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Martyr Passions and Hagiography

Abstract and Keywords

A large body of literature survives from the early Christian period, devoted first to accounts of martyrdom suffered on behalf of the emerging religion and then to lives of exemplary Christian witness. They appeared in every language of the early Christian period, establishing literary traditions that flourished throughout the medieval and Byzantine periods, and even today. These texts have an importance for early Christian studies separate from their role in the cult of saints, and their study has its own scholarly issues. This article addresses these literary concerns, rather than those related to the cult of saints. ‘Hagiography’ is an umbrella term covering writings about holy persons. By the Middle Ages, it was a particular literary form: the ‘Life’, or vita, of a saint, distinct from the martyr's ‘passion’, the account of a martyr's suffering death.

Keywords: martyr passions, saints' lives, martyrdom, early Christian period, hagiography

A large body of literature survives from the early Christian period, devotedfirst to accounts of martyrdom suffered on behalf of the emerging religionand then to lives of exemplary Christian witness. These texts were part ofthe rising of saints, which would leap to public importance in thefourth century. They appeared in every language of the earlyChristian period, establishing literary traditions that would continue toflourish throughout the medieval and Byzantine periods, and even into ourown time. These texts have an importance for early Christian studiesseparate from their role in the cult of saints, and their study has its ownscholarly issues. In the present essay, I address these literary concerns, rather than those related to the cult of saints (see Price, Ch. 39 below).

‘Hagiography’ is an umbrella term covering writings about holy persons(hagios = holy one; graphai = writings). By the Middle Ages, hagiography was a particularliterary form: the ‘Life’, or vita, of a saint, distinct from the martyr's‘passion’ (passio) or ‘acts’ (acta), the account of a martyr's suffering death. Withinthe time period covered by this Handbook, hagiography came to be composedfollowing well‐developed literary conventions, with a distinct agenda ofglorifying the subject at hand. But in the early Christian centuries, variety characterized both the behaviour that might be considered holy, aswell as the literary forms (p. 604) through which such behaviour was celebrated. Following the trajectory of early Christianity's development, matters beganwith the accounts of martyrs.

29.1 Martyr Passions

The New Testament book of Acts, chapters 6–7, recounts the death of theapostle Stephen, stoned by Jewish persecutors, presenting the firstChristian martyrdom. The account is deliberately modelled on the passionnarratives of the early gospels, to which Acts was attached as the secondpart of Luke. The widely circulating apocryphal acts of the apostlesgenerally contained martyr accounts as the culminating event of an apostle'scareer. The imitation of Christ through an unjust death was a constant themeof Christian literature from the late first century onwards.

At the same time, historically based accounts of martyrdoms were also circulating, beginning in the second century. The Martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 155) isthe earliest literary martyr's passion, written in the form of a letter byeyewitnesses and sent to other churches. Eusebius of Caesarea preservedanother letter written not long thereafter, again by eyewitnesses, reportingon Christians martyred in Lyons and Vienne in 177. Othertestimonies took the forensic form of trial narratives, such as the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, executed in 180 in Carthage. At the turn of the third century, theextraordinary Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas provides an account of a group of Christians martyred inCarthage, including in its report what the anonymous editor claims to be theprison diary of one of the victims, the young noblewoman Perpetua. Duringthe second half of the third century, as persecutions grew harsher, Christian accounts became more elaborate. The Martyrdom of Pionius also purports to include asizeable portion of first‐person memoir by the martyr himself. Early in thefourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea composed a work called The Martyrs of Palestine, separate fromhis Ecclesiastical History. Its primary contents were included in the History as book IX.

The martyr accounts of pre‐Constantinian Christianity have been highly influential on modern scholarship. Not only have they preserved movingtestimony regarding the persecution and sufferings of early Christians, butthey have done so in literary forms which invited historical confidence:letters by eyewitnesses, court records, diaries or memoirs of victims. Historians have often privileged these martyr acts far above those appearingafter Christianity's legalization and subsequent rise to power in the RomanEmpire. As a result, historical presentations of early Christianity havebeen strongly coloured by an emphasis on persecution and martyrdom duringthe first three Christian centuries. Moreover, these accounts (p. 605) have been mined for information on many aspects of early Christian society. Compellingdetails about women, slavery, children, and family life have been culledfrom these texts, in addition to references to early relic veneration, burial, memorial and liturgical practices. Such details have been citedrepeatedly by scholars as providing ‘authentic’ glimpses of early Christian—and indeed, Roman—society.

In the past 40 years, however, scholars have become increasingly aware ofthe literary qualities of these texts. More attention has been paid to thebroader literary traditions in which these texts participate. The notion ofthe ‘noble death’ was already strongly ingrained in Graeco‐Roman society, with a distinguished philosophical lineage that prominently included themodel of Socrates' own death in fourth‐century bce Athens (Droge and Tabor 1992). The crucifixion narratives of the gospels were hardly theonly biblical texts on which to draw, and were themselves strongly shaped byscriptural allusions to the psalms and prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Deléani‐Nigoul 1985a, 1985b; Saxer 1991). Perhapsmost influentially for Christians, the stories of the second‐century bce Maccabean martyrs circulated widely. The version given in theextra‐canonical book of 4 Maccabees, itself heavily marked by Stoic ideals, was a favourite among early Christians (De Silva 2006). Its vividly renderedpresentation of execution by drawn‐out, monstrously cruel torture, enduredby the heroically faithful Jews, provided a clear script for early Christianmartyr passions, as well as a number of principal motifs (Avemarie and van Henten 2002).

Appreciation for these pre‐Christian traditions grew at the same time that scholars working on the apocryphal acts were starting to emphasize theliterary links between these early Christian legendary narratives and otherimaginative literature of the Hellenistic and Roman eras: the Greek novels, Jewish extra‐canonical narratives, Latin romances (Hägg 1983; Pervo 1987, 1996, 1997; Tatum 1994; Wills 1995; Schmeling 1996). Post‐structural literary theory wasraising awareness of the need to read texts with attention to their authors'rhetoric as rhetoric (Cameron 1989a, 1991). For historians of earlyChristianity, this meant considering the extent to which even so‐calledeyewitness reports and first‐person narratives were constructednarratives, shaped by particular literary conventions, as well as by theagendas and rhetorical strategies of their authors (Ronsse 2006). More nuanced historical‐criticalmethod meant modifying significantly the picture of earlyChristianity as a persecuted religion.

With scholars now in agreement that persecution was far less frequent or extensive than formerly thought, these early martyr accounts have beenapproached as articulations of ideologies, theologies, identity formation, and other early Christian agendas. As such, they present the scholar with adifferent kind of historical information than that of reconstructing factualevents (Fox 1986; Bowersock 1994, 1995). To be sure, factual information may be foundin these texts. Much of what we know about Roman trials, interrogationprocedures, prison practices, and routine employment of torture in legal contexts derives from martyr accounts (Bisbee 1988; Shaw 1993, 1996). Theliterary conventions of these accounts require fairly detailed descriptionsof such activities and contexts, and these leave pronounced marks on theimaginative narratives, nightmares, and visionary literature that Christiansproduced long after the threat of martyrdom has passed (Miles 1989; Burrus 1995; Shaw 2003).

At the same time, Christians used the presentation of martyrdom as occasion for challenging the existing social order. They presented a craftednarrative of Christian witness that subverted inherited traditions ofGraeco‐Roman society, by inverting the meaning of what had taken place in theevent of the martyr's death. The Romans displayed public death by torture asa spectacle of power and domination. Christian authors utilized a rhetoricof paradox to declare this apparent defeat of Christians a victory forChrist. In doing so, they played out basic New Testament motifs of thedivine become human, the Lord of All crucified as a common criminal, liferesurrected from death, the illiterate fisherman become the eloquentproclaimer of God's Word (Cameron 1991). The very vocabulary of what countedas virtues and vices in this situation reversed traditionally cherishedideals. Basic social categories were destabilized by the literarycelebration of women or slaves as glorious exemplars; or the exaltation oflong‐suffering endurance as venerable, or the passive reception of activepenetration (by sword or other means of execution) as the display of ‘manlyvirtue’ rather than feminine weakness (Shaw 1996; Heffernan and Shelton 2006).

Yet Graeco‐Roman culture broadly speaking was responding to the changes ofempire through the formation of new subjectivities. The ‘suffering self’ wasan identity self‐consciously articulated in philosophical discourse, imaginative narratives, medical literature, and personal correspondence, throughout the religious diversity of the early Empire (Perkins 1995). Fromthis perspective, Christian martyr literature contributed to the formationof subjectivities appropriate to larger cultural identities of the RomanEmpire (Castelli 2004).

Following legalization in the early fourth‐century Roman Empire, accounts ofChristian martyrdom began to diverge along two basic literary trajectories. Wherever and whenever persecution against Christians broke out, accountspurporting to narrate the events were published and widely read by Christiancommunities. Within the Roman Empire, this would happen primarily for groupslabelled as ‘heretical’ by the reigning orthodoxy of the day. For example, apowerful set of Donatist martyr passions was produced in the fifth century, as the conflict between Donatist and Catholic Christianity played out inNorth Africa (Tilley 1997a, 1997b). More often, such literature now appeared frombeyond Roman borders. The fourth and fifth centuries brought extensivepersecutions of the Christians in Persia, with a resulting martyrliterature produced in both Greek and Syriac (Brock and Harvey 1998). Thiscirculated, translated from Syriac into Greek and from both into Latin, fairly quickly and widely. In the sixth century, accounts of the Christianmartyrs of Najran, a small Jewish kingdom in the south Arabian peninsula, appeared in (p. 607) Syriac, and were again soon translated (Shahid 1971). These ‘new’martyrdoms were recounted in literary forms closely modelled on the earliersecond‐ and third‐century texts, but especially on the pattern set byEusebius of Caesarea. Yet the historical circumstances kept a vivid sense ofurgency in their narratives, a quality that would recur in Christian historyeach time persecution arose. The issue of distinguishinghistorically accurate material from literary conventions and rhetoricaltraditions is continually in the foreground for scholars working with these texts.

The second trajectory is the emergence of the martyr's passio or acta as a highlydeveloped literary genre. As distance grew from the historical event, and asChristianity within the Roman Empire gained its unrivalled ascendancy, thememory of early Christian martyrdom took on glorious and elaborate shape. With strong literary influences from epic romance, martyrs' legendsproliferated in the fourth through sixth centuries (and well after), producing a huge volume of narratives. These, too, took varying literaryforms: not only the prose acta, but homilies and hymnography served as vehiclesfor these thrilling, swashbuckling, gruesome, and often fantastic accounts ofextraordinary Christian heroism played out against inhuman Roman savagery. The Peristephanon, or Crown of the Martyrs, by the fifth‐century Spanish poet Prudentius (Ross 1995), is an excellentexample, as is the originally Syriac Life of Febronia (a martyr's passion in the form of anepic romance) (Brock and Harvey 1998).

As Christianity finally began to grow in sizeable numbers in thefourth and fifth centuries, some communities refashioned theirearlier histories, adding in the grandeur of early martyrs when infact surviving evidence presents a very different story. Thedevelopment of Christianity became the subject of contested memory. Thus, for example, the great Syrian city of Edessa producedimportant accounts of the martyrs Shmona, Guria, and Habib, allthree of whom died in the Great Persecution, just prior toConstantine's legalization of Christianity in 313. Late in thefourth century a second group of acta appear, recountingthe magnificent executions of the Edessan Christians Sharbil, Barsamyas, and Babai, said to have occurred under the reign ofTrajan around the year 105. These spurious martyrdomsprovide a heroic Christian witness from early in Edessa's history(although no martyrdoms took place there prior to those of theDiocletianic persecutions), and add the further element that Sharbiland Barsamyas were said to be born of Edessa's nobility—unlike thevillagers Shmona, Guria, and Habib. Edessa—and its aristocracy—gained agrander Christian legacy through these tales, and it wasone that gained great popularity in Greek and Latin traditions aswell (Brock 1991).

The early Christian martyr narrative lent itself to numerous ideological uses, some local or regional (as with Edessa) and others that served broadertraditions of Christian social memory. It functioned with dramatic effectwhenever invoked, as indeed remains the case in our own time (Naguib 1994; Castelli 2004).

(p. 608) 29.2 Saints' Lives

The legalization of Christianity in the early fourth‐century RomanEmpire brought an end to the threat of martyrdom for manyChristians. Literature about heroic Christians turned to the life, rather than the death, of the saint as its primary focus. Ourearliest examples are closely patterned on the literary traditionsof Greek biography and panegyric: the Life of Cyprian ofCarthage by the deacon Pontius, composed soon after Cyprian's deathin 258; Eusebius's Life of Origen, preserved at least inpart in his Ecclesiastical History, book 6, as well ashis laudatory Life of Constantine, were early steps in thisdirection. Most scholars take the Life of Antony of Egypt, written by Athanasius of Alexandria soon after the saint's death in 356, as the real turning point, however, and the start of theliterary genre of hagiography proper: the saint's vita. Indeed, the Life of Antony is arguably the single mostinfluential ‘biography’ written in Christian history, apart from thegospels themselves—a perspective famously attested in Augustine'saccount of his own conversion in Confessions, book 8 (Harpham 1987).

At virtually the same moment that the Life of Antony waspublished, an explosion of Christian literature took place in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic, presenting accounts of praiseworthy menand women. Although the Life of Antony presented the basicscript for the saint's vita as it would become formalizedin the medieval and Byzantine traditions, it is characteristic oflate antiquity that hagiography at first appears in a great varietyof literary forms. Laudatory presentations were offered in full‐length, ostensibly biographical narratives, or in collections ofshort cameos of a number of holy figures, beginning with Palladius'sLausiac History; or in collections of Sayings(Apophthegmata, resembling the earlier philosophicalchreia) (Harmless 2004). Often these narratives took theliterary form of letters, as had the Life of Antony itself; Gregory of Nyssa's account of his sister, the Life ofMacrina, is another such example. Funeral orations imitating theclassical panegyric were a major genre, such as Gregory of Nazianzusoffered for his friend Basil of Caesarea, or for his sister Gorgonia. Homilies and hymns are major sources for hagiographicalaccounts, and sometimes provide our earliest textual witness tosaints who would become extremely popular in subsequent centuries. Already in the fifth century we find highly learned, literarilycrafted vitae, as the Life of Antony surely was, as well as simple didactic tales like that of the anonymous Man of God from Edessa (Doran 2006). Although some scholars have stressedthe importance of this distinction (e.g. Browning 1981), the linecan be hard to draw. With highly accomplished intellectuals wellrepresented among hagiographical authors—in addition toAthanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, we might alsomention Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Jerome, Sulpicius Severus, Cyril ofScythopolis, John of Ephesus, Gregory of Tours, Gregory the Great, and others—late antique hagiography provides us with a literature in whichclass distinctions in intended audience can become unclear.

(p. 609)

Once begun, however, the popularity of hagiography was immediate. Not onlywere accounts of known historical figures avidly sought, but stories oflegendary persons to an equal degree. The time was ripe for new paradigms ofholiness to replace the earlier types favoured in martyr literature or thatfollowed closely on traditions from Greek biography (Cox 1983; Alexandre 1984). There were gaps to befilled: named and unnamed figures from biblical literature gained theirown traditions. The Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well became StPhotini; the Roman centurion who had acknowledged the dying Christ as Lordbecame St Longinus. Developments occurred not only in devotional cults, butalso in hagiographical literature that provided stories where there had beennone. St Thecla, famed from her appearance in the legendary Acts of Paul and Thecla, gained anextensive collection of miracle stories in the fifth century (Johnson 2006), and further elaborations of her legend with localized Egyptian interests atthe same time (Davis 2001). Named persons from earlier Christian history, such as the second‐century bishop Polycarp of Smyrna and the elusive epigram‐writer Abercius of Phrygian Hierapolis, were accorded lengthy vitae recountingtheir careers, where none had existed before (Nissen 1912; Stewart‐Sykes 2002).

The penitent harlot motif, rooted in the biblical imagery of Israel's unevenfaithfulness to God, yielded some of the most profoundly enduring vitae ofChristian tradition in the stories of Mary of Egypt, Pelagia the Harlot, theprostitute Thaïs, and Mary the niece of Abraham of Qidun (Ward 1987). Pelagia's vita was also part of a series of ‘transvestite’ women saints, whoupon their conversion to a life of faith also took up a life disguised as amonk (Patlagean 1976; Davis 2002). This motif of concealed sanctity would also flourishin the stories of holy fools: the short account of an anonymous nunpretending madness in Palladius's Lausiac History; John of Ephesus's sixth‐century encounterswith deliberate and invented ascetics practising vocations as beggars (Harvey 1990); the anonymous Man of God of Edessa whose simple narrativewould become the legend of St Alexius the Man of God and also of St John theHutdweller; the elaborately literary Life of Simeon the Holy Fool of Emesa (Krueger 1996).

Hand in hand with hagiography's flourishing was a veritable industry intranslation. Occasionally, we are lucky enough to have multiple versions ofa saint's story by different authors, and even in different languages. Thecontrasting presentations of St Simeon the Stylite found between the Greekvitae by Theodoret of Cyrrhus and a writer claiming to be a monk of Simeon'smonastery named Antonios, along with the anonymous Syriac vita, present thehistorian with conflicting and even irreconcilable narratives, with allthree authors apparently eyewitnesses (Doran 1992). Yet the contrasts aresignificant for alerting us to different cultural and social contexts, aswell as competing ascetic, theological, or ideological claims. In the caseof the Merovingian queen St Radegund, we again have three vitae, written by threepeople who knew her personally: the poet Venantius Fortunatus, the bishopGregory of Tours, and her fellow nun Baudonivia (Petersen 1996). The two men (p. 610) present Radegund with an emphasis on her domestic devotional life, her(private) individual acts of mercy, and her horrifying self‐mortification. By contrast, Baudonivia emphasizes Radegund's political and civicinvolvements, as well as her theological acumen and the spiritual teachingsshe offered to her nuns—the fruits of her prayer practice and her visions. The difference is arresting and renders vivid the stark absence of women's voices from a literature that provides one of our few spotlights on ancientChristian women (Gäbe 1989).

Differences in accounts are found no less tellingly in the translations that seem often to have been produced quickly, and with wide circulation. Infact, the poly‐lingual nature of early Christianity was both a literarymotif within hagiographical texts as well as a major means of culturalcross‐fertilization (Peeters 1950). These texts were translated andtransmitted back and forth across language barriers, and sometimesretranslated into their original languages from later, secondary versions. Athanasius presented Antony as an illiterate Coptic Christian, unlearned inGreek, yet able to out‐argue the great Greek philosophers of his day. Themotif echoes the transformation in the New Testament book of Acts of theapostles from illiterate fishermen to philosophically eloquent preachersafter the experience of Pentecost. Yet we now know that Antony was highlyeducated and literate in Greek, as demonstrated by a group of extant lettersattributed to him and recently shown to be authentic (Rubenson 1995). Similarly, Theodoret of Cyrrhus presents his Syrian ascetics asincomprehensible to imperial officials who did not speak Syriac (Urbainczyk 2000). In bothcases, genuine language differences were used to present an ideologicalpoint: that the old, ‘pagan’ wisdom was now defeated by the ‘new’ revelationof Christian truth.

Yet, in the textual transmission of hagiography, important exchanges took place across linguistic barriers. The Life of Antony in its Coptic, Syriac, and Latinversions shows intriguing differences in word choices. Where the Greekstresses civic imagery, for instance, the Syriac uses liturgical allusions. More concretely, hagiography provided one of the few channels through whichGreek and Latin literature could be influenced by the literatures of otherlanguages, notably Syriac and, to a lesser extent, Coptic. The Life of Pelagia the Harlot of Antioch, to take onesuch instance, originated in Syriac, but would eventually be translated intoevery language of the Christian Middle Ages (Petitmengin et al. 1981).

As in the case of martyr passions, hagiographical vitae could be—and until relativelyrecently often were—taken as providing empirical evidence for historicaldevelopments within Christianity. This was particularly true in scholarshipon the development of monasticism, where the romantic aura surrounding theearly hagiographies by Athanasius and Palladius, as well as the voluminoustradition of Sayings and the rich Pachomian materials, long dominated the work ofmodern historians (Veilleux 1980–2; Chitty 1966). Among the mostsignificant scholarly shifts of recent decades has been the criticalreassessment of even the most ‘historically based’ hagiographical texts, with a view to deconstructing and challenging (p. 611) the traditional narratives ofChristianity's growth (Cameron 1997, 2000). Ironically, the move to treat all hagiography asequally ‘textual’ (Cameron 1989, 1991; Clark 2004) recalls the earlieradmonitions of the Bollandists to suspect every text of pious exaggerationif not outright invention. But the tools of critical theory have offeredhistorians a fertile array of new possibilities for working with hagiography. If an empirical method of historical positivism has beendefinitively set aside, tremendous vitality has been gained in the process.

29.3 Situating the Scholarship

During the first half of the twentieth century, the work of the Bollandistfathers dominated the study of Christian martyrs and saints. After threecenturies of devoted yet unstable effort, occasionally derailed by politicalor ecclesiastical upheavals, the Bollandists had achieved a notableinternational status, affirmed by scholars, church hierarchs, and lay peoplealike for the scientific rigour, intellectual integrity, and historicalaccuracy of their research. Specific concerns characterized their efforts. Fundamental to the Bollandist project was the establishment of historicalauthenticity for the cult of saints. All evidence must be judiciously, meticulously assessed, and none more so than the narratives recounting thelives, legends, glorious feats, and exemplary deaths of the holy men andwomen comprising the Christian company of saints. Despite the staggeringscope of the project, the Bollandists had determined to examine every story about every saint and martyr, in every Christian language, for the whole ofChristian history (Delehaye 1959; Joassart 2000).

In the course of the twentieth century, the cumulative achievements of theirprodigious efforts became clear. In numerous monographs and in the pages oftheir journal Analecta Bollandiana, the Bollandists sifted the wheat from the chaff. Historicalpersons and events were disentangled from myths and legends; authenticdocuments from spurious, forged, or falsified accounts. The Bollandistscholars sought positive data: the historical veracity of the saint, ofevents, places, dates, shrines, churches, relics, memorial festivals. Fromthe bewildering array of manuscripts preserved unevenly across the Christianworld, the Bollandists led the way in establishing critical editions ofhagiographical texts, working out the complicated transmissions throughdifferent recensions and often multiple ancient and medieval languages, inthe quest for the original account of each and every saint.

In the process of their work, the Bollandists established carefulcriteria for identifying the various literary genres of hagiography:the passio or acta of the martyr, thevita of the saint. From the thousands of accounts they hadcollected, it was (p. 612) possible for the historian to see how such textswere constructed and composed: to see principal leitmotifs andtopoi, the influences of biblical patterns, or ofclassical, pre‐Christian (‘pagan’) conventions. In their focusedsearch for the historically accurate, the Bollandists identifiednumerous elements in the writings about saints that seemed toundermine every claim to authenticity or factual reliability. Asin biblical scholarship, historical‐critical method destabilizedsome certainties and raised questions as to how narratives ofmartyrs and saints should—or could—be studied or used byhistorians of any academic discipline.

By the middle of the twentieth century, a sea‐change was under way, as historians began—slowly at first—to engage theaccomplishments of the Bollandists (and of historical criticism moregenerally) through other methodologies. Narratives about martyrs andsaints are among the most plentiful textual remains of ancient, medieval, Byzantine, and oriental Christianity. How might thesetexts serve the scholar, of various disciplines, in the task ofunderstanding the Christian past? In two influential essays, Byzantinist Norman Baynes urged historians to enter the ‘thoughtworld’ of the ancient Christian, leaving aside the presuppositionsand standards of one's own time (Baynes and Dawes 1948; Baynes 1955). Hagiographyprovided a vivid entry into the huge burdens of anxiety, fear, anduncertainty surrounding the ancient person in daily life. What madehagiography important was not its capacity to convey historicalfacts, but rather, its ability to represent the tenor of its times aspeople felt and experienced them. Hagiography offered a window intothe psychology of the ancient or Byzantine Christian; it could thus bring history alive to the discerning and culturally sensitive reader.

In 1968 Evelyne Patlagean took the bold step of publishing an article inwhich she argued forcefully and eloquently for hagiography as a uniquelypowerful source of social history. Herself a student ofstructuralist Claude Lévi‐Strauss, and an active contributor to theAnnales school of thought, Patlagean challenged the caricature of Bollandistpositivism to urge a more intellectually nuanced reading of hagiography. Despite its veneer of timeless, ahistorical, and mythical narrative, hagiography often provided a wealth of historical detail to which thescholar otherwise had little access. Embedded in its miracle accounts werethick descriptions of illness, infertility, mental instability, domesticviolence; children, prostitutes, and other social outcasts; spaces normallyomitted from the purview of official or mainstream literary documents: thehousehold, the kitchen, the living quarters of women and slaves. Withliterary ties to the Greek novel, early Christian apocryphal texts, andclassical biography and panegyric, hagiography was part of a tradition ofimaginative narrative that could work outside the strictures of eliteliterary forms (whether Greek, Latin, Syriac, or any other of the languagesavailable). Far from being simplistic, ‘popular’ literature intended merelyfor uneducated and unsophisticated masses, hagiography in its differentforms showed clear concern with the complex whole of the society thatproduced it. Literacy, reading, transmission, and exchange of knowledge werepart of plot lines that presented the study of scripture, chanting of (p. 613) psalms, and epistolary correspondence between even the poorest or mostremote of desert hermits and the broader ecclesiastical community ofmonastery and urban church. Varieties of social classes were invariablyincluded in the stories, as they were also intermixed in the common courseof daily life. Hagiographers wanted to show their saints interacting withthe whole of society, even as they intended their accounts to be read andheard by all social classes, in order to champion particular values andteachings. Nor was hagiography at any point isolated from other intellectual expressions. It was, for example, closely aligned with contemporaryhistoriography, sharing themes and categories, and often borrowing directlyfrom it.

The historian, then, must seek access to this genuine historical context which underlay hagiography and to which its writers spoke, despite itsconcealment behind conventionalities of plots and characters. To this endPatlagean proposed a structural analysis that would read a common scriptunderlying every hagiography, a script that presumed the mental categoriesof the Byzantine hagiographer but which was equally revealing of the largerlate antique and medieval world. This script presented the human person in aconstantly embattled relation to the world. The saint's story operatedaccording to three essential and superimposed models for that relation: thedemonic model, in which the human person was attacked by forces workingoutside normative moral structures; the scriptural model, in which the termsof the human relationship to the world were played out according to biblicalevents or characters; and finally, the ascetic or moral model, in which thatrelationship was consciously transposed onto an ascetic plane of virtue andvice, and thus to a certain extent within human control. The saint was amediator whose ascetic training enabled the disruption or inversion of asocial order operating according to the impaired (embattled) human relationto the world. This mediation allowed a return to divine intention: thehealing of physical, civic, or moral suffering. Understanding these modelscould enable the critical historian to extract valid information fromhagiographical texts. Most importantly, because of hagiography's intrinsicinterests, that information could prove invaluable for purposes of socialhistory. Gender, class, ethnicity, medicine, and science were all areas whereour knowledge could be substantially enhanced through a more sophisticatedreading of hagiography, as Patlagean's further scholarship on poverty andon the family amply demonstrated (Patlagean 1977, 1981). Structuralismwould pass as an academic fad, but Patlagean's insistence on the importanceof hagiography as a crucial source of social history has been more than vindicated in subsequent scholarship.

The watershed moment for contemporary historians was the publication of Peter Brown's essay ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’ (1971). This essay marked a turning point for scholars in anumber of areas and disciplines (as is evident from other essays in thepresent volume). Unlike Patlagean, although drawing on her work, Brown tookhis interpretive models from cultural anthropology—at this point, notablyfrom Mary Douglas. In the following decades, (p. 614) he engaged a variety ofinfluential methodological currents in critical theory. The resultsrevitalized scholarly debate about and appreciation for a number of largerareas of interest: asceticism and sexuality; religion, society, andpolitics; intellectual and social history.

For the study of hagiography, ‘The Rise and Function of the HolyMan’ was decisive on two accounts: first, by its insistence thathagiography offered the historian singular access to the ordinaryperson and humble concerns of daily life in late antique society;and second, by demonstrating—as had Patlagean—that diversemethodologies from different academic disciplines could provide thetools necessary for opening hagiography as a historically validsource. From this perspective, the achievements of the Bollandistscould be justly affirmed. They had brought—and continue to bring—rigorousorder to the vast body of hagiographical literatureproduced over the course of Christian history: separating out thelayers of historical, legendary, and fictive material;distinguishing basic elements from later accretions; renderingvisible the conventional building blocks by which an author composeda hagiographical narrative. In effect, the Bollandists had madehagiography usable by, and useful for, historians. Baynes, Patlagean, and Brown were among the most effective trail‐blazers inshowing how rich a treasure store had thus been opened.

Recent decades have brought fresh considerations of hagiography from everydirection, but these may be broadly clustered into two primary areas: thetreatment of hagiography as a literary genre and its consideration ashistorical data. The latter, of course, depends significantly on the former. Scholars have given careful consideration to how the hagiographerconstructed his text (Derouet 1976). This has included attention to classical models (Heinzelmann 1973; Clark 1984; Momigliano 1987a, 1987b, 1993; Rousseau 2000), and to folklore (Festugière 1960; Heist 1981; Elliott 1987). At the most fundamental level, however, biblical themes, motifs, andstories provided the component pieces out of which the saint's persona and storywere composed. This was true regardless of the historicity or lack thereof behind the narrative (Lifshitz 1994; Philippart 1998). Historical persons would be fitted into conventions ofbiblical types, just as those types could be articulated through elaborateimaginative narratives (Saxer 1986; Coon 1997). As the biblical canon became set, hagiography became a literature that conveyed biblical narrative as anongoing aspect of history: the salvation drama was not confined to thebiblical past, but continued to play out in the lives of Christians in theirpresent world. Hagiography by this means proved formative for what wouldbecome the distinctively Christian literatures of the Middle Ages (Van Uytfanghe 1985, 1993, 1999).

Just as early hagiography was written in a surprising array ofliterary forms—almost effervescently—so the notion of sanctity wasexpressed through a great variety of different life locations. Asthe ecclesiastical institution began to settle authoritydefinitively in the office of bishop and the person of the monk‐holyman, so, too, did the range of possibilities (in life and in text)narrow. Set types emerged: the bishop, the monk, the asceticvirtuoso, the enclosed nun, the young virgin, the (p. 615) penitent harlot, the pious widow. These types were represented textually throughtopoi about clothing, hair, bodily adornment, and work, allbased in biblical motifs (Coon 1997). Sanctity was a condition thatnarrative articulated through carefully chosen conventions, enacting—justas the saint performed—familiar patterns of holiness (Heffernan 1988; Constantinou 2005).

These types had the effect of conforming Christian behaviours and practicesto conventional and expected norms (Réal 2001). Ironically, late antique hagiographymost often employed a rhetoric of inversion and paradox to present aconsistent message of Christian triumph in the cosmos. In this rhetoric, asin its biblical predecessors, the ‘old order’ was passing away, and a ‘neworder’ coming to be (Delierneaux 1997). Thus, in hagiography, even a woman, a slave, or a streetbeggar could be a saint (Flusin 2004). The desert became paradise regained. The saintimitated the work of Christ in reversing what had been a distorted naturalorder of the universe: the sick were healed, the poor fed, the wearycomforted (Cameron 1991; Coon 1997). As this rhetoric becameconventionalized, so too did it support normative social models (Kitchen 1998; Delierneaux 2002). Hagiographymight seem to support the renunciation of family and the rejection ofsociety. But as a mainstream element of the religion, it must also serve tosupport and sustain the social order.

Even when written about holy women, then, hagiography could carry the agendaof a patriarchal, androcentric society, and it did (Cooper 1996; Constantinou 2005). In fact, hagiography offered a powerful medium throughwhich to negotiate the tensions inherent in Christianizing the Roman Empireand establishing the institutional power of the Church in political, economic, and social terms (Flusin 1981). Athanasius wrote the Life of Antony at the very moment thatepiscopal authority was being stabilized in the Empire's cities. Yet thatstability was threatened by the sudden growth of ascetic and monasticcommunities. Antony and his fellow ascetics, often lay people, carried aviscerally powerful spiritual authority with the public. In thehagiographical scheme that Athanasius fashioned, desert and city articulatedpolarities of human existence. The ascetic hero fought Satan in a desertworld devoid of society's comforts, even as Christ had done in the fortydays after his baptism. In turn, the bishop guarded the Church in the world, even as Christ had done during his ministry. Episcopal and ascetic authoritywere thus differentiated by their very geographical locations, and placedover differing domains (Goehring 1993, 1999; Brakke 1995). The ecclesiastical institution could thereby embrace the ascetic's spiritualpower in ways that drew it into the service of the Church, rather thanchallenging or competing with it (Flusin 1983, 1996; Van Dam 1993; Rapp 2005).

A sizeable number of prominent late antique bishops also wrote hagiographyabout the holy men and women of their dioceses: Athanasius, Gregory ofNazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Palladius of Helenopolis, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, John of Ephesus, Gregory of Tours, and Cyril of Scythopolis all wrote formal (p. 616) hagiographies; Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, Jacob of Serug, andSeverus of Antioch all excelled at the hagiographical sermon. In thesehagiographical texts, ecclesiastical norms were established and supported:ascetics were unequivocally obedient to their bishops; ascetic womenremained enclosed under their bishop's supervision; ascetic men dwelt incommunities under their bishop's care or in the desert beyond public reach. The desert landscape, so prominent a literary motif throughout the Bible, became a mythic space in Christian thinking and lore, fantasized inhagiography, visual art, and ascetical literature (Goehring 1993; 2005). Archaeological evidence, by contrast, renders incontrovertible the opposinghistorical situation already apparent from documentary materials. Monastichistory, whether in the native desert landscapes of Egypt, Palestine, orSyria, no less than in the forests of Europe, developed in intimateintersection with urban civic life. The ties were economic, social, familial, ecclesiastical, and political. Desert and city were rarelydiscrete, delineated spaces of late antique Christian landscapes, except in the mythic universe of Christian imagination (Brakke 1995; Coon 1997).

Scholars have thus looked with increasing interest at what thehagiographical text represents through its constructed narratives (Rubenson 2000; Rousseau 2004; Goehring 2006). Unfailingly didactic, hagiography provided a powerful medium for socialcontrol. Precisely through its normative agendas, hagiography offers thehistorian an entry into the late antique social world (Kazhdan 1990). The challenge lies indetermining how, precisely, it does so (Fox 1997; Déroche 2004). For example, as a literaturedeliberately attentive to domestic contexts, hagiography has been a majorsource for information about women and families (Giannarelli 1980, 1992, 1993; Harvey 1996). But to what extent do the(invariably?) male authors of these texts preserve anything of women'slives? Is the female saint merely a gendered construction for a ‘totalizingdiscourse’ so thoroughly the product of patriarchal culture and society thatno ‘trace’ of women's presence can be confidently reclaimed (Clark 1998a, b; Smith 2004)? Hagiography presented stories remembered and told in the context of thelarger Christian public, both male and female. Even if composed in and formonastic audiences (Anson 1974; Miller 2005), the saints it venerated werealso part of the larger ecclesiastical life of the Church, commemoratedfurther in hymns and homilies, on feast‐days celebrated locally as well aswidely, domestically as well as in civic churches. How might the same stories have been heard differently by women than by men (Bynum 1986; Harvey 1993–4)?

Again, how are we to understand hagiography as the representation ofembodied holiness (Williams 1999)? Heavily articulated through ascetic discourse andproduced predominantly within monastic contexts, even when circulatedthroughout the lay populace, hagiography often appears to work withdualistic imagery that devalues or denigrates the physical body in its veryphysicality (mortal and transient, requiring food, shelter, andreproduction), valorizing instead the ascetically disciplined, sociallyintact body of the celibate saint. Yet both martyr texts and (p. 617) saints' livesmust, by their very literary forms, be focused on the bodies of theirsubjects (Frank 2000). Their task is that of presenting a holy body for their saints, onenotably distinct from the body of ‘ordinary’ society by its location, activities, practices, purposes, functions, and capabilities. Peter Brown'sscholarship has set the saint's body as the locus wherein power (social, cultural, political, and economic) could be contested and negotiated mosteffectively in late antiquity (Brown 1971, 1981, 1982, 1988, 1995). Recentscholarship has been reconsidering the saint's body precisely in itsphysicality, as embodied experience and as material existence. Scholars arehighlighting how hagiography re‐construes the physical: whether throughemphasis on the senses as a crucial mode of epistemology (Harvey 1998, 2006); or holy embodiment as a condition heightened by a counter‐eroticsthat redirect and redefine the significance of bodily habitation and sensation (Castelli 1992; Burrus 2004, 2005); or materiality as a mode of existence charged withnew cultural force (Miller 2000, 2004, 2005). The questions surroundinghagiography, gender, and embodiment have been some of the most vigorouslyargued matters in recent scholarship, producing some of the mostfar‐reaching changes in our understanding of early Christian history.

The consideration of hagiography as a literature of representation hasyielded renewed appreciation of both author and audience as active agents inthe production of sacred memory. Recent attention has turned to the author'srole as more than the agent crafting the holy subject in terms that wouldelicit particular responses from the audience who read or heard the text. Scholars now argue that the task of writing hagiography itself produced aparticular subjectivity in the author. In the process of fashioning theliterary portrait of the saint, the author also fashioned the writing itselfas an ascetic discipline through which a changed authorial persona emerged. Theproduction of the text could become a liturgical act, sacramental in effecton the author as much as on the reader/listener. From this perspective, theauthor's production of the text participates in the collective ritual lifeof the Church as community (Rapp 1998; Kalogeras 2003; Krueger 2004).

Indeed, much hagiography is not the product of a single author, even when we can credit the text to a particular writer. Rather, thenarrative voice of hagiography is to some extent always collective. Recent scholarship has highlighted this long neglected aspect ofhagiographical literature, arguing that the saint must be recognizedas such by the Church as a larger community, even in the mostinformal terms, or hagiography fails. Hence hagiography is alwaysthe product of the community, both in its literary construction bythe author and in its enacted reception by the audience. For a saintto be seen as such—for the figure to be perceived and thusacknowledged as holy—the author must present the saint accordingto the received traditions of the community's collective memory. Inturn, the audience must respond to the hagiography in ways thatrecognize and thereby serve to produce the saint whom the author hasrepresented (Heffernan 1988; Coon 1997; Constantinou (p. 618) 2005). Theaudience does more than respond to the didactic cues of thenarrative; it is arguably inextricable from the authorial process (Kalogeras 2002).

These recent developments in literary and historical analysis are openingnew areas for scholarly contribution. Changing trends in critical theory andmethodologies from across the humanities provide continually freshquestions, modes of analysis, and perspectives to bring to hagiographicaltexts. Much is also needed in the comparative study of different versions ofhagiography in their ancient translations. Numerous critical editions in thearray of ancient Christian languages have appeared in recent decades. Often, these have been considered only in terms of basic questions of historicity. Richer questions of social and cultural history should be brought to bear onthis under‐utilized body of writings. More work is also needed to placehagiography within its varying contexts of reception: where and how it wasread, heard, performed, enacted, in what ritual or performative conditionsor spaces, and how these differing contexts contributed to the narrativerepresented and received (Harvey 1988, 1998).

Late antique hagiography was a literary genre of great variety in itsliterary forms and in its models of sanctity. As Christianity moved into themedieval and Byzantine periods, a notable impetus to constrain theseproliferations of form and type appeared. In Byzantine tradition, thegravitation was towards antiquarianism: to retell the ‘old’ stories rather thanproduce new ones, and to narrow the acceptable range of types of saints (Patlagean 1976; Rapp 1995; Talbot 1996; Constantinou 2005). In the medievalWest, hagiography helped to form the ‘new’ literatures of the emergingvernacular languages and the vitality of their cultures (Van Uytfanghe 1999). Perhaps the most important contribution of recent scholarship to thestudy of hagiographical literature, both of martyrs and of saints, has beento allow the focus on late antiquity to highlight this period ofhagiographical production as distinct from the longer history of the genre. Seen as a literature, a task, a choice of authorial or ecclesiastical orgendered voice, through which Christians constructed, contested, performed, and negotiated their religion in its formative centuries, hagiographycontinues to present the scholar with challenges that bear upon every aspectof early Christianity: history, culture, or belief.

Suggested Reading

Suggested Reading

Introductions to hagiographical literature that follow Bollandist models remain valuable for student and scholar alike: Delehaye (1961, 1966, 1991) and Aigrain (1953) are classic in this regard. At the same time, Grégoire (1987), Heffernan (1988), and Coon (1997) can also serve as excellent introductions, while drawing on the diverse methodologies and concerns of more recent critical scholarship.

But there is no substitute for the texts themselves, and with this type of literature it is important to read widely among its different forms. A number of excellent anthologies in (p. 619) English are now easily available: Musurillo (1972), Waddell (1936 repr.), Ward (1978 repr.), Baynes and Dawes (1948 repr.), Veilleux (1980–2), Head and Noble (1995), Brock and Harvey (1998), Talbot (1996), and White (1998). The following bibliography includes a number of important translations of specific works. In every case, the reader will find the necessary information on critical editions included in the volume.

For more in‐depth study, scholars will want to check the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca (1957, 1984), the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina (1949, 1986) and the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Orientalis (1954) for listings of the known manuscripts for each martyr or saint.

Bibliography

Manuscript resources

Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca, ed. F. Halkin, 3 vols., 3rd edn., Subsidia Hagiographica, 8a (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1957). Novum auctarium bibliothecae hagiographicae graecae, ed. F. Halkin, Subsidia Hagiographica, 65 (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1984).Find this resource:

    Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina antiquae et mediae aetatis, ed. Socii Bollandiani, 2 vols., Subsidia Hagiographica, 6 (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1949). Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina antiquae et mediae aetatis Novum Supplementum, ed. H. Fros, Subsidia Hagiographica, 70 (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1986).Find this resource:

      Bibliotheca Hagiographica Orientalis, ed. P. Peeters, Subsidia Hagiographica, 10 (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1954).Find this resource:

        Secondary literature

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                  Baynes, N. (1955), Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (London: Athlone Press). —— and Dawes, E. (1948), Three Byzantine Saints: Contemporary Biographies translated from the Greek (London: Mowbrays; repr. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977).Find this resource:

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                                                                    Clark, E. A. (1984), The Life of Melania the Younger: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary, Studies in Women and Religion, 14 (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press).Find this resource:

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                                                                                    Dagron, G. (1978), Vie et miracles de Sainte Thècle: texte grec, traduction et commentaire, Subsidia Hagiographica, 62 (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes).Find this resource:

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                                                                                        —— (2002), ‘Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex: Intertexuality and Gender in Early Christian Legends of Holy Women Disguised as Men’, JECS 10: 1–36.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Deléani‐Nigoul, S. (1985a), ‘Les exempla bibliques du martyre’, in Fontaine and Pietri (1985), 261–88.Find this resource:

                                                                                            —— (1985b), ‘L'utilisation des modeles bibliques du martyre par les écrivains du IIIe siècle’, in Fontaine and Pietri (1985), 315–38.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Delehaye, H. (1959), L'œuvre des Bollandistes à travers trois siècles, 1615–1915, 2nd edn., Subsidia Hagiographica, 13A (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes).Find this resource:

                                                                                                —— (1961), The Legends of the Saints: An Introduction to Hagiography, trans. V. M. Crawford (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press).Find this resource:

                                                                                                  —— (1966), Les passions des martyrs et les genres littéraires, 2nd edn., Subsidia Hagiographica, 13B (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes).Find this resource:

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                                                                                                      Delierneaux, N. (1997), ‘Virilité physique et sainteté feminine dans l'hagiographie orientale du IVe au VIIe siècle’, Byzantion, 67: 179–243.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                          Déroche, V. (2004), ‘La forme de l'informe: La Vie de Théodore de Sykéôn et la Vie de Syméon Stylite le Jeune’, in Odorico and Agapitos (2004), 367–86.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                  —— (2006), Stewards of the Poor: The Man of God, Rabbula, and Hiba in Fifth‐Century Edessa, CS 208 (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications).Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                      (p. 622) Droge, A. J., and Tabor, J. D. (1992), A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among the Christians and Jews in Antiquity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco).Find this resource:

                                                                                                                        Edwards, M. J., and Swain, S. (1997) (eds.), Portraits: Biographical Representation in the Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press).Find this resource:

                                                                                                                          Elliott, A. G. (1987), Roads to Paradise: Reading the Lives of the Early Saints (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England).Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Festugière, A.‐J. (1960), ‘Lieux communs littéraires et themes de folk‐lore dans l'hagiographie primitive’, Wiener Studien, 73: 123–52.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                              Flusin, B. (1981), ‘Miracle et hiérarchie’, in Patlagean and Riché (1981), 299–317.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                —— (1983), Miracle et histoire dans l'oeuvre de Cyrille de Scythopolis (Paris: L'Institut d'études augustiniennes).Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                  —— (1996), ‘L'hagiographie palestinienne et la reception du concile de Chalcédoine’, in Rosenquist (1996), 25–47.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                      —— (1993), ‘Women and Miracles in Christian Biography (IVth–Vth Centuries)’, StPatr 25: 376–80.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                        Goehring, J. (1993), ‘The Encroaching Desert: Literary Production and Ascetic Space in Early Christian Egypt’, JECS 1: 281–96.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                          —— (1999), Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International).Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                            —— (2005), ‘The Dark Side of Landscape: Ideology and Power in the Christian Myth of the Desert’, in Martin and Miller (2005), 136–49.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                              —— (2006), ‘Remembering Abraham of Farshut: History, Hagiography, and the Fate of the Pachomian Tradition’, JECS 14: 1–26.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Notes:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                (*) I am grateful to Michelle Oing for research assistance.