The Alexiad

Up Close & From a Distance

Vim, Ph.D.
30 min readAug 30, 2021



It is my great pleasure to deliver the first lecture on Anna Komnene’s The Alexiad.

I’m an Associate Professor of English and a scholar of English Literature, History and Culture. I will spend some of my time today giving you a sense what that means with respect to my own work the discipline and my training, and also the range of scholarship that happens under its auspices.

Slide from Dr. Simon Doubleday’s lecture on 10/2/2018

Just in case the computer science and math majors all just made a collective decision to go to sleep during this lecture, I’ll give you a quick teaser of the subsequent parts. You may remember some disciplinary border-crossing that Dr. Doubleday advocated for in his lecture on Chaucer, that historians and other scholars in the Social Scientists and Humanities disciplines were teaming up with scientists in programs in medical history at Harvard. I’m going to discuss how scholars of literature and linguistics work with librarians and computer programmers.

That is, you probably think the work of a scholar of literature looks like this:

Carl Spitzweg, The Bookworm (1857)

And I suppose in many cases, it does.

But by the end of this lecture, you’ll see it also looks like this:

Screen shot from Alan Hogarth, “Early Modern Science Writing and Style,” an exhibit on the Visualizing English Print website

Or this…

From the description of the TextDNA tool on the Visualizing English Print site.

Or this…

Images from Maxim Romanov, “Algorithmic Analysis of Medieval Arabic Biographical Collections” in Speculum 92 (2017)

Or this…

From “Stylometric Analysis of Early Modern Period English Plays” by Mark Eisen, Santiago Segarra, Gabriel Egan, Alejandro Ribero, in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 33 (2017). Every name listed besides Egan’s belongs to a member of the UPenn Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering.

And this…

Screenshot of me using a command line script to mine hundreds of plays for the phrase “I am a Soldier.”

And this!

This last image comes from my own analyses of The Alexiad, so you’ll have to stay awake to see how I get from here…

Our edition

to there…or here…

Me using AntConc to search for direct references to Homer & other literary figures in works by Anna Komnene, Michael Psellos, and Thucydides

The claims and observations I’ll make in this lecture are in two main parts. They are fairly wide-ranging. But there are two threads that I think tie everything together:

first, the need to value women’s voices, and the efforts that all scholars should make to avoid excluding them from our work and our syllabi;

second, the virtues of collaboration, in both literary creation and literary analysis, and the value of interdisciplinary scholarship on art and culture from the past.

PART I. The Alexiad & The Place of the Woman Writer

I’m particularly excited about The Alexiad because it is the first, and in most ways, the only major work on the syllabus attributed definitively to a female author. Show me by raising your hands: how many of you noticed a general lack of women writers in your courses this and other semesters?

The disparity owes a lot to the fact that in our class we’re focusing on works from antiquity and the Middle Ages, and the lack of women is simply a function of what remains of these older periods — which, you know, is contingent upon what the most elite members of society thought was worth preserving. That in itself is telling. And then there’s also the condition in which what has been preserved exists.

Some examples: You may have heard of the poet Sappho — she earned the praise of Plato and that probably didn’t hurt her reputation; She was a prolific poet from the island of Lesbos who occasionally wrote poems about desire and her love for other women; her name and legacy are evident in the etymology of the word lesbian. But what works we have of hers exist in only fragments. This visual tells you a lot:

So does this, a screen shot from Sappho’s twitter account:

Sappho Bot

It’s actually a bot, robot, a computer program that tweets for her, using an algorithm to select text from poems and post them as tweets regularly. Both the image of fragmented papyrus and the tweets help illustrate the problem: It’s hard to teach what we don’t really have.

At the same time, what “we don’t really have” hasn’t been much of a problem for the male writers that all of us recognize by name through our respective educations. Their works and ideas still manage to be taught regularly: you saw that in the abstracts you read from the Pre-Socratics, and references to Socrates, who we know talked a lot about not writing because his student Plato wrote things; Epictetus’ students (all men) made sure we have the basic tenets of a stoic’s lifestyle, including the idea that it’s no big deal to lose your wife or children, or abandon them quickly if the captain of a ship calls you back to sea. Though we didn’t read any Greek drama, you’ve probably heard of Sophocles, the author of Oedipus Rexand Antigone, from high school. Here too, the frequency with which they are taught might fool you into thinking we have an “original version” of those plays that is totally intact and coherent.

Editions of Greek Drama

But what seems like a nice coherent text is often the result of the major labor of editors. Here are notes, for example, from editions of Greek plays.

The notes from Agamemnon in the edition featured above

Has an abundance of these notes ever stopped a professor from assigning the plays they’re attached to?

Editors have done this with Sappho as well.

And there have been a lot of reconstructive efforts on the part of scholars of antiquity and the middle ages across regions and traditions: here are some examples.

They’re out there!

These books and many others like them are great for putting women back into the historical periods in which they lived. But despite the existence of texts like these, it has taken far too long for the books that contain women’s work to gain equal status with those that men wrote.

Let’s look at how often the better known authors are taught in our first-year honors course in the Fall Semester. Not at this semester, which you know about from your syllabus, but at previous Fall semesters on their own and in aggregate and the works that are taught in this course. We rarely go a semester without teaching Chaucer and Plato, but there’s no woman writer who we keep on our roster so consistently.

When did we teach these canonical writers in C&E?

The fact is that texts by male authors significantly outnumber those by women authors in the Fall course Curriculum, even when we account for days where there were both male- and female-authored works or when we don’t actually know the gender of the author.

Before you start to judge the faculty teams of past and present too harshly, let us quickly remember how consistently women’s voices are represented in various other fora in the present:

Headline from 7/16 on The Mary Sue
A headline on Slate, 8/17
From a huge study, available here:
LA Times

What are some places where men don’t outnumber women?

Well, first there’s a little place called America.

Census numbers (200/2010)

See also: The American university.

The student body at Hofstra.


It’s also true of Faculty at Hofstra university.


It’s the subject for another lecture and another time, but these things look considerably less equitable when we sort the same data to count the number of women faculty of color, and if you look at the gender of faculty and also sort the number of male and female faculty across disciplines, women are still woefully under-represented in some departments and fields.

And if you want to see evidence that men are still understood to be the “real” scholars on just about every academic subject, check out the Tumblr called “Congrats you have an all male panel.”

(For an antidote, the Twitter hashtag #WomenAlsoKnowHistory and the account with the same name!)

See: and

While I’m all the way up here in 2018, it’s also worth pointing out one of the problems of discussing statistics like this in order to point out that women exist and deserve a world where they are understood as producers of culture and knowledge: they force us into a trap where we end up validating conceptions of gender in strict binary terms, even if one doesn’t buy into the idea that there are just two ways to express or experience gendered identity or that it is static and unchanging over time for individuals. (I do not buy into this idea).

I have to acknowledge that this lecture utterly fails to escape that trap, though I’ll just note quickly that there are few more fervent defenders of the singular use of the pronoun “they” than linguists, librarians, and professors of early English literature.

But I need to return to my question: why are our institutions and educational canons not inclusive or equitable with respect to gender representation? I want to be clear here in noting that striving for something like equal or proportional representation does not mean adhering to quotas. It means looking out for human biases and idiosyncrasies that ultimately, and systematically, trend towards keeping female authors off the syllabus.

Many of the rationales that lead to this outcome are embedded in unexamined hierarchies and inequitable structures we’ve inherited, and if we don’t think about them carefully, we can unwittingly reproduce them.

One of the barriers to teaching Anne Komnene this semester was that almost nobody on the team had heard of her, despite The Alexiad being “the most famous of all the vast range of Byzantine Texts” (Frankopan ix). It’s also too long to assign and presents a historical period that is quite challenging for even your professors. Figuring out what to assign to you was quite daunting. We could have easily talked ourselves out of it & justified the decision.

Speaking more broadly, some of the factors that perpetuate women’s exclusion from our syllabi and canons are explained in a book by Joanna Russ, titled as an instruction manual with tongue firmly in cheek: How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

Here’s the cover of the book, which offers a brief survey of the books’ points of discussion, the arguments and qualifications people have offered to justify the dismissal of women writers:

First published in 1983; reprint with new preface, April 2018.

A couple of these claims might be leveled at Anna Komnena, including: She wrote only one work. That’s fair, though it’s a big one, and according to Peter Frankopan, the author of your edition’s introduction, it’s “one of only two narrative sources that cover Alexios’ reign” (xvii). This leads me to another of Russ’s straw-men: She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. It’s true, Anna Komnene wrote about her own father, and we could dismiss the value of the whole text on the grounds that it is less a disinterested account of that time than a hagiographical text designed to present all members of of her family in a positive light. On one hand, it’s tempting to buy into that one; I certainly wouldn’t want to read a book on the Trump presidency written by the first daughter.

On the other hand, all chronicle writing from the middle ages and antiquity would fail the test if we held it to the standards we require for modern historical scholarship; and more significantly, Anna Komnene’s Alexiadis full of moments that take up this very problem. Her frequent recourse to the truth, supporting evidence, and her own objectivity, something she invokes throughout the text, is one of the most interesting things about it — not because we should be convinced she’s objective or has adequately sourced her account, though in some cases it seems that she is and has, but because it provides a glimpse into the intellectual labor of a self-conscious, self-aware writer who is occupying occasionally competing roles of “good daughter” and historian.

We could also say she’s an anomaly: though we do have extant cycles of poetry by a woman and evidence in the form of dedications that women were readers and dedicatees of Byzantine literature, most women in her time did not write books, and her access to information about political affairs was also anomalous for its time. Only women connected to the highest levels of political power could achieve it, though it’s worth noting that women in had ruled as Empresses in Anna Komnene’s lifetime. In his introduction, Peter Frankopan notes a great many ways the Alexiad is an exceptional work just as its author is exceptional. He says,

The Alexiad is perhaps the most famous of all the vast range of Byzantine texts. Written in the mid-twelfth century by a princess, the beautiful and fiercely intelligent Anna Komnene, daughter of the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (reigned 1081–1118), it is a stylish and colorful account of the defining period in the formation of modern Europe… It is the first history written by a woman, not only in the literature of Byzantium, but of Western Europe too. It is in many ways entirely unrepresentative of the medieval Greek canon of historical narrative….a highly unusual text…

Of course, Frankopan does not cite these features of the text in order to suppress women’s writing; quite the opposite, in fact, since he obviously will be pleased we have bought his edition. But from this, it’s important to note that the exceptionality of some women’s writing isn’t in and of itself a problem; the problem occurs when people use that quality to broadly discount the capacity of women to contribute to certain kinds of conversations.

Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari (1889).

…or, when they have been so accustomed to keeping women out that they don’t see any problem with not including them in important decisions that effect them in perpetuity, over time….

Actual headline about actual senate committee leading to an actual vote

To return to briefly to our edition’s translator: Frankopan’s introduction is excellent for explaining Komnene’s place in Byzantine history and the history of writing on the first crusade. The only quibble I have is that he saw fit to describe her as “beautiful and fiercely intelligent”; can you imagine a description of a male author that begins this way? Was Plato handsome as well as contemplative? Was Chaucer dashing in addition to sharp-witted?

More to his credit, Frankopan, does not even entertain the possibility that Anna Komnene didn’t write the Alexiad. But it should not surprise you to learn that there is at least one scholar who did cast doubt on her authorship, using the items at the top of Joanna Russ’s list, She didn’t write it,…or if she did, she had help.

In a 1996 article, James Howard-Johnston rightly observed that The Alexiad was full of war, but thereby wrongly drew the conclusion that Anna Komnene could not have written it (260–302): “This concentration on military history and the intense concern for operational peculiarities of campaigns seems rather odd, in the light of Anna’s known interests which were literary and intellectual and her lack of experience of battles and war” (qtd in Macrides 64). He went on to say “if we knew nothing of the author, we would suppose that the Alexiad was penned by a retired officer whose active life had been spent in the field and whose later years were dominated by the memories and reminiscences of himself and his old companions-in-arms” (qtd. in Macrides, 64).

I have to admit I take this “band of brothers” rhetoric about military affairs rather personally, but my sense of affront is really more professionally determined than personal sensitivity; because, in addition to a scholar of early modern women’s writing, I am also a military historian who’s been writing about the militia in England and representations of it in English literature for two decades. And I know many other women who are also experts in this area. I don’t want to give over more time than is warranted to James Howard-Johnston, whose argument that the bulk of The Alexiad must have been written by Anna Komnene’s husband, Nikephoros, has been thoroughly refuted by Ruth Macrides and Diether R. Reinsch. They have noted that is no evidence for his claim that Anna that she took Nikephorus’ notes & gave them a “thorough stylistic upgrading” (Howard-Johnston’s phrase); they cite Komene’s multiple references to her sources for her accounts from the battlefield and the rather lengthy section in the Alexiad where she identifies her methodology and sources as evidence that the text and substance of the Chronicle should be solely attributed to her.

But I do want to say just a few words more on the topic of “She wrote it, but she had help,” because as anybody who has written, studied, and taught writing for years knows that nobody ever writes anything good without help, regardless of how they identify with respect to gender. In the interest of some #RealTalk, for a minute let’s look at what “help” can look like in the case of a woman writer that I hope is already familiar to you, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley & a 20th century edition of her Novel

This novel, which turned 200 this year, opens with a preface explaining the origins of the tale within. Shelley and some friends are on holiday in the Alps. It’s eerily beautiful there, and haunting. The poet Lord Byron challenges the group to write a scary story and Shelley begins imagining her antihero, the ambitious scientist Victor Frankenstein. Sometime after the holiday, she writes it all out in a notebook and she and her husband, the poet Percy, proceed to refine the text up until its anonymous publication in 1818.

Now: here’s a glimpse of what I promised: the collaborations of computer programmers, librarians, and literary scholars that have given all of us the ability to do archival research without leaving home or touching a rare document. This is the online home of The Shelley-Godwin Archive, a website produced by a number of institutions and scholars, including the New York Public Library. They have digitized the known manuscripts with the text of Frankenstein, which include notebooks and new drafts composed around 1818 with both Shelleys’ handwritten revisions. You can, thanks to all involved, examine the manuscript notebooks, and then view or hide the marginal comments and contributions of each writer; you could examine these as well as the other texts, from the 1823 comments in the 1818 published text to the 1831 edition, all of which reveal different versions of the novel.

Screenshot of one of the notebooks digitized and transcribed on
Mary Shelley’s notes for additional revisions on the 1818 edition (added in 1823)

Now, if you were a very bad scholar whose greatest investment was suppressing women’s writing, you might dive into this archive in order to definitely prove that Percy was responsible for the text, or, a related move, responsible for the best parts. You could, by the same logic, be just as bad scholar who wanted to prove definitively that the same applies to Mary. What a goodscholar does in this case, is look specifically at the evidence in all the available texts, not to prove the authorship or settle scores in a gender war, but to understand the complexity of authorship, textual evidence, and the enterprises of writing and publication in this particular case. What you can see here is the process of literary production, and, if you like stories with messy and complex protagonists, it’s pretty cool to watch how the sausage gets made.

A lot depends on what a scholar hopes to contribute to the field and general knowledge about literary history. Hiding or discounting Percy’s contributions doesn’t help us get at the truth, so it’s important to acknowledge his apparent role producing, what James Reiger has estimated as upwards of 5000 words, about 10% of the text of some editions of the novel.

These studies feature different assessments of which texts to privilege in what we think of as the single novel Frankenstein.

But it’s also worth looking at what Frankenstein would have looked like without him, as well; Anne K. Mellor has argued, if we want to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we should examine the 1818 notebook without his suggestions and also consider the handwritten notes Mary added in 1823 in the margins of the printed edition of the 1818 novel that was published with those suggestions.

There is room in literary scholarship for both Reiger’s efforts and Mellor’s, as both aim at elucidating something important about the texts — plural — of Frankenstein, multiple monsters of creation that are every bit as fascinating as the one made by Victor.

In the case of The Alexiad, there is a way in which Anna Komnene’s lack of military experience might have hindered her objectives, which might have included imperial rule. As Barbara Hill asserts, “The preeminence of military victory in the thought world of the Byzantines…was the single most oppressive bar to a career as an empress regent. Even male emperors who had little taste for military adventures found this a disadvantage. Their suitability for rule was measured by it, and their security was threatened by successful generals” (54). Yet, as Hill also points out, war could also enable women’s rule, as we see in the case of Anna Dalassene, who rules at home while Alexios is away.

We know that even before Alexios’ death, Anna Komnene had hoped for her husband to succeed her father as the next Emperor, and even tried to raise forces to remove her brother John upon his ascension and install Nikephorus in his stead. Anna Komnene’s attempted coup failed, however, as Nikephorus himself swore loyalty to John and served the successive Emperor for the remainder of his life. If Komnene had designs of ruling like Anna Dalassene, that is, holding down the government while her husband was constantly away in battle, they ultimately amounted to nothing.

Still, this particular failure should not diminish our sense of her accomplishment in writing The Alexiad, a text that bears no more evidence of her husband’s assistance than her attempted coup.

We know that Nikephorus had written his own history at the command of Anna’s mother, his mother-in-law, but also that he only managed to cover the period leading up to Alexios’ reign; though Anna does recount some of the same incidents in The Alexiad that her husband had recorded about Alexios’ life before his Imperial ascent, she both acknowledges her husband’s earlier work in her account and provides additional details that are not in his version. Indeed, from the evidence we do have, it looks very clearly like Anna produced the history that he himself admitted he lacked the ability to do.As Ruth Macrides puts it, “she wrote the work that her husband had not managed to write” (65).

PART II. The Alexiad: Up Close & From a Distance

I think it’s time now to dive into The Alexiad and look more closely at the text itself. But I also want to offer a caveat here about what I’m able to do in this lecture on a Byzantine text as a scholar of early modern English Literature. Just as a reminder, here’s a handy visualization of time, place, and subject matter that forms the focus of my scholarly expertise next to the same information that would apply to an expert on The Alexiad:

What I Study vs. What an Alexiad expert Might Study

There are a few points of intersection here in red type, but the ones that do overlap aren’t actually overlapping when it comes down to the actual knowledge entailed in them, especially when you start to look at the differences highlighted in blue type. I’m first and foremost a scholar of dramatic literature, though the questions the drive my work are less about style and performance than about history. More specifically, I want to know how institutions worked in the period, and I use their representation in dramatic texts a long with a great many other texts as a way into understanding politics and government. But I’m an expert on the English militia in the 16th and 17th centuries because I’ve studied it for over two decades.

By contrast, The Alexiad is the only work of Byzantine literature I’ve ever read before, and I’ve only read it once, and did so rather sporadically, in a period from June to late October. It’s true that I’ve managed to learn a fair amount about it in a couple months, and as somebody who’s read the whole text, I am a step ahead of almost every other person in this room. And that does mean I can share insights that come from having seen the whole text with you. But, that’s a far cry from what Dr. Frankopan has done, and it’s not at all close to what my colleague Dr. Smith can do when we return to C&E to study the Alexiad next week. So. In what remains, I’m going to approach The Alexiad by deploying two methods used pervasively in literary studies that are the most friendly for non-experts who have limited knowledge of the historical contexts in which a text was produced: Close Reading & Distant Reading, the latter sometimes called Text mining or Corpus Analysis.

The first method is one you probably have heard of a lot this semester in your Humanities section. The beauty of Close Reading is that it can be done without any other material resource beyond the text itself. So it’s an extremely democratic method: just you, your brain, and a book. With close reading, we’re looking with great focus on single passages, examining the stylistic features, diction or word choice. We might also look at how the aesthetic elements like metaphor, or phrasing and syntax, recur throughout the text, which requires not only noticing something in the moment you’re reading it, but also being able to attach what you see to other moments in your reading, past and future, which we can almost certainly do better if we’re actively annotating the text. So, as somebody who managed to read all 471 pages of the Alexiad to your 60, I’m going to share with you three passages from sections we didn’t assign to you that encouraged me to read carefully and think more deeply.

I mentioned before the contention that women’s lack of military experience was a factor in their inability to exercise complete authority in Byzantium. But there’s an interesting example of a woman warrior in The Alexiad in Robert’s wife Gaita. According to to Komnene in Book I, “she went on campaign with her husband and when she donned armour was indeed a formidable sight” (43). She reappears in Book IV, when Komnene tells us,

There’s a story that Robert’s wife Gaita, who used to accompany him on campaign, like another Pallas, if not a second Athene, seeing the runaways and glaring fiercely at them, shouted in a loud voice — words which were equivalent to those of Homer, but in her own language: ‘How far will ye run? Halt! Be Men!’ As they continued to flee, she grasped a long spear and charged at full gallop against them. It brought them to their senses and they went back to fight. (121)

This scene is compelling for a couple reasons. First, we are drawn to the boldness of her actions, charging after them as if she’s making an assault on the enemy, an armed pursuit that restores their “senses” here as well as their courage. There’s also the irony of a woman chastising the soldiers for not being manly enough, and along with that riposte, the high literary style of the comparisons to Athena and Homer; as Frankopan notes, the quoted lines feature in the texts of both The Iliad & The Odyssey. The qualifier about commanding her own language is important here as well, for it foregrounds Gaita’s status as a Barbarian rather than a Byzantine.

This status is a way of distancing herself from Gaita, even as the description suggests Komnene’s admiration, and if you read the whole text carefully, you’ll see another form of it in another place, a third passage that’s not about Gaita but Eirene, Anna’s mother, who accompanies Alexios in his journey to defeat the Barbarians. Here, Anna Komnene defends her mother’s choice to attend her father when he goes off to battle:

…the empress went with him willingly and yet with reluctance. It was not necessary for the empress to join in hostilities against the barbarian army. How could she? That might have been enough for Tomyris and Sparethra the Massagetis, but not for my Eirene. Her courage was turned elsewhere and it was if it was fully armed, it was not with the spear of Athene, nor with the cap of Hades: her spear, shield and sword, which she nobly ranged herself in battle line against the misfortunes and trials of life [that were typical in the lives of powerful rulers]… …Such was the armour of my mother in wars like these, but in all else, as befitted her name, she was a most peaceable woman” (339–340).

Note the two ways the allusion to these women works here, first as an indicator of Anna’s knowledge of other women who participated actively in battles — Tomyris and Sparethra were classical heroines who fought against Cyrus of Persia in the 6thcentury (n.15, p520) — and second as a way to differentiate the very different kind of participation she implies is proper for women who are not barbarians. This tension between the narrator’s admiration — even envy — for these martial women and the need to distance herself and women in her family from them is significant, because it suggests the barriers for Byzantine women’s full participation in political life are rooted in cultural mores rather than physical limitations or in women’s interests more broadly. Eirene’s name means peace, but Anna is careful to show that not all women are so peaceful — nor do they have to be.

My close reading just now and your own partial reading of the text so far might give you the impression that the Alexiad is a chronicle of Alexios’ reign that focuses substantially, if not quite equally, on the actions of capable women. And you wouldn’t be incorrect, at least not really, based on what you’ve read. But there’s also many additional pages you haven’t read, and still others you did read but can’t recall anymore whether there are references to women.

I could tell you my initial impression after having read all of the text, which is that there are a lot women who are actively crossing borders, particularly Anna’s mother and grandmother, in the early books and in a few places elsewhere, as Eirene Komnene follows Alexios in his battles with the Turks, primarily to help care for his gout in between skirmishes. But also in my recollection, there are large swaths of the text where Alexios is engaged with battles against various factions within his empire, and neither Turks nor women are to be found. How can I support this claim effectively for what’s not there? How do you close-read an absence? You can say that Close reading is what allowed me to recognize this absence, but one reader’s recognition does not alone provide effective support.

One way to do do so is to supply visual evidence, and this is where digital tools that help track and visualize words can come in handy.

Lots of direct references to men…fewer references to women

Here’s a visualization of every form of the word “woman” in the entire text of the Alexiad:

Use the MicroSearch Tool in Voyant & search for wom*; it finds women, woman, womanly, woman’s, women’s, (also womb) etc.

This is one with women and specifically the proper names Eirene, Anna, and Gaita.

Adding in proper names doesn’t change much…

This method has been called “Distant Reading,” but other names for it include “text mining” and “corpus analytics”: that is, the holistic analysis of a significant body of text, and we can do corpus analytics especially well when we deploy both machine and human brains to assess features within a body of texts. In this case, I’ve just searched and visualized The Alexiad.

But the same tool allows us to compare the translated text to other translated texts that might be comparable: in this example, I’ve used a translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 431 BCE), and a translation of a text more contemporary with Anna Komnene’s, Michael Psellos’s Chronographia (written between 1042 and 1078 CE), which she mentions multiple times in The Alexiad.

MicroSearch Tool comparing references to women (woman/womanly/woman’s/women/women’s) in comparable texts

These are comparable works because they’re all histories of sorts. But we’re also looking a different texts with respect to the length of each text. Komnene’s work is longer than Thucidydes’ by about 5000 words and much longer than her model, Psellos.

Her work also has a greater vocabulary density than Thucydides — which means that her work contains more unique words than his — but her sentences consist of fewer words total on average. What might these statistics teach us about each writer’s style?

Document Summary

Of course, these statistics must be qualified, because as non-experts, we’re examining these works in translation, and furthermore, with translations by different people who might make different decisions regarding the same Greek word. When we get an automated word count, what we’re getting is a count based on the translators’ respective decisions. Here’s another small twist: In the text I’m using for this analysis, is not the same translation as we’ve read for class. Instead, I’ve had to use the translation by Elizabeth Dawes, which was done in the 1920s.

Our own edition is what Frankopan describes as his own “major reworking” a second translation, one done by E.R.A. Sewter in 1969, which he says is a “a more pleasing and graceful version of what is an idiosyncratic, florid and convoluted text, written in the high Attic style” (xxix). Frankopan says his translation is “closer to [Anna’s] original [manuscripts and more faithful to her] language, style, and form” than Sewards, and therefore could be quite different from Dawes’ translation, which he says is “rather heavy and literal” (xxix).

Setting that discrepancy aside, the beauty of corpus analysis is that I’m able to say a few things about the language in these large chronicles without even having read any of them before. But I want to be clear in noting that scholarship using digital tools isn’t really about not having to do any reading or using a machine to do your work for you. Like close reading, distant reading has a low barrier for entry so that everybody can do it, but you will get more meaningful results from your work when you are able to do it with more specialized knowledge. Corpus analytics is even cooler when you’re working with a body of texts that are even longer or more plentiful than the three I’ve showed you and when you’re equipped with genuine expertise in the area and works you’re studying.

But: you have to start somewhere! So let’s see how you, too — with or without programming skills — can do some distant reading. (If you were not in my class when I delivered this lecture but would like access to the files described below for text mining, send a request in the comments and I’ll send you the link!)

As with my early modern texts, there were some things that had to be done to prepare the text of the Alexiad for analysis. The original electronic text was a PDF produced in 2000 in a program called Word Perfect. It had a number of formatting quirks that I found in the document after exporting the PDF to a simple text file in Adobe Acrobat. I had my programmer collaborator systematically remove some of those things; his notes on the process are in the README file.

One example of formatting we fixed: words combined after export to simple text
Another example of formatting we fixed: special characters and punctuation that the simpletext file had rendered in weird ways.

The other thing I did was to manually make each book into its own separate file so that we can do focused searches and easy holistic comparisons between books.

So now we’ve got a corpus that includes a total of 19 files: A file for each of the two other chronicles, and 17 files of the Alexiad, including books 1–15 and the Preface, as well as the whole text in a single file.

What do we do with these? Somebody with advanced skills might use a programming language like R or Python to mine these files; they could also make the files more useful by turning them into xml files, that is, marking them up so that different elements within them are tagged so that they can find different kinds of phenomenon beyond mere words or phrases within them. So here’s what an XML file of a play (again The Tempest) looks like:

The Tempest (1611), XML file

But those of you who aren’t ready to do this can use what we call “out of the box” tools. The one I like best is called Ant-Conc, which is a free, downloadable concordance software that will generate a list of words in your text to sort by frequency. I owe my use of Ant-Conc to Heather Froehlic, whose website has lots of great tutorials and other things to help you get comfortable with digital tools and analysis of texts using them.

With AntConc, you upload your texts, and can search for instances in which the author uses the phrase “my history” in order to see how often the author is self-consciously referring to his or her work. You can see here Anna and her contemporary Michael Psellos use this possessive phrase frequently, whereas Thucydides apparently only uses it once.

A search for “my history” in The Alexiad and Chronographia: both authors discuss their work in possessive terms

Ant-Conc also allows you to do a concordance plot, so that you can see not only how many times these authors use the phrase, but also at what points in their respective works that they use it.

The Concordance Plot tool

We might do a search to see how many times Homer comes up, using the “pipe” (|) in the search to add multiple search terms related to literary culture.

And finally, Ant-Conc allows you to determine collocates, that is, clusters of words that typically appear around a specific word.

So we could do a search for “crossed” or “crossing” and then look at what kinds of words are most often accompanying Anna’s use of them.

Collocates Tool with Crossing as the search term

If downloading software seems daunting to you, there’s another program that’s designed for beginners and intermediates called Voyant. This program lives on the internet, so you simply need to go to the website and either upload your corpora, or use the ones they have ready-made, the complete works of Shakespeare or Jane Austen.

To save time, I’ve already uploaded the Alexiad in a few separate tabs, one with the 15 books as separate files; another with just the Alexiad in one file; and another with the three chronicles.

The standard screen you’re shown loads with a number of tools already visible, most of them by default visualizing the words that appear most frequently in the documents. You can change the data in each window to find what you’re looking for by typing into the search box; you can also change the tool you’re using by clicking on this button:

the button to choose new tools in Voyant, which brings up the menu below

You can teach yourself how to you use Voyant by hovering your cursor over these little buttons at every tool; the designers have offered extensive documentation about what each tool does.

Some, I think, are bells and whistles that don’t really teach us anything interesting.

But some I’ve already used in this lecture to create compelling visualizations that offer insight into Komnene’s text.

For instance, look here at the Summary tool results, where we see that the Prologue is shorter than any other book but also has the richest or densest vocabulary:

These numbers allow us to see a concrete quantification of the feeling we might have gotten from reading the preface and subsequent books — that the opening pages are very stylized, affective, and literary, compared to other books that are longer and more varied in content, but also more invested in relaying plot details rather than feelings.

I can use the Microsearch tool with the three chronicles to visualize the way that references to “women” drop in and out of the narrative or, in the case of Thucydides, are never really part of it.

Or I could use the “trends” tool to see how often and at what point she refers to Barbarians or Turks…

trajectory of word frequencies, words associated with “barbarians” and turks in The Alexiad

…and then compare it to the use of these terms in Psellos’s Chronographia and Thucydides History.

(These results aren’t surprising give these texts’ respective dates of composition. But we could still ask what each author meant by words like “barbarous” and “barbarian”)

On Blackboard, you’ll find that I’ve uploaded each corpus I’ve mentioned today as well as provided a link to Voyant.

It’s all here!

All you need to to start your career as a digital humanist is to download them and then upload one or all of them into Voyant or AntConc.

On your handout, you’ll see that I’ve provided a list of ideas for productive or interesting text mining and tricks for doing them for those just starting out.

You can do this in section today if your professor is amenable to trying some things out at the podium. For those of you who want to have a low-tech conversation about the Alexiad, the handout has some discussion questions for you as well — the book is really the best technology, and it’s fine to focus on the hard copy today.

Everybody can play around with these tools on your own over the break, when you’ll also be reading the remaining required pages for Professor Smith’s lecture next week.

That’s it! Thank you for listening!

Sources that aren’t linked to articles online above:

Hill, Barbara, “Actions Speak Louder than words: Anna Komnene’s Attempted Usurpation” in Anna Komnene and her Times, Ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), 45–62.

Macrides, Ruth, “The Pen and the Sword: Who wrote the Alexiad?” in Anna Komnene and her Times, Ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), 63–82.

Reinsch, Deiter R., “Women’s Literature in Byzantium? — The case of Anna Komnene” in Anna Komnene and her Times,Ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), 83–108.



Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.