Seneca Revisited

Written by: Justin Biggi.

Content Warning: This post contains graphic discussions of violence, gore, and self-harm.

Seneca’s tragic works are known for being, at the very least, polarising. Making liberal use of gory violence, they have often been considered liberally ‘sensationalised’ versions of the Greek plays they draw from. However, a number of scholars have, in recent years, begun to rehabilitate Seneca’s tragic violence, and read it through the lens of his own Stoic philosophy. As such, violence becomes at times a cautionary tale on the excess of emotions, an example of the ways in which furor rules one’s life, or an aid when confronting one’s own mortality. I believe that an ulterior dimension can be added to how we read Seneca’s use of violence if we read it through the lens of modern-day horror theory. 

The sharp contrast between Seneca’s frequent use of violence in his works and his Stoic philosophy can often be puzzling. Tragedy is where we find some of Seneca’s bloodiest, violent and most intense images. In Hercules Furens (54 CE), Amphitryon describes in great, gory detail the way in which Hercules is driven to madness by Juno and kills his children: ‘the arrow, piercing the middle of the neck, flies through the wound’ (Herc. Fur. 994 – 995), ‘[t]he room is covered in his scattered brains’ (Herc. Fur. 1007). Another example is Medea (50 CE), where the titular character performs a gruesome sacrifice to Hekate, using her own blood: ‘[m]ay [it] drip down onto the altar. Stricken, I have gifted the sacred liquid’ (Medea 811). Additionally, in stark contrast to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Seneca’s Oedipus rips out his own eyes, as opposed to using his mother’s brooch. The details given by Seneca are both realistic and absolutely chilling: ‘[w]ith curved, greedy fingers he finds his eyes and … yanks both eyeballs from the depths of his sockets, by the roots … he breaks away the last of the filaments from his sockets, so inexpertly torn’ (Oedipus 965 – 976). 

Amy Olberding argues that Seneca’s use of violence ‘invites empathetic apprehension of the felt personal quality of death’ which results in pushing readers to reflect deeply on death and dying. In her interpretation, she focuses primarily on Stoicism’s relationship to death, and Seneca’s own discussions of what constitutes a ‘good’ death and what does not. According to Olberding, the ‘particular’ of specific examples of violent deaths allows Seneca to prohibit his readers from interacting with death as a simple concept. Rather, it becomes an ‘event’ that cannot be ignored or denied, therefore helping them to ‘meet death well’ by extensively reflecting on it. His graphic depiction of violence serves an important educational role as it does not allow the reader the comfort of simple self-reflection. Instead, it complicates the issue of death, and invites a deeper level of understanding of it. Violence, in the form of specific examples, becomes a physical space that the spectator is forced to inhabit. Of course, this visualization is brought a step further when we bring theatre into the fold, seeing as theatre brings it beyond the imaginative powers of the reader.

In modern-day horror, we see a similar pattern of violence and gore. Not only is violence often excessive, it also serves a similar purpose: through it, the genre allows for larger questions of mortality, death and the body to come into play. This process occurs in two phases. On the one hand, we have the recognition of the dead body as a fundamental aspect of the recognition of the self. On the other hand, we have the inherently dehumanising nature of violence. Julia Kristeva identifies the witnessing of a dead body as an act which causes a violent recognition of the self. She calls this process “abjection”. It is the recognition of the self through an understanding of one’s physical presence. The human mind, however, is ill-equipped to fully understand what this means and recoils in terror; the ‘refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’. What should be a moment of recognition causes instead a depersonalisation. The self, brought to the forefront by witnessing a dead body and being therefore made fully aware of death, rejects itself and its newfound physicality. In the horror genre, this depersonalisation is emphasised further through the frequent use of violent deaths. Horror, Adriana Cavarero argues, ‘has to do with repugnance’, a repugnance which lies in one being unable to justify ‘violence for violence’s sake’, which signifies the loss of individuality and personhood.

The depersonalisation and self-recognition typical of the horror genre I described above are also employed by Seneca in a similar manner. In his plays, the violence is so physically present that it becomes inevitable. It must be confronted. Through this confrontation, the audience must then come face-to-face with their fear of death. The process presented by Olberding bears a striking similarity to Kristeva’s description of the process of abjection. The audience, in witnessing the violent act, is forced to come to terms with their own mortality, and then modify their own approach to death – similarly to how, when confronted with death in the form of a body, Kristeva describes feelings of terror which culminate in a rejection of death. Furthermore, the violence is, in and of itself, a cause of horror and repulsion. This contributes to the forming of an empathetic bond between the audience and the subject matter. This empathy, I argue, is born because of the audience’s awareness that violence is inherently dehumanising, as Cavarero describes. 

In conclusion, horror theory can help us build on other scholars’ interpretations of the use of violence in Seneca. By applying concepts such as abjection and dehumanising violence, we are able to see not only the ways in which Seneca’s own approach to violence was strikingly modern, but also how it has continued to this day in other forms of media, such as the horror film or novel. Seneca uses violence as an educational tool, and yet this educational aspect is what also contributes to its excessiveness. In the context of horror studies, it is clear how he makes use of violence as a dehumanising tool to further strengthen the audience’s empathy towards the characters, as viewing a person violated and eventually dead pushes the audience to re-examine not only their relationship to their own body as a physical object, but also to death as an inevitable element of their life. Unlike Kristeva, however, Seneca hopes that this confrontation will lead to a better, healthier relationship with death, rather than one of sheer terror. 


Cavarero, A., Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

Kristeva, J. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). 

Olberding,  A., ‘A Little Throat Cutting in the Meantime: Seneca’s Violent Imagery’, Philosophy and Literature, 3.1. (2008), p.133. 

Image: Alamy

The Woman with Lapis Lazuli in Her Teeth: Exploring the Female Scribes of Medieval Europe

Written by: Tristan Craig.

A 2014 analysis of the remains of a woman, exhumed from the burial site adjacent to a former medieval monastery in Dalheim, Germany, found brilliant blue particles embedded in her dental calculus. Raman spectroscopic analysis revealed these pigments to be lapis lazuli: an immensely valuable commodity in the Middle Ages and used only by the most skilled artists in works of the highest order. What made this discovery all the more spectacular is that she dates from around the eleventh to early twelfth century where examples of the expensive mineral, mined only in one region of Afghanistan, are exceptionally rare. Whilst numerous theories have been proposed as to how it found its way into a one thousand year old dental plaque, the prevailing thought is that this woman was a monastic scribe – and an accomplished one at that. The copying of Christian manuscripts was vital for its spread beyond Latin Christendom throughout late antiquity and the middle period, with dedicated writing rooms – known as scriptoria – established in monasteries for this purpose. The frequently reproduced image of the medieval scribe in a candle lit room: his tonsured head bent over a desk as he commits to parchment the gospels of the four Evangelists, illustrates the false notion that writing in the Middle Ages was solely the pursuit of men. Although evidence of the role that women played in the preservation of ecclesiastical literature is immensely sparse, documented accounts of the female scribe do indeed exist.

The lack of signature on what textual evidence does remain, however, makes the task of identifying scribes an incredibly problematic one. Very little can be safely attributed to any one person, let alone exclusively to the hand of a woman. Whilst the vast majority of references to female writers and illuminators exist second-hand in passing reference, there are a modest number of signed works. A female scribe by the name of Duriswint is attributed to a small prayer book crafted for Emperor Otto III; written using gold ink upon purple parchment, it was a luxurious gift for a tremendously powerful individual, suggesting that Duriswint was greatly respected in her trade. Monastic communities were vital, not only as centres of ascetic practice and veneration, but as institutions where women too were afforded a literary education. Gisela, abbess of Chelles and sister of Charlemagne (fl. 785-810), was responsible for a large scriptorium of nuns in which a number of works were produced bearing their signatures. Although largely uniform and indistinguishable from one another, the quality of the manuscripts created demonstrates both their skill and their rigorous training. Whilst not erroneous to assume that the majority of lay people during the Middle Ages were illiterate, it is often assumed that women had little to no access to education regardless of status. Indeed, there is a lack of textual evidence to the contrary and quantifying literacy rates – male or female – is a fruitless task, but such examples begin to challenge the suppositional historiography upon which the presence of the female scribe has been established.

Although manuscripts produced in the monastic scriptorium are difficult to assign, tangible evidence of female authorship predates the Dalheim woman by millennia. Enheduanna of Sumer (fl. twenty-third century BC) not only has a number of devotional hymns ascribed to her but is the earliest known recorded author – male or female. Female lyric poets, such as Corinna and Sappho, flourished in sixth century BC Greece. In the fourth century AD, as Christianity came to be the dominant religion of the Roman Empire and literary practices evolved with it, so too were women lauded for their penmanship. Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Ecclesiastical History (c. early fourth century), references the “girls trained for beautiful writing”, producing manuscripts for Origen. Women are not only centred in this instance but were, as Eusebius suggests, highly proficient calligraphers producing manuscripts on behalf of a very prominent Christian theologian. The role of the medieval scribe was not merely secretarial; the illuminations of gospel books of the early medieval period reveal in glorious colour the heights of monastic artistry at this time. Similarly, the quality of the materials used reflects the importance of the commission; the glorious eighth century Lindisfarne Gospels were written upon vellum crafted from some 150 calf skins. Eadfrith – the scribe responsible for their creation – was, however, unable to procure the rare lapis lazuli found on the Dalheim woman and so created his own pigment from more locally sourced ingredients. Not only was this female scribe using an immensely valuable material in her work, she was using one that was seemingly impossible to retrieve from the far reaches of central Asia. 

How this mineral came to arrive in Germany, at what cost and for what purpose are but a few of the copious questions which remain unanswered from this discovery. As postulated by the team involved in analysing the skeleton of the Dalheim woman, it is entirely plausible that she was indeed operating as a scribe at this monastery during the High Medieval period. That lapis lazuli was available for her not only suggests trade connections beyond the presumed reaches of the period, but highlights her status within the field of manuscript copying. This is of course likely to invite speculation – and indeed has already done so – but it ought not to be rebuked for its existence as a solitary example of female clerical excellence; it exists as only one thread in the larger tapestry of women and their ecclesiastical writing. Beyond the medieval scriptorium, female authors were certainly not unheard of. Whilst the clerical reforms established by Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh century threatened to restrict those who were not enticed by the reverence of an ascetic life, female authorship came to the fore during the fourteenth century, exemplified in the writing of Christine de Pisan. If this article seeks to demonstrate anything it is that women were not only active in the production of medieval manuscripts but, as the woman with lapis lazuli in her teeth serves to illuminate, were highly proficient in it.


For further reading on the scriptoria at Chelles Abbey, see: Rosamind McKitterick, “Women and Literacy in the Early Middle Ages” in Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingsoms, 6-9th Centuries (Hampshire: Variorum, 1994).

For further reading on Eusebius’ account and the female scribes of Roman Antiquity, see: Kim Haines-Etzen, “Girls Trained for Beautiful Writing”


*A special thanks to Dr Zubin Mistry for his literary recommendations.

Conrad-O’Briain, Helen. “Were Women Able to Read and Write in the Middle Ages?” In Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, eds. Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby (New York: Routledge, 2008).

Haines-Eitzen, Kim. The Gendered Palimpsest: Women, Writing, and Representation in Early Christianity. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Haines-Eitzen, Kim. “”Girls Trained in Beautiful Writing”: Female Scribes in Roman Antiquity and Early Christianity.” Journal of Early Christian Studies, no. 4 (1998): 629-646.

McKitterick, Rosamind. “Women and Literacy in the Early Middle Ages.” In Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6-9th Centuries. (Hampshire: Variorum, 1994).

Radini, A., M. Tromp, A. Beach, E. Tong, C. Speller, M. McCormick, J. V. Dudgeon et al. “Medieval Women’s Early Involvement in Manuscript Production Suggested by Lapis Lazuli Identification in Dental Calculus.” Scientific Advances, no. 1 (2019): 1-8.

Stevenson, Jane. Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).


The Revealing of the Gunpowder Plot

Written by: Isabelle Sher.

The author wishes the reader to know that the details of this event are to this day shrouded in mystery. We will likely never know if Lord Monteagle was one of Cecil’s spies, if he had some part in the writing of the anonymous letter, or whether he knew anything of a plot at all.

It was well known that Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, was not to be trusted. The same had been said of his father who had served in Her Majesty’s court before James was crowned. It was a time of great division; everyone sensed it, everyone talked about it, but there was little anyone could do about it. The long-standing injustices felt by the followers of the old religion would not be silenced by the king’s more tolerant outlook. It was sceptics such as Cecil who were fully aware of the dangers of complacency. 

That was why Lord Monteagle was so useful; he had much to prove, he had wasted his youth in ambitious plotting, in dreams of heroism, in the restoration of what he knew to be the truth. William Parker, Lord Monteagle, was done with all that now. He was a changed man; he would no longer risk his life for religion. At thirty years of age, those youthful games had to be at an end. Could he deny that Catholicism was a part of him? No, he could not. His wife was a Tresham, his sister now a Habington. Catholic blood flowed powerfully through their veins. It bound them together. They were a silent force that would not be supressed. And besides, with danger came advantages, and crucially the favourable attention of Robert Cecil himself. William was a part of a network so vast and so secret it was unlikely Cecil himself knew how far it extended, though he was its master. It was advantageous in such times as these to turn a blind eye, not only to those around you, but to one’s own decisions. Oftentimes he felt as if he were host to several William’s within his own mind who knew not the secrets of the other. It couldn’t only be him who felt that way.

The nights were closing in early now. Winter would soon be upon them. Parliament opened in ten days. William’s Hoxton home was well-lit, a good fire blazed in his study. He took up the letter once more. His hands were unwavering, calculated and practiced:

My lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation, therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament, for God and man have concurred to punish the wickedness of this time, and think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country, where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them, this counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm, for the danger is past as soon as you have burnt the letter and I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you. 

William sighed. He must not let himself dwell, to dwell was dangerous. The warning contained within that letter was very real. Equally real was a rare opportunity for increased favour. William knew where this would ultimately lead, that there would be no hope of reconciliation now. James was an idealistic king, such tensions that lay in this country would not be resolved by union nor by tolerance. And there was no one more keenly aware of that than Cecil himself. For only one moment did William hesitate, contemplating the reality of what he was about to do. Condemning men; friends, to certain death. But it was only a moment. His loyalty was to the king, and more importantly, in line with Cecil’s will. The contents of the letter had to be exposed. He could already visualise the piercing, half-accusing expression that was a permanent feature of that little man’s face. A crooked little man, with a mind that surpassed them all. It was a family trait; it was why you kept on their side. To oppose the monarchy was one thing, but to oppose Cecil was to secure your own fate on the scaffold.

Just hours before the state opening of parliament, Thomas Knyvet and Edward Doubleday were tasked with searching the undercroft, whereupon Guy Fawkes, under the alias of John Johnson, was found having hidden thirty-six barrels of gunpowder.

Image: Festivities in Windsor Castle by Paul Sandby, c. 1776