BMCR 2021.12.36

Gefängnis als Schwellenraum in der byzantinischen Hagiographie: eine Untersuchung früh- und mittelbyzantinischer Märtyrerakten

, Gefängnis als Schwellenraum in der byzantinischen Hagiographie: eine Untersuchung früh- und mittelbyzantinischer Märtyrerakten. Millennium-Studien, 90. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. xiv, 246. ISBN 9783110725421. $103.99.

Open access

Gefängnis als Schwellenraum results from a doctoral dissertation defended at the University of Vienna in 2018. The book contributes to a relatively new research field by taking a literary approach to hagiography. Its central argument, which is successfully demonstrated throughout its various chapters, is that the prison scene is an integral part of early- and middle-Byzantine martyr acts, and that the prison functions as a liminal space contributing to the martyr’s development towards holiness. By offering a convincing interpretation of the prison scene, which, as the author indicates, has thus far been overlooked as a structural part of Christian martyria, it makes a compelling contribution to the scholarly debate on one of hagiography’s most studied subgenres. The analyses rely on an elaborate corpus (106 texts), consisting of martyrdom accounts from Symeon Metaphrastes’ Menologion and their models. The breadth of the examined material allows Papavarnavas to make comprehensive claims. The relation between the pre-Metaphrastic and Metaphrastic material emerges less clearly. While Papavarnavas builds on both (referencing one, the other, or both versions of a given martyrdom), there is no structural comparison of the two corpora, a few loose observations in chapters one and four notwithstanding. As a result, the volume’s added value with regard to this comparative line of research is sparse, and the author’s promise that “meine Rückschlüsse auf die sogenannten „Gefängnisszenen“ werden vorwiegend aus Vergleichen zwischen alteren/vormetaphrastischen und jüngeren/metaphrastischen Versionen derselben Märtyrergeschichten gezogen” (29), overstates what the book achieves. Nonetheless, for the aforementioned reasons, it forms a valuable addition to the field and will likely become a prominent reference work for scholars of martyrdom literature.

The introduction contextualizes the prison scene from various angles. Papavarnavas first discusses the prison’s socio-historical context, both for the time in which the stories take place and when they were written, paying attention to continuities and differences. Imprisonment was never a punitive measure but represented a temporary solution, as offenders awaited trial or execution. In late antiquity, it had become a tool of oppression for the higher class and had thus gained in social importance, which explains in part why it is featured prominently in the martyrdom literature of the time. Its prominence is furthermore demonstrated comparatively by the absence of prison scenes in pagan martyrdoms, which reflects the importance late antique Christians attached to the martyr’s status as a prisoner: it is a key component of their identity rather than simply the result of their arrest. Next, Papavarnavas treats the prison scene’s literary context. Although “bewussten Rezeption” (24) seems more plausible concerning parallels with Biblical and Patristic literature than with ancient Greek, Socratic literature (the author points to Plato’s Crito and Phaedo—due to the complexity of the question, more evidence is warranted), the outlined analogies usefully contextualize the martyr’s imprisonment in a wide literary landscape. Finally, Papavarnavas introduces the concepts of ‘liminality’, derived from anthropology, and ‘third space’. He will draw on them for his interpretation of the prison as a threshold for transformation and spiritual growth, not just for the martyr, but also for the other characters and the audience.

Chapter one introduces the corpus. The relevance of the selected texts is chiefly guaranteed by their popularity, which the author derives from their presence in Metaphrastes’ Menologion. This is a valid way of determining the most influential and widely read Byzantine martyr acts by the tenth century. From the roughly 80 martyrdom accounts in Symeon’s collection, Papavarnavas made a further selection based on the presence of a prison scene. For each of these martyrs, both the Metaphrastic account and the late ancient text(s) are examined (except for a few unedited ones). The selection method is effective in reducing the wealth of Byzantine martyrdom literature to feasible proportions. Nonetheless, one cannot escape the impression of a slight rigidity that may well have downsides (to be fair, most literary corpora have downsides as well as advantages). Indeed, two martyrdoms which never became the object of a Metaphrastic rewriting are additionally included as comparative sources due to their relevance content-wise. This begs the question, why those and not others? The remainder of chapter one is devoted to a lexical analysis of prison-related terminology and the literary definition of prison in the context of the corpus. The Metaphrastic material shows not only an increase in the variety of terms (which is expected, since it is well-known that Symeon’s endeavor targeted stylistic renovation) but also a higher absolute use of prison-related terminology. Papavarnavas connects this to the prison’s increase in social importance by Metaphrastes’ time. This conclusion sits somewhat uneasily with his earlier observation that prison scenes tend to be more elaborate in the pre-Metaphrastic texts (32). The curious reader will have to turn elsewhere for an explanation of the apparent contradiction. Finally, the author demonstrates that the prison must be defined in relation to the body: it may consist in any kind of space that eliminates the martyr’s freedom of movement. As a literary space, it is rarely described directly but rather by way of a description of the prisoners’ emotions and suffering.

Chapter two turns to a narratological analysis of the prison scene. Papavarnavas demonstrates both its importance as an integral part of the martyrdom plot and its narrative functions. His discussion of the former includes art historical evidence: illuminations from an illustrious Metaphrastes-manuscript which depict the prison scene alongside the martyr’s arrest, torture, and execution. Structurally, the prison scene’s basic narrative function is to forestall the martyr’s death and, with it, the end of the narrative, offering both the martyr and the audience breathing room, creating an opportunity to introduce new characters and plotlines, and reducing tension after the violence of the tortures. From there, suspense can be rebuilt. The last part of the chapter is devoted to the prison’s narrative function as a liminal space that is essential for the martyr’s development towards holiness. The discussion is organized around different actions and actors that are typically featured in the prison scene. It convincingly demonstrates the prison’s hybrid character and threshold function. The prison is a place where the pagan adversary’s worldly power and God’s power compete. The latter prevails over the former, establishing the martyr’s new, holy identity. This is visible in the divine support and help offered to the martyr (healing miracles, apparitions by angels or Jesus) and his/her communication with God (prayers, dreams), which all take place in prison. It is also expressed by means of side-characters (guards, co-prisoners, or visitors), for whom the martyr becomes a teacher and intercessor. In short, whereas the prison is intended by the adversaries as an oppression tool to make the martyrs relinquish their faith, or where they expect them to die from their wounds, it becomes, on the contrary, a place where they are healed, strengthened in their religious resolve, and develop their holy identity. The prison’s meaning for the martyr’s identity is further underscored by the fact that martyrs never try to escape and even show a willingness to stay when there is opportunity for escape; imprisonment constitutes a phase that martyrs are not prepared to skip.

Chapter three examines the prison as a space that contributes specifically to the gendered holy identity of female martyrs. For them, it is a place of sexual threat and temptation. Papavarnavas discusses sexual threat from demons or dragons, and from impious men who enter the martyr’s cell. In the latter case, the martyr is usually saved from the aggressor through divine intervention. Since much more space is dedicated to the discussion of demons and dragons, it appears the more significant scenario for Papavarnavas’ argument. Indeed, it is where the prison scene’s gender-specificity can be demonstrated, for, although divine apparitions in prison are plentiful in male and female martyrdoms alike, demonic apparitions occur only in female martyrdoms. For the female martyr, imprisonment generates a time and place where she wrestles with her own sexuality, overcomes it, and comes closer to holiness. Papavarnavas frames his interpretation within the ascetic ideal of chastity and the late antique image of woman, who was regarded as a new Eve. The demon is the materialization of the female weak self which must transform into a stronger self before the protagonist can suffer martyrdom. The prison is, once again, a liminal space, he concludes, yet the prison scene does not constitute a breathing pause here. Although the analysis takes a few unnecessary turns in my view (the connection between Perpetua, Thecla and cross-dressing saints is slightly problematic, since there are probably as many differences as there are similarities between them, and it does not contribute to the central argument), the overall interpretation of the prison’s gender-specific aspects in female martyrdoms is persuasive. Nonetheless, it is in this chapter that the corpus’ limitations are most apparent. Metaphrastes’ Menologion emphasizes male martyrdom, with only 12 female martyrs among a total of 80. In the section on demons, two out of the three discussed texts are not part of Metaphrastes’ collection. Therefore, certain other non-Metaphrastic female martyrs are conspicuous in their absence. Female martyrs who are confined in a brothel, for instance, would be particularly relevant for the gendered approach to the prison scene. I would point to the Martyrdom of Agnes, which displays close parallels with discussed scenes from the Martyrdoms of Indes and Domna and Agape, Irene and Chione. Including such texts would have strengthened the author’s argument.

The final chapter looks at the martyrs’ psychological and physical sensations. First, Papavarnavas examines emotional weakness. The prison, characterized by harsh conditions, darkness, and death, is meant to instill fear in the martyr. Nonetheless, it is precisely where the martyr’s initial fear and discouragement turn into courage and joy at the prospect of death. The second part focuses on physical pain, which martyrs tend to feel in the prison’s privacy but not in the public space of the arena. Papavarnavas coins the terms ‘soft body’ and ‘hard body’ to refer to the martyr’s different states of physicality: besides emotional development, the martyr experiences a physical development, from human pain sensation to superhuman painlessness. Moreover, visions occasionally transform the prison, which is characterized as an earthly hell, into Paradise. Hence, prison is a place where present and future, heaven, and hell paradoxically meet. Finally, this chapter examines the effect of the prison scene on the audience. By engaging the audience emotionally (either indirectly, by portraying strong emotions, or directly, by inviting the reader to adopt a certain emotional stance), they are invited to recognize the emotional distance with the martyr’s eventually superhuman attitude. It is in the emotional gap between the audience and the imprisoned martyr that his/her holiness is built and that the audience’s awe for the martyr and their own piety are strengthened. The way to holiness consists both in an emotional and physical process for which imprisonment is crucial. While this is convincing, the author unfortunately does not discuss the connection between the two.

Overall, this book presents a compelling interpretation of the prison scene in Byzantine martyr acts, filling an important lacuna in the field. The author concludes that they impact the religious identity of both the characters and the audience; they are on the threshold of a transformation enabled by the liminal prison space. At times, the discussions could have been structured more tightly or the chapter’s internal structure improved (especially chapters two and three). The observation that the martyrs’ holiness is not constituted by their violent death but during their life in confinement (165) is insightful but arguably comes late in the day. Nonetheless, the analyses build on a wide variety of material, occasionally including artistic sources. What is more, they have wider consequences, as parallels between martyrs’ imprisonment and self-confinement in ascetic literature, indicated in the ‘Ausblick’, suggest. The volume is written in accessible German prose. The appendix, which offers a list of the Metaphrastic martyrdoms and their late antique pendants with information on dates, editions and BHG numbers, will be a useful tool for any student of Byzantine martyrdom literature.