• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Cover Yo Woman: The Byzantine Stance on Veiling Women

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

Nowhere has the link between dress and identity received more scrutiny than in recent scholarship dealing with veiling trends among women in Islamic societies. In discussions about female headgear, it’s frequently asserted that these dress norms directly stem from the Byzantine tradition. According to this view, Byzantine women – both married and unmarried – used head coverings as items to protect their modesty, honour and dignity. Others posit a slight variant, suggesting veils served as markers of marital status, more akin to contemporary Orthodox Jewish practice than anything else.

With so many pinballs (often loaded with different agendas) whizzing around it’s worth looking at the Byzantine evidence. A good primary source for the rite of “binding” a woman’s head is the euchologion (euchology). Extant Byzantine euchologies date back to the eighth century and include a prayer for head binding that mentions “fully arming [her] in faith… adorning [her] in good works… modesty… sobriety… self-control.”[1] Its strongest biblical reference is the passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian’s which admonishes women to offer prayer and prophesy with their heads covered:

“Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head – it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not cover her head, then she should cut off her hair.” (1 Cor. 11.4-16).

Few Pauline passages have generated as much heat in biblical studies. However, one thing is agreed: the fairer sex at Corinth actively participated in prayer gatherings but Paul enjoined them to do so with their hair covered. Perhaps, then, the rite only concerned itself with women covering their heads during church services?

Such a stance is unlikely to survive the glare of early Christian texts. In the early third century, Tertullian composed his treatise On the Veiling of Virgins (originally in Greek although only the Latin translation survives). He used Paul’s epistle to defend head coverings as normative for all Christian women, both married and unmarried. He claimed that in his day unmarried Christian women covered their heads throughout Greece “and some of its barbaric provinces.”[2] He also advocated that a lass veil her head “from the time when she begins to be self-conscious and to awake to the sense of her own nature and to emerge from the virgin’s (sense) and to experience the novel sensation which belongs to the succeeding age.”[3]

Moreover, Tertullian warned that men – including close kin – were imperilled by exposure to the female body. Many of his arguments highlighted the perceived benefit of veils to the female wearers themselves. In a rather graphic expansion of the Sermon on the Mount’s admonition against committing adultery with the eyes (Matt. 5.28), he described the veil as armour that protected women from being “penetrated by the gaze” of men.

For the ancient Greeks, too, the covering of a woman’s head limited visual access to her body and in turn signified that sexual access to it was limited. Likewise at Rome, Varro alluded to similar ideas of sexual inaccessibility being expressed through the dressing of the head when he wrote that Romans associated the binding up of a married woman’s hair with woollen bands (vittae) as emblematic of a protective citadel tower.[4]

Tertullian’s treatment implied that Christian women were not universally covering their heads in N. Africa in his lifetime. This corresponded to a general loosening of social norms for veiling in the Roman world that set in around the reign of Augustus. In talking about hair so much, he offered interesting asides on the acceptability of various hairstyles – similar to how female Muslims arrive at different conclusions on the viability of different styles of modesty today. In one passage, for example, Tertullian tells us some wear turbans (mitris) or woollen bands (lanis), others use linen coifs (modice linteolis) but few wear veils.

Elsewhere, Clement of Alexandria instructed women to “pin [their] hair up” suggesting he was a little more liberal (in not requiring a veil).[5] This reading would not be wise, however, considering his later Stromata recommended shutting women away in their private quarters, indicating he was indifferent to hair because Christian ladies were not expected to be seen in public.[6]

The Didascalia apostolorum (composed in Greek c. AD 230 in N. Syria) told women not to dress their hair in the “style of a harlot” and instructed them to “cover your head with a robe so that your beauty is concealed by your veiling.”[7] Cyril of Alexandria sang from the same hymn sheet, claiming that the covering of women was part of natural law.[8] While John Chrysostom in his commentary on the aforementioned Pauline passage agreed, claiming:

“Symbols many and diverse have been given both to man and woman; to him of rule, to her of subjection: and among them this also, that she should be covered, while he has his head bare. Now if these be symbols, you see that both err when they disturb the proper order and transgress the disposition of God, and their own proper limits.”[9]

Chrysostom’s attention to the issue was probably motivated by his reaction to the female ascetics of his day. Popular stories about St Thecla described her as a cross-dresser and the Synod of Gangra (AD 340) in Anatolia (ratified at Chalcedon, 451) condemned Eustathian ascetic groups that preached against marriage and encouraging women to dress as men.

Overall, literary sources make it clear that Byzantines were concerned with keeping women’s bodies – including their hair – ordered and covered. According to the Syriac Vita of Barsauma, the Empress Aelia Eudokia (d. AD 460) donated her personal veil to a monastery for use as an altar cloth. The Life of Pelagia from the fifth century described the saint as leaving her head uncovered before her conversion.[10] Indeed, sexual promiscuity was often linked to unbound hair and self-control with binding it. Confirming this, Niketas Choniates’ scribblings contain a passage in which the empress Euphrosyne Doukaina is sketched as an adulteress who “by dishonouring the veil of modesty, was shouted and whistled at and became a reproach to her husband.”[11]

Middle Byzantine authors almost always resorted to describing a woman’s modesty in terms of her bodily exposure. In his Encomium for His Mother, for instance, Michael Psellos described how his mother once helped a prostitute abandon her lifestyle. And in order to bang the point home, he mentioned how she kept her “eyes lowered and her entire face veiled with modesty.”[12] In a similar tone, the tenth-century Menologion of Basil II (Vat. Gr. 1613) provided depictions of women being martyred (sans veil) and frontal portraits (with veil) implying that the women in former were traduced and the latter honoured.

Just how women covered their hair changed over the centuries. While early Byzantine images suggest that they may have frequently used padded head rolls and figure-eight turbans, by the time of the fourth crusade many Constantinopolitan women wore a cylinder head-wrap that was sewn together and could easily be slipped on and off.[13] Veil lengths also changed over time. As Linda Safran has noted, fresco images from Salento reveal a great variety of female headgear. Dress norms varied across social classes too.

In conclusion, while it’s possible to confirm that covering a woman was a Byzantine ideal, the total coverage of female hair was not a major concern in notions of modesty. Rather, the amount of hair covered varied according to circumstance and social setting. Beyond church contexts, where head coverage was a given, there could be a number of acceptable fractions i.e. the presence of the veil mattered more than its role/position.

This shouldn’t be taken too far, however, as one might imagine women labouring in fields would not form the primary candidates for head scarves. Yet manuscripts show such a scene (fol. 203r). And in the topsy-turvy land of Byzantium it was even possible for loose hair to be considered honourable (cf. aforementioned martyrs of the Menologion) as in the depictions of St Mary of Egypt, which often display an unveiled figure. St Mary was also emaciated, dishevelled and wise, however, a true Desert Mother in the model of the Fathers or John the Baptist.[14]

Addendum: This article and its images are based on Gabriel Radle's "The Veiling of Women..." in Speculum 94 (4):1070-1115 (2019).

[1] Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Barberini gr. 336, fol. 252r.

[2] Tertullian, De virginibus velandis, 2.1, CCSL 2:1210; trans. in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to AD 325, vol. 4, Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. A. Roberts & J. Donaldson (1989), 27-37.

[3] Tertullian, De virginibus velandis 11.1, CCSL 2:1220

[4] Varro, De lingua Latina, ed. and trans. R. Kent (1938), 1:308–11. For further context see C. H. Cosgrove, “A Woman’s Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World…” Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005): 675–92.

[5] Clement of Alexandria, The Pedagogue 2.11, 62, ed. C. Mondesert & C. Matray, Clement d’Alexandrie: Le Pedagogue, Livre III, Sources Chretiennes 158 (1970), 12; trans. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, Fathers of the Second Century, ed. A. Roberts & J. Donaldson (1994), 286.

[6] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 2.23 (146), ed. Alain le Boulluec, Sources Chretiennes 38 (1954), 144; trans. in D. G. Hunter, Marriage in the Early Church (1992), 49.

[7] Didascalia apostolorum, 1.8; Syriac text published by Paul de Lagarde, Didascalia apostolorum Syriace (1854), trans. A. Stewart-Sykes, The Didascalia apostolorum: An English Version with Introduction and Annotation (2009), 115.

[8] See Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on 1 COR 11 in PG 74:880–84, at 881.

[9] John Chrysostom, In epistolam ad Corinthos, Hom. 26.3, ed. PG 61:216. Trans. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 12, The Homilies of St John Chrysostom…, Ed. T. Chambers (1889), 151.

[10] See R. Webb, “Salome’s Sisters: The Rhetoric and Realities of Dance in Late Antiquity and Byzantium,” Women, Men and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium, ed. L. James (1997), 119-48, at 131.

[11] O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, trans. H. J. Magoulis (1984) 213.

[12] A. Kaldellis, ed. and trans. Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters: The Byzantine Family of Michael Psellos (2006), 74.

[13] Dawson, “Propriety, Practicality and Pleasure,” 44–47.

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