Who Was the First Female Historian?

Over the course of my Christmas blog break, I read two separate claims that someone was the first known female historian. Two separate women in very different times and places. I was so excited when I read about the first one that I almost interrupted my scheduled silence to share it with you. When I read about the second I was really glad I didn’t, since she is even earlier.

The first of the two that I stumbled across was Byzantine princess and scholar Anna Comnena (1083-1153)–also spelled Komnene for those of you who want to look her up. We don’t know much about how she was educated, but we know a lot about what she read: Homer, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle et al. She was a self professed history buff long before the word was invented: Thucydides and Polybius were her favorites. She was less taken with works of theology, which she said made her “dizzy”. She is best remembered for her Alexiad, a history of the life and reign of her father, the emperor Alexius I Comnenus– Including, among other things, an eyewitness account of the knights of the First Crusade (1095-1099), who passed through Byzantium on their way to the Holy Lands. (The short version? She wasn’t impressed with the “Frankish barbarians”.)

Then I stumbled across someone even earlier, the Chinese historian Ban Zhao (45 – c. 116 CE)–or Pan Chao depending on which romanization the sources you check use. (To put her in historical context: she was a contemporary of Plutarch, the Greek philosopher and biographer.*) She was the youngest child of Bian Bao, one of the Chinese literati, and the sister of the court historian Ban Gu. Like Anna Comnena, she received an unusual education for a woman of her time, like Anna Comena she was well-versed in the classics and the histories of her culture. She wrote in a variety of literary styles, including a type of work known as annotation, which I think of as a conversation between the original author and the annotator for the benefit of a third reader. When her brother Ban Gu died, leaving his monumental and influential History of the Han Dynasty (Han shu) incomplete, the emperor ordered Ban Zhao, who he described as “erudite and competent in writing prose” to finish the work in conjunction with the eminent scholar Ma Xu. The Han shu became the model on which other later dynastic histories were based.

Several thoughts come to mind:
• Both of these women are considerably later than Herodotus (ca. 484-425 BCE) and his Chinese counterpart Sima Qian (ca. 145-86 BCE) .
• Neither of them are “forgotten.” I stumbled across them by accident when I was poking around in Byzantine and Chinese history. Presumably anyone who spends much time in either culture is at least familiar with the name.
• Is there another woman with a better claim to being the “first woman historian”? If you’ve got a candidate, or would like to weigh in on the troubling issue of “first woman [fill in the blank], let me know.

*I don’t know about anyone else, but dates flapping on the page don’t do me much good when confronted with something new. I need a contemporary event that I already know to ground me in time.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.