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Scribes and other literate administrators were a hot commodity in the ancient world. Whether they were Confucian Scholar-Gentry or Catholic Monks, the pre printing press world made whole social classes defined by literacy. Likewise, harems and other large retinues of wives and concubines were a common occurrence in the ancient world, whether they be in Ancient China, Ancient Egypt or the Ottoman Empire; rulers maintained these women for social, dynastic, diplomatic and hedonistic reasons at considerable expense. These women were not exactly working in the fields or grinding grain.

Given these two real world precedents, my setting features an emperor in a pre printing press society using his extensive royal harem as a bureaucratic and scribal organization, as their physical needs are already maintained by slaves and that he wants administrators whom he can be sure will be loyal

Is this plausible? Or would training noblewomen in literacy and giving them administrative tasks be a disaster in the making?

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    $\begingroup$ (1) It depends on what you call a Royal Harem. (2) In many places and during many periods, noblewomen were supposed to know how to read and write, even more than noblemen. At least in medieval Europe and golden age Islam. (3) The Romans used slaves and freedmen as the scribal and bureaucratic corps, and this worked quite well for quite some time. (4) You are either grossly overestimating the size of a "harem", or grossly underestimating the size of the bureaucratic and scribal corps. (5) You may want to look up the Sultanate of Women... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 13 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ In Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings series, the Satrap of Jamaillia employs a group of women as trusted advisors (essentially a cabinet) and, depending on the proclivities of the Satrap and his advisors, also as a harem. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Jan 13 at 23:22
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I don't think you need historical precedents to validate your scenario.

Since there is nothing inherently problematic about training women as scribes or in other bureaucratic functions, this would be completely up to the emperor, who has, in all likelihood (but depending on your specific scenario), supreme power, and he won't need to justify this action to anyone else.
This function of his harem could remain undisclosed to the public, necessitating even less justification.


That being said, there certainly are precedents (which might be emphasized in historical sources exactly because of their singularity):

  • In the Ottoman Empire:

    "The Imperial Harem was one of the most important powers of the Ottoman court. It was ruled by the Valide Sultan. On occasion, the Valide Sultan would become involved in state politics. For a time, the women of the Harem effectively controlled the state in what was termed the "Sultanate of Women"".
    source

Or in a more general sense:

  • In the Roman Empire:

    "Women could be scribes and secretaries, including "girls trained for beautiful writing," that is, calligraphers."
    source

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure it is acceptable to answer a reality-check question with an answer like this, in a way disputing the tag. Please let me know if that's the case :) $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Jan 13 at 8:49
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    $\begingroup$ Oh they were far from isolated occurrences. For example, the Ottoman Sultanate of Women has its counterpart in the Age of Pornocracy in history of Papacy; see the colorful lives of Theodora (the Roman senatrix, not the Constantinopolitan empress) and her daughter Marozia. Plus it was quite normal for a (western) queen to serve as regent while her husband was otherwise engaged. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 13 at 17:29
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Archeologists have found the remains of a medieval woman with blue teeth, and they think its due to her being a writer.

several years ago, when studying the dental plaque of a nun from medieval Germany, Dr. Radini saw something entirely new: particles of a brilliant blue. She showed the findings to Christina Warinner, another tartar expert, who was shocked.

The particles, it turned out, were of ultramarine pigment, the finest and most expensive of blue colorings, made of lapis lazuli stone from Afghanistan. The German nun with the pigment in her teeth — B78, as she is known in the archaeological literature — was likely a painter and scribe of religious texts. And she must have been highly skilled to have been entrusted with such a rare powder, the researchers said.

Considering that in those times a lot of the clergy came from nobility, and that apparently having women trained in writing didn't let hell loose, I guess the answer to your question is that it is plausible.

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The answer to this question depends upon the nature of harems. The female occupants of harems were typically not free. Whether they were slaves or the daughters of the nobility, the nature of harems is that their occupants are typically not free to leave, whether permanently or temporarily, and neither were they typically admitted to the harem voluntarily.

I have no doubt that whatever the origin of the women in a harem, they would be quite capable and probably quite willing to serve as scribes, if only to relieve the boredom of being isolated from society.

However, the fact that the women in the harem are not free should give any wise ruler pause. History has shown that harem women are quite capable of ambition for themselves and/or their offspring, whether they originated as slaves or the daughters of the nobility. They are similarly capable of resentment for their loss of freedom. These two facts alone would mean that no matter how eagerly or reluctantly a harem woman agrees to act as a scribe or an administrator, their work cannot be trusted. Additionally, the longer the custom of using harem women as scribes and administrators goes on, the greater the chance that not only may their work be compromised by their loyalties or lack thereof, but also that the security of the secrets passing through the harem may be compromised.

I have no doubt that some harem women may be perfectly loyal, capable, enthusiastic and trustworthy administrators and scribes, however they may very well be living side by side with women who are merely pretending to possess those virtues for their own ends or the ends of those who arranged for them to enter the harem.

If the owner of a harem is concerned with 'idle hands making the devil's work' (a major problem with harems historically), there are better things for the women of the harem to do than to be exposed to the functions of government. Things such as art, which may be profitable and fulfilling yet unlikely to be able to compromise the functioning of the government.

On the other hand, if the occupants of the harem are volunteers (and weren't volunteered), who compete for entry into the harem, and who have the freedom to leave temporarily or permanently, and are paid for their labours, their trustworthiness would be little more in doubt than that of any other bureaucrat.

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    $\begingroup$ You have a really good point about enslaved women being a long term threat. I was picturing more of a harem of women who joined for prestige and political reasons rather than simply being slaves $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ @NixonCranium If they can leave the harem at any time, then they are just administrators with free housing and physically pleasing the sultan as part of their job description. In that case they should be no more or less problematic than other administrators. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jan 13 at 9:15
  • $\begingroup$ If they're genuine volunteers, get paid, and can leave the harem on occasion... much as any other employee, then it wouldn't be much more of a problem than having male employees. However, the nature of harems is that their occupants didn't have that sort of freedom. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jan 13 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ @NixonCranium I should add, it still sounds like a great story scenario. Imagine if the emperor saw his concubines have so much free time, gave them scribe duties... until they started wielding their power, unionised, demanded pay and the right to leave the harem, and after a couple generations you have a whole caste of bureaucrats that are also sex workers :) $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jan 13 at 9:24
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm Next thing you know, you have a shadow empress, and the emperor is just a figurehead... $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jan 13 at 9:33
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Good idea - although you wouldn't want to give too much power to Bureaucratic Corps

As it was mentioned in other answers, women could have been very active in ancient and medieval politics. They could upstage and even murder their husbands. Classic harem held moderate amount of power - most of it was coming from its connection to the monarch. If, in addition to that, you want to make it a "Bureaucratic Corps" - in effect, giving it full executive power, it may become too powerful even for a monarch to handle.

There need to be checks and balances to make sure your country is not run by this harem and monarch is not just a consort (although this idea may be very interesting).

One limiting factor can be that no noblewomen should be eligible for harem. Women should have no connections with outside powers, and there should be no split loyalties.

Another idea is merit - you want your bureaucratic corps competent, and this means that women's brains should mean more than their looks. I can imagine holding "Imperial Examinations" in which girls compete in their knowledge, and the high prize is joining the Imperial Harem.

Merit is even more important within the harem. In traditional harem, women with best looks and best craftiness would hold the highest positions. This is not what we want in bureaucratic corps. So the monarch should have a little say in who is his most favorite wife - this should be determined by a maximally impartial process.

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In history, there were queens more decisive and proactive than the king himself.

  • Nur Jahan queen of Mughal emperor Jahangir.
  • Elizabeth Woodville Queen of King Edward IV.

Queens, if well educated and well trained, could become better rulers than the king alone.

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