Finishing the book off has brought me back to the Byzantine Empire and a something I've been writing about The Alexiad. The text, written in the mid-12th century, is not only a Byzantine gem, but a jewel of medieval literature. It covers a crucial period in the history of the Mediterranean, providing invaluable material about the first major Turkish conquests in Asia Minor, providing a context for political crisis in Constantinople on the eve of the First Crusade, as well as a unique viewpoint of the Crusade itself.
Despite its obvious importance, The Alexiad has been much neglected - regularly dismissed as unreliable and biased. The reason? Because it was written by a woman.
Edward Gibbon discarded the text, written by Anna Komnene, out of hand, saying that 'it betrays on every page the vanity of a female author'; modern historians are equally emphatic. The history, in the words of the doyen of modern Crusade studies whom I am too polite to name, cannot be taken seriously because it 'was written by an old lady living in a convent.' (I kid you not).
The Alexiad has long suffered because of the fact that its author was a woman; historians of the Crusades barely if ever stop to question basic questions about the structure of the text; or consider its audience, reception or transmission; or to really ask what the primary motivation of the text was (which is NOT that of a besotted daughter, praising her father, the Emperor).
So, to mark International Women's Day, what better than to flick open a text that is unfamiliar to many - and yet is the first narrative history in a European language written by a woman.
And what a history it is: elegantly written, beautifully cadenced and full of surprises at every turn. Its opening line captures with perfect irony the problem of gender and history - one reason, perhaps why these were supposedly the last words of another great woman who can be commemorated today - Catherine the Great.
'Time, which flies irresistibly and perpetually, sweeps up and carried away with it everything that has seen the light of day and plunges it into utter darkness - whether such deeds are of no significance whatsoever, or if they are mighty and worthy of commemoration.'
History shrouds all in its mists, as Anna Komnene understood. Perhaps some of her more modern colleagues might occasionally remember that.