BMCR 2010.12.28

Writing ‘True Stories’: Historians and Hagiographers in the Late Antique and Medieval Near East. Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 9

, , , Writing 'True Stories': Historians and Hagiographers in the Late Antique and Medieval Near East. Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010. x, 230. ISBN 9782503527864. €60.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Until its study was relieved of the limitations of a positivist approach, historians used hagiography both critically and for utilitarian purposes. On the one hand, hagiographic texts were thought unrewarding, primarily because they were not ‘true’ biographies, and, on the other hand, they were explored as a mine of information especially for matters of daily life and the histoire des mentalités. Yet, not unlike historiographers, the authors of Passions and saints’ Lives recorded ‘past events’ inscribed in a historical context with a view to the present, i.e., prompted by contemporary considerations. Moreover, there were periods such as the Byzantine eighth and ninth centuries, when serious historical concerns were brought into hagiographical writing and others when hagiography filled a gap created by the absence or silence of historiography.

Six of the eleven articles that constitute this volume grew out of papers first presented at the most recent International Congress of Byzantine Studies, held in London in August 2006. These were complemented with five more articles and an introduction written by Catherine Cubitt, a specialist in the study of Anglo-Saxon Church. Besides going through the basic points of each contribution, her introduction devotes some pages to pinpointing interesting parallels between the work of Bede the Venerable, as a writer of ecclesiastical history and hagiography, and that of his eastern counterpart, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who was the writer of the ‘hagiographic’ Religious History ( Philotheos Historia) and an Ecclesiastical History. This comparison, occasioned by the relevant discussion of Theodoret’s various prose works in Derek Krueger’s essay, the first in this volume, leads to the conclusion that, although moral lessons were to be gained from both genres, their different functions and audiences prompted both Bede and Theodoret to remold the portrayal of their holy heroes and handle questions of biblical citation and overall content in a different fashion in each.

The essays in this volume can be divided neatly into case studies focusing on a specific text (or a saint’s entire dossier) and more general surveys of texts written in the same historical period. The series of Coptic enkomia of holy martyrs discussed by G. Schenke aimed at shaping a local Christian identity. By their particular references to the testimony of eye-witnesses, well-known localities where events took place, and the calling of the martyrs themselves as witnesses to a related account, these enkomia gained in truthfulness and historicity. The History of the martyr saint George of Izla (d. 614) by the prolific monastic writer and abbot Babai the Great is an interesting example (analogous to that of the Palestinian Cyril of Scythopolis) of how hagiography can serve the parallel purpose of writing the history of a region for a specific period and of defending doctrinal orthodoxy (J. Walker). ‘History’ or ‘stories’ was a term widely used in Syriac to denote distinctive genres and subgenres such as saints’ Lives, beneficial tales, and Ecclesiastical Histories. In her lengthy essay, Muriel Debié reviews the generic character of various key texts from Greek late antiquity as a prolegomenon to her survey of historiography in Syriac as it developed in the West and the East Syrian traditions. All in all, she finds, Syrian chroniclers drew extensively on hagiographical material, without caring much about asserting the truthfulness of their accounts as hagiographers would do. Adopting a narrative technique based on biography, especially when writing in an age of persecution such as under Persian and Arab rule, they consolidated the idea of continuity and an unbroken holy tradition against a world that was constantly hostile to them.

The story of the neo-martyr St Anthony (the former Muslim nobleman Rawḥ al-Qurashī), documented both in Christian hagiography (in Syriac and Arabic) and in the Chronology of Christian Nations by the Arab polygraph Al-Bīrunī (d. 1048), was based upon the recurrent theme of the conversion of the caliph. André Binggeli provides a detailed presentation of textual sources and parallels highlighting the historical implications of this particular theme which boiled down to a conviction shared by both Christians and Muslims that their own faith would ultimately triumph over the other. This ‘shared world of texts’ loomed large in early Islamic historiography where reminiscences of ‘hagiographic models and topoi’ were in order. A case in point was the creation of the Muslim tradition of the ṣaḥāba, the ‘Companions of the Prophet’, heroic soldiers who fell as victims for their faith. Citing various examples from late antique Christian literature, Nancy Khalek concludes by assigning these thematic intersections to a world that shared common beliefs and practices. This is further re-assessed in Thomas Sizgorich’s contribution whose focus is on the early Islamic period and the ‘literary’ formation of the Muslim umma, the Community of Believers. Among the stories known to pre-Muslim Arabs that were later reproduced and refashioned in Islamic accounts (historical or otherwise) was one referring to the persecution and execution of the Najrān Martyrs who, in the sixth century, resisted all attempts of conversion by the Himyarites (in what is now Yemen). As Sizgorich convincingly argues, it is to these brave defenders of monotheism that the esoteric verses about ‘the killed/accursed people of the trench’ in sūra 85 ( Sūrat al-burūj) hint. In a sense, the newly-developed tradition of Muslim umma should be inscribed into the thought-world of late antiquity.

In his account of the foundation of the town of Mayyāfāriqīn (Greek Martyropolis) the twelfth-century historian Ibn al-Azraq used a Christian source, the Arabic Life of the early fifth-century saint Marūthā. As a Muslim historian interested in Christianity, Ibn al-Azraq was an isolated case only in that he portrayed a Christian saint in positive colors. In light of similar foundation narratives by other Muslim historians, Harry Munt seeks an explanation in Ibn al-Azraq’s endeavor to promote the merits of his hometown by appropriating famous figures from the past. In Julia Bray’s ‘Depictions of Jabala Ibn Al-Ayham’, the focus switches to the last Arab king who sided with the Byzantines, fought the Muslims at the battle of the Yarmuk River, became a Muslim, and was converted to Christianity. Regardless of the fact that much of the material was recycled, the long list of references to Jabala drawn from early Arabic literature that portrayed him in both a positive and a negative light is indicative of a renewed interest under Umayyad and ‘Abbāsid rule in juxtaposing Muslim identity to the pre-Islamic Arab one.

Stephen Davis’ essay deals with the adaptation of the martyrdom of an Egyptian nun in three different Arabic sources, two of which were Christian, namely the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church, the History of the Churches and the Monasteries of Egypt, and the al-Khiṭaṭ by the Muslim historian al-Maqrīzī dating respectively from the eleventh, the late twelfth toearly thirteenth, and the fifteenth centuries. Referred to anonymously in the first and third sources, the martyr is identified as St Febronia in the second . Her transition from serving as a symbol of resistance to a symbol of social concord across these three sources exemplifies a change of attitude within medieval Egyptian society. The first of these three works includes the biography of the early eleventh-century (Alexandrian) Pope Zacharias who rather surprisingly, in view of his overall ineffectiveness, achieved sainthood . In the final paper of the volume, Mark Swanson reconstructs this embedded hagiographic narrative about Zacharias by discussing its components and late antique reminiscences.

There is much to appreciate in this collective endeavor which fully merited inclusion in Brepols series ‘Cultural Encounters’. In the first Islamic centuries the intersection between history and hagiography in the literary milieu of the Middle East was not brought about exclusively by the fleshing out of religious polemic. It also meant an appropriation of the other’s culture, in fact a mutual knowledge and, to a certain extent, understanding. It is mostly in this respect that Writing ‘True Histories’ must be welcome as a significant contribution that will counter the misunderstandings that are created and maintained by cultural and linguistic differences. It also responds to a growing need to bring together Medievalists, Byzantinists, and Orientalists for an exchange of knowledge and ideas.

I will close this review with a correction and a complaint. The first relates to Nancy Halek’s list of monastic writers active in eighth-century Palestine (p. 114). All of them were in fact natives of the area, and not ‘except for John of Damascus…exiles from Constantinople’. The complaint is that the overall high quality of the book is marred by the absence of an index, which would allow cross-checking of names and places cited by the various contributors. The reader who is not familiar with Oriental languages would have also welcomed a glossary of Arabic and Syriac terms.




Introduction: Writing True Stories — A View from the West – CATHERINE CUBITT

Early Byzantine Historiography and Hagiography as Different Modes of Christian Practice – DEREK KRUEGER

Creating Local History: Coptic Encomia Celebrating Past Events – GESA SCHENKE

A Saint and his Biographer in Late Antique Iraq: The History of St George of Izla († 614) by Babai the Great – JOEL WALKER

Writing History as ‘Histoires’: The Biographical Dimension of East Syriac Historiography – MURIEL DEBIÉ

Converting the Caliph: A Legendary Motif in Christian Hagiography and Historiography of the Early Islamic Period – ANDRÉ BINGGELI

‘He was tall and slender, and his virtues were numerous’: Byzantine Hagiographical Topoi and the Companions of Muhòammad in al-Azdî’s Futûhò al-Shâm – NANCY KHALEK

‘Become infidels or we will throw you into the fire’: The Martyrs of Najrân in Early Muslim Historiography, Hagiography, and Qurânic Exegesis – THOMAS SIZGORICH

Ibn al-Azraq, Saint Marûthâ, and the Foundation of Mayyâfâriqîn (Martyropolis) – HARRY MUNT

Christian King, Muslim Apostate: Depictions of Jabala ibn al-Ayham in Early Arabic Sources – JULIA BRAY

Variations on an Egyptian Female Martyr Legend: History, Hagiography, and the Gendered Politics of Arab Religious Identity – STEPHEN J. DAVIS

Sainthood Achieved: Coptic Patriarch Zacharias according to The History of the Patriarchs – MARK N. SWANSON