There are two institutions which helped to define the Orthodox Christianity in the Middle Period of the Byzantine Empire (from the 7th to the 11th century AD). Monasticism was one of them. The development of ecclesiastical eunuchs is another. The place of religious eunuchs in this period is one of great interest. There is an increase in both the establishment of eunuchs in the overall ecclesiastical structure of the Byzantine Church and in the hagiographical stories (known as vitas, or lives) of this time period.
This is quite a marked difference to the strong disdain that was being applied to eunuchs in the Early Byzantine Period (4th to the 7th century AD) . During this earlier period, eunuchs were damned for their lack of genitalia. Just a few centuries later, they are being glorified for that same absence. One of the questions from this time period in Byzantine history is whether castration came to be seen as a type of ascetic discipline. After all, a monastic in the Byzantine Empire were given to all types of self-mortification (scourging and extreme fasting immediately spring to mind). These practices were viewed as a means to strip the world away to get to the true part of self from the person. Castration may have been viewed in a similar light.
One of the first things that should be clarified in any study of eunuchs is to examine what is meant by the term eunuch itself. Since language helps to shape our reality, it is important to develop a perspective of the term itself. In our modern world the word eunuch has solely related to a medical condition or procedure. However, in the ancient world the term was multifaceted. Its usage could convey a multitude of meanings, from that of the castrated male to that of the celibate male. It could describe a slave as well as a bishop. While we may be tempted to overlay our own interpretations and biases on the word and its function, it is important to realize that we cannot assume other societies have the same categories that we do, no matter if they appear obvious to us.
The word eunuch in its original Greek is eunouchos, which literally means “keeper of the bed” .While the word much later became synonymous with the medical procedure of castration; originally the term was more multifaceted. The term eunuch (and its variants) in the ancient world was used for not only those men who had underwent the process of castration (involuntarily), but also to male children to whom nature or God had 'castrated' (through underdeveloped sexual organs or no sexual desire), as well as those men who had underwent voluntary castration (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally).
Such practices meant that it was possible to put several types of men under a type of 'eunuch umbrella'. The term eunuch, rather than being a monolithic term referring to one type of physical modification (that of the removal of all of the sexual/reproductive organs) referred to several...