ed. Lynda Garland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 17-39.
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