Kathryn M. Ringrose

title.none: Talbot, Holy Women of Byzantium (Ringrose)

identifier.other: baj9928.9709.005 97.09.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kathryn M. Ringrose, University of California San Diego, ir370@sdcc4.UCSD.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Talbot, Alice-Mary, ed. Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints' Lives in English Translation. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996. Pp. xviii, 352. $30.00 (hb), $18.50 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-884-02248-X (hb), 0-884-02241-2 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.09.05

Talbot, Alice-Mary, ed. Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints' Lives in English Translation. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996. Pp. xviii, 352. $30.00 (hb), $18.50 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-884-02248-X (hb), 0-884-02241-2 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Kathryn M. Ringrose
University of California San Diego

Scholars who work in the cultural and social history of Byzantium, students of hagiography in both the East and the West, and anyone with a serious interest in gender studies, especially in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, should welcome the publication of this, the first volume in a series of English translations of medieval Greek Lives of saints. Edited by Alice-Mary Talbot, co-director of the Dumbarton Oaks Hagiography Database Project and executive editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, this series is an important part of the legacy of the late Alexander Kazhdan who worked tirelessly to help make the Byzantine hagiographical corpus available to the scholarly world.

This first volume is devoted to the lives of women saints of the middle and late Byzantine period. Only two of the lives of women saints that we have have been omitted, and they will appear in subsequent publications.

All of these lives are centered in ambiguity, a state that is abhorrent to traditional Greek culture. To quote Valerie Karras' excellent translation of the life of St. Elisabeth the Wonderworker:Many daughters have wrought valiantly, many have obtained...wealth, said Solomon the most wise, prophetically proclaiming...that, at various times, women as well as men would shine with the...beauties of every type of virtue and share in the spiritual gifts...of the divine spirit and marvelously work miraculous wonders and...signs throughout the world. For scripture also shows the advent...of grace, transforming feminine frailty to manly resolution and,...through self-discipline and painful ascetic practice,... courageously overthrowing the ancient conqueror of our foremother...Eve and common enemy of the human race through the power of the...Most High, and being crowned with the shining trophies of victory." (p. 122)The ancient traditions are still very much with us. Holiness remains a man's game and women can only participate if they, through the actions of grace and the mortification of the flesh, can abandon their feminine softness and adopt "manly resolution." What we see in these lives is a variety of ways in which women enter this state of ambiguity and, as women, exhibit gender attributes traditionally reserved to men.

Those holy women who enter the world of gender ambiguity shed the marks of their feminine identity--their children, husbands and other familial obligations, their feminine clothing, hair, and jewelry--as they venture into the world claiming to be men. But they do not claim to be sexually active men. Rather, they present themselves as eunuchs, adopting the gender markers of the eunuch as a more plausible disguise. Indeed, at the very time that the Byzantine religious world begins to consider that eunuchs might be capable of holiness we find these transvestite women appearing in our hagiographical sources. Saint Thomais of Lesbos was, "by nature female, but by virtue and ascetic discipline more male than men."

Women saints who have been married also enter the world of social ambiguity. They become widowed or abandon their often abusive husbands. Since these holy women have cut their traditional family ties and embraced the ascetic life, they are neither a part of the family nor a part of the traditional community of holy men and women who have been dedicated to the ascetic life since childhood. Although these women's previous sexual experience might, in the third or fourth century, have denied them sanctity, they can overcome this liability through saintly behavior, ascetic activity and philanthropy. This last theme is especially prominent in the lives of St. Mary the Younger and St. Thomais of Lesbos. This parallels my findings that in the ninth and tenth centuries eunuchs, too, are overcoming earthly liabilities, in their case the assumption that they participate, as passive partners, in sexual relations with other men.

Finally there is the ambiguity that surrounds the institution of marriage as reflected in these lives. As Angeliki E. Laiou perceptively observes in the introduction to her translation of the Life of St. Mary the Younger, "[I]f St. Mary achieved sainthood despite her married state, she also found suffering and death because of it."

If we accept that gender is socially constructed, all of this leaves us with serious questions about how the category "woman" is configured, and whether it can include "holy women". Perhaps the latter category stands alone as a distinctive gender category. This appears to be the case given the insistence expressed in these vitae on rejection of sexuality and reproductive function, traditional roles in society and gender markers, and the prevalence of descriptions of mortifications that act to reconfigure the female body into a form that is physically neither male nor female (as the cover illustration so well documents).

At a more philosophical level these vitae offer insights into middle and late Byzantine conceptions of the relationship between body and soul, flesh and spirit. In the Life of St. Matrona, for example, the hagiographer tells us that the saint's beauty of face and figure reflect her inner beauty of soul. Yet, later in the vita, the saint says that she wishes that her outward beauty might wither in order that the inner beauty of her soul might be renewed. In the life of St. Thomais of Lesbos we are told that the grace of her soul is reflected in her external features. The harmony of her body reflects her spiritual beauty. Yet in the life of St. Mary the Younger we are told that, at death, the saint "shed the remaining weight of the flesh so that she could converse with God in purity of spirit."

These vitae offer a wealth of other bits about oblate children, the work of the icon painter, the making of a stone sarcophagus. We are startled to learn that (at least in the hagiographer's mind) an obsession with sex and its pleasures, not poverty, drove St. Mary of Egypt to engage in prostitution, and that affection for one's children is a sign of weakness in a woman who aspires to sanctity.

The ten vitae in this volume can be used at a number of levels. The scholar will find them carefully annotated with notes on manuscripts and their traditions. The student will find the translations readable and the introductions to each vita of use for general understanding. The general introduction by Alice-Mary Talbot is especially useful. The specific introductions by Angeliki E. Laiou and Nicholas Constas offer larger conceptual models of interest to historians of gender. In the classroom this volume will provoke lively and useful discussion that will extend well beyond the Byzantine world. I, for one, am glad to have this volume on my shelf.