Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.6.1

Lynda L. Coon, Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in LateAntiquity.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.  ISBN >Lynda L.  Lynda L.  

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Reviewed by Rebecca Krawiec, Research Associate and Visiting Lecturer in Women's Studies in Religion, Harvard Divinity School

Regular readers of the BMCR may have noticed the growth of scholarship on late antiquity in recent years, particularly studies focused on the interconnected issues of gender, the body, sexuality, and asceticism in Christianity. Like other fields, late antique scholarship has been enriched by increased familiarity with such methodologies as literary criticism, cultural studies, and anthropology. The growth of theoretical reflection has raised epistemological uncertainties: to what extent can the usual sources of late antiquity (treatises, letters and hagiographies), which are often propagandistic in their intent, be relied on to supply historical evidence? To what extent does the rhetorical construction of these texts limit their usefulness as historical sources? New ways of defining history, and of understanding both the limitations of our sources and the new questions that can be asked of them, provide excitement in this growing field.

In her recently published work, Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity, Lynda Coon (C.) enters this debate with an examination of five hagiographic representations of fourth and fifth-century holy women, as well as three early medieval female saints' lives from Merovingian Gaul.1 C. intends to study not the people who are the subjects of the hagiographies--the holy women--but instead the rhetorical strategies of the hagiographers. Her central thesis is that hagiographers in late antiquity use different "types" of women, which are derived from biblical representations, in their portrayals of ascetic women, in order to make a variety of theological points. C. argues that biblical discourse about gender is fundamental to understanding, in later hagiography, what seem to be paradoxical views of women as both holy and depraved. In examining how hagiographers "exploited biblical discourse" (p. xiv), C. describes herself as taking a theological perspective, rather than a historical approach whose goal would be to interpret these texts to understand the cultural world in which they were written. C. distinguishes between the historical and theological method by defining these texts as "sacred fictions," that is, based on "hagiographical motifs driven not by historical fact but by biblical topoi, literary invention and moral imperative" (p. xv). Thus the characters in them cannot be regarded as historical (such as in the case of the loss of the 'historical Paula,' cf. p. 109) but must be viewed as rhetorical constructions stemming from the theological agendas of the hagiographers.

In the first three chapters, C. treats the genre of hagiography (Chapter 1); how gender and the Bible play a role in its construction (Ch. 2); and how representations of male clothing indicate male power and then male sanctity within the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is connected to the eventual masculinization of sacred space (Ch. 3). Each of her last three chapters examines a different collection of hagiographies; each collection is based on a typology of a female saint whose rhetorical use C. intends to examine: (1) the harlot-saint; (2) the patrician philanthropist; and (3) the cloistered nun. The reader first encounter these types as subsets of larger categories of saints in Chapter 1, "Hagiography and Sacred Models". C. begins this chapter with an overview of the genre of hagiography, and its role for medieval audiences, before she turns to the three particular models that hagiographers used to portray both male and female saints. The female harlot-saint (also the basis for Ch. 4) is a subset of those ascetics who lived in the fourth and fifth-century Egyptian and Syrian deserts. The male version of this model depends on paradoxes and reversals of cultural norms in order for the male ascetic to combat evil; the female version, C. argues, also depends on such inversions to illustrate the reversal of woman from Eve to Mary. The patrician philanthropist (also Ch. 5) includes the wealthy Roman matron who converted to a life of asceticism; C. argues that this model inverted the classical rhetoric of the Roman (urban) matron through Christian values. The cloistered nun (also Ch. 6) is the symbol of female sanctity in Merovingian Gaul, and stands as a counterpart to the male sanctity of the Pastoral Bishop, a model which hagiographers used to link institutional power with the charismatic power of the ascetic. In concluding her discussion of the genre, C. considers the similarities between female and male hagiographies, but maintains that there are "subtle differences" between the two that yield a particular rhetorical function for female saints, namely women as a symbol of universal salvation which counters the militancy of the male saints' lives.

In Chapter 2, C. relies on an extensive survey of biblical material in order to create a broad picture of gender themes in the Bible, and then compares that picture with portrayals of women in later Christian literature. Her aim is to show connections, and alterations, between female typologies in the Bible and in hagiography since it is the Bible which introduces the two opposed images of women as holy and as depraved. C. first examines the representations of women's clothing in the Bible, which she argues function to show women's alienation from God. Hagiographers could then use this biblical topos, combined with Stoic notions of a connection between outward appearance and inner being, to represent women's adornment as alienation and their simple dress, or even nakedness, as holy. The biblical discourse of domesticity, C. then argues, could symbolize the chastity and purity of the women saints, and she details the various occurrences of domestic scenes in both patristic writings and hagiographies. Finally, C. examines the biblical notion that women had a simple faith, which served its own purposes for the gospel writers, especially in describing the crucifixion and resurrection; she argues that hagiographers "accentuate the singular association between the crucified Christ and repentant women" (p. 49).

In Chapter 3, C. interrupts her focus on female hagiography to investigate the rhetorical use of male clothing, both in the Bible and in later hagiography, and to examine a related historical point: how sacred altar space became masculinized in the third to seventh centuries. Representations of male clothing in the Bible, C. argues, shows men's connection to God; in the Hebrew Bible, representations of clothing, sacred space, and hairstyles are all important to priestly rituals, while in the Christian Scriptures, the men wear simple clothing which is sanctified not through rituals but through "the pristine bodies of Christ's spiritual brotherhood" (p. 55). C. then looks at the historical development of the sanctification of material objects, such as clothing, furniture, hairstyles, and liturgical combs, and follows this with an examination of the masculinization of altar space in the third to seventh centuries. Later in her conclusion, C. suggests that one result of this masculinization is that male saints became distanced, and so stories about female saints remained more appealing to ordinary Christians: all women and those men excluded from sacred space (p. 148). After this historical discursus, C. examines representations of male clothing in Life of Martin of Tours and Life of Germanus of Auxerre which the hagiographers used to show the connection between ascetic authority and political power.

In her last three chapters, each with a focus on a different type of female saint, C. investigates in greater detail how each of the eight hagiographers she studies used both "biblical discourse" and the "rhetoric of inversion" in their construction of the holy women's vitae. Chapter 4 investigates the rhetorical use of repentant women, who renounced their earlier sexually depraved lives, as powerful symbols of the possibility of universal salvation; she examines this harlot-saint first as a topos of late antique desert monastic literature and then in two hagiographies. C.'s analysis distinguishes between the lives of Pelagia of Antioch and Mary of Egypt by showing how gender motifs in Pelagia's vita re-create and re-affirm the biblical rhetoric of the defiled woman, whereas the author of the Life of Mary of Egypt "radically rewrites the biblical discourse on prophecy and charisma by adding a spiritually potent woman to the chain of male prophets and miracle workers" (p. 84). Yet both women are portrayed as deferring to male authority: Pelagia is in need of a male source of grace (provided by bishop Nonnus) and Mary, despite her own miracles and charismatic authority, is in need of a male priest for proper liturgical rituals.

C. then, in Chapter 5, examines the role of wealth in the lives of Helena, Paula, and Melania the Younger. These women form a "type" because their wealth allowed them more mobility and independence than other women. Hagiographers, therefore, could use the women's unusual circumstances to engage their "rhetoric of inversion" to show how Christian conversion transformed the ideal Roman matron. The Life of Melania the Younger, in particular, contains many inversions of gender expectations, the most striking of which C. sees as the description of Melania's stronger role in her relationship with her husband. Paula's "hagiography," written by Jerome in a letter to Paula's daughter, also contains this rhetoric of inversion, but has more counterbalances than Melania's vita since Jerome includes "the image of the chaste widow from sacred discourse" and "Pauline directives on the role of women in the church" (p.103). Jerome's objective, C. argues, is to show a Roman audience the familiarity of Christian values, but also their differences. Helena, who does not have her own hagiography but appears in her son's, is meant, through her pilgrimage and pious works, to provide a human counterpart to the "divine Constantine." The hagiographer thus casts Helena in the role of Mary, mother of Christ.

In her last chapter, C. turns to the three early medieval hagiographies of Monegund, Radegund and Balthild.2 As in her earlier chapters, C. proposes an overall thesis and then examines the details of each particular case. What connects these three is that the hagiographies emphasize the cloister as the place for female sanctity, and it thus becomes a counterpart to the male sacred space of the altar. Monegund's vita attempts to subsume "independent, charismatic holy women and men" under the institution of the church. Radegund is a particularly interesting case for C.'s study since both a male and female-authored hagiography exist, namely the accounts of Fortunatus and of the nun Baudonivia. C. points out that while both hagiographies share a similar structure and the usual representations of female piety, the differences occur when each author emphasizes particular aspects of the vita in order to create different pictures of the holy woman. The male author, although having the usual "radical gender inversions," tempers them in order to present a more feminized, that is, domestic and cloistered, version; the female author, however, allows Radegund to have accomplishments within the pastoral and administrative spheres. Finally, the life of Balthild presents particular complications since she was a controversial political figure, whose cloistered life was the result of political exile. Balthild's hagiographer responds to this controversy by subverting her political life into the domestic sphere. C. speculates that "in effect, the hagiographer may have been simply extending the political punishment inflicted on Balthild by enemies during her life: immuring her within a convent, keeping her securely within conventional pieties" (p. 139).

The most valuable contribution of this work is its clear explanation of the importance and usefulness of hagiography for historians, even though they are "sacred fictions." C.'s focus on how the texts were rhetorically constructed and her interest in the theological points the hagiographers make using various representations of women are a welcome addition to that scholarship on late antiquity which she characterizes as more historical. C.'s aim is to show the literary influences that molded the particular form that these hagiographical accounts took. This approach is one that is similar to other recent scholarship on hagiography, for example, D. Krueger in his analysis of the Life of Symeon the Fool (BMCR 96.9.26, reviewed by P. Halsall).3 C.'s analysis is particularly strong when she investigates the texts in detail, especially in the last three chapters. Her speculation about Balthild's hagiographer (above) is especially interesting. Another strength is her examination of two troubling moments in the Life of Melania the Younger when her hagiographer seems to criticize his subject: first, when Melania tries to force her money on hermits in the desert who have renounced wealth and, when she is rebuffed, leaves the money hidden in their cells; and, second, her seeming inability to renounce all her wealth. C. suggests that Melania's hagiographer uses these two incidents to undermine her patronage of holy men by questioning its appropriateness.

Weaker points, however, appear in some of C.'s more general surveys. In her list of examples of patristic and hagiographic representations of female clothing, C. examines the Pachomian rule, which made no gender distinctions except that women were exempt from the male requirement to wear a hairshirt (C. describes the women as being "forbidden" to wear it). C. does not present the traditional interpretation, that Pachomius was mitigating female ascetic practice for the "weaker vessels" (although she does point out this phenomenon in later monastic rules) and argues instead that this is an example of "the condemnation of spiritual transvestism" (p. 39). I think this is an unlikely explanation of the rule. Also problematic is her treatment of "gender inversion" in accounts of the life of Jesus. She claims Christ "was apolitical, a pacifist, a nurturer of souls, a friend of women and lepers; his judgments were spiritual and otherworldly, not physical and political" (p. 14).4 Here there are two problems. First, C. presents this statement as historical, rather than as representation, so that it is unclear whether she means the historical Jesus, evangelical accounts of Jesus, or late antique views of Jesus. Second, as with her treatment of the Pachomian Rule, this is just one interpretation of who Jesus was, which happens to fit with her argument; but it seems unlikely that late antique Christians would share this view of Jesus.

A last issue is more general, concerning the nature of the study of late antiquity. Many different academic disciplines investigate late antiquity, each from its own perspective; classicists, historians (medievalists and Byzantinists), religious studies scholars and theologians all have a stake in the late antique Mediterranean world. No one, of course, can satisfy the interests of all these disciplines, but it would be helpful for C. to identify more precisely both her audience and her own perspective. For readers who have familiarity with fourth and fifth-century Christianity, especially with the work of Benedicta Ward and Susan Harvey, some of C.'s points will be familiar, although her treatment of them is still welcome. Also, her basic premise that hagiographers used biblical examples in constructing the vitae is well-known, yet some important scholarship on typology and hagiography does not appear in her bibliography.5 Since, however, Sacred Fictions is published in the University of Pennsylvania's The Middle Ages series, I am assuming that C. intends for her book to acquaint primarily medieval historians with the late antique literary roots of a genre that gains importance in the later period. For these readers, as well as others not trained in biblical exegesis and unfamiliar with hagiography, C.'s work will serve as a good introduction to hagiography and gender themes in the Bible. They will also become well-acquainted with eight lively texts from late antiquity, in the context of an interesting analysis, although readers should be cautious about some of her generalizations about early Christianity.


1.   Coon's dissertation was on a similar subject, but she does not suggest that this project is a revision of that work (L.L. Coon, Women and Men in Early Hagiography (c.300-800), Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1990). The genesis of this present work in her earlier dissertation would explain why, in a book subtitled "Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity," C. consistently incorporates men and male saints, including an entire chapter on clothing in male hagiography. C. has also co-edited, along with K.J. Haldane and E.W. Sommer, That Gentle Strength: Historical Perspectives on Women and Christianity. Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1990.

2.   C. defines late antiquity as including "both the chronological period of c. 300-800 CE and the geographic region of the Mediterranean and the Near East" whereas "the early Middle Ages (c.500-1000) overlaps the period of late antiquity but comprises the geographic region of the barbarian kingdoms of northern Europe" (p. 154, n. 4). These three hagiographies, then, fall into the date and provenance of late antiquity but are more conventionally called early medieval.

3.   Krueger's book (Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius' Life and the Late Antique City [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1996]) does not appear in C.'s bibliography, perhaps because of timing.

4.   C. does not give a reference for this particular view of Jesus. She makes a similar statement in the co-authored introduction to That Gentle Strength: Historical Perspectives on Women and Christianity: "Jesus envisioned a community of equals, with no distinction as to gender, status, or race" (p. 2).

5.   A good source for these works is D. Krueger, "Typological Figuration in Theodoret of Cyrrhus's Religious History and the Art of Postbiblical Narrative" Journal of Early Christian Studies 5:3 (1997), 393-419, n.s 20, 21.

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