Margaret Cotter-Lynch

title.none: Feiss, Saint Mary of Egypt (Margaret Cotter-Lynch)

identifier.other: baj9928.0712.003 07.12.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Margaret Cotter-Lynch, Southeastern Oklahoma State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Translated by Hugh Feiss and Ronald Pepin. Saint mary of Egypt: Three Medieval Lives in Verse. Cistercian Studies, 209. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2005. Pp. x, 159. ISBN: $12.95 0-87907-209-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.12.03

Translated by Hugh Feiss and Ronald Pepin. Saint mary of Egypt: Three Medieval Lives in Verse. Cistercian Studies, 209. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2005. Pp. x, 159. ISBN: $12.95 0-87907-209-1.

Reviewed by:

Margaret Cotter-Lynch
Southeastern Oklahoma State University

In Saint Mary of Egypt: Three Medieval Lives in Verse, Hugh Feiss and Ronald Pepin provide fluid, readable modern English translations of three versions of the legend of Mary of Egypt in an inexpensive paperback volume. Pepin and Feiss have provided a welcome service in making accessible to a general audience versions of this story previously only available to specialists. The book also includes a lengthy introduction providing background on the textual history of Mary's story and the historical contexts of the individual versions of the vita included. Of the three lives translated here, the first two are Latin, and the third Spanish. The first was composed by Flodoard of Reims in the tenth century as a part of his On the Triumphs of Christ and the Saints of Palestine. The second, by Hildebert of Lavardin, presumably dates from the early twelfth century, and the third, by an anonymous Spanish poet, from the early thirteenth. Each of the three offers a slightly different version of the story, with differing emphases, and thus the collection will interest those who would like to see some of the ways in which the vitae of individual saints were adapted and altered over time to suit the needs of different authors and audiences, and the ways in which hagiography developed as a genre over the relevant time period.

Versions of Mary's salacious life can be traced back to a seventh- century Greek version attributed to Sophronius, and the story was brought to the West in an eighth or ninth century Latin version by Paul, a deacon in Naples. The basic outline of Mary's life in all of the extant versions runs as follows: at the age of twelve, Mary leaves her family in order to move to Alexandria and lead a dissolute life full of drunkenness and promiscuous sex (versions of the story differ as to whether she was a prostitute, or simply really, really liked a good time). After seventeen lascivious years in Alexandria, Mary trades sexual favors for passage to Jerusalem. Here she is inspired to conversion by an icon of the Virgin Mary when she finds herself physically unable to enter the church with other pilgrims for a religious festival (again, versions differ as to whether this festival was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, or the Feast of the Ascension). In repentance for her years of sin, Mary crosses the Jordan and becomes a hermit in the desert. She lives there without human contact for more than 40 years, miraculously sustained by God, before she meets Zosimas, a monk wandering in the desert as part of his monastery's Lenten ritual. She tells Zosimas her story and asks him to meet her again the next year and administer the Eucharist to her. He agrees, and on the occasion of their second meeting witnesses her walking across the water of the river Jordan in order to reach him. They agree again to meet in a year, but this time Zosimas finds Mary's dead body, miraculously uncorrupted, with words scratched in the sand indicating that she died the night of their meeting one year previous. Zosimas then buries Mary with the help of a friendly lion.

This brief summary of the basic plot of Mary's story gives only an initial indication of what makes the narrative interesting to both medieval audiences and modern scholars. Mary is an example of repentance par excellence; her story, to different degrees in different versions, also raises issues of religious authority, gender, the status of the body, the process of repentance, monasticism, anchoritism, and much more. Recently, scholars such as Benedicta Ward, Lynda Coon, Viginia Burrus, Patricia Cox Miller, and others have discussed Mary of Egypt as one of the "holy harlots," a category of female saints characterized by repentance from extreme sexual sin [1]. The three lives offered here in translation play upon the themes and ideas of the story in differing ways, and this volume offers the opportunity to easily compare and contrast aspects of the different versions.

The three translations in this edition are prefaced by a substantial introduction. Pepin and Feiss begin with a brief history of eastern monasticism as a context for both the action of the story, and the composition of the earliest Greek version. The authors then offer a summary of the textual tradition of Mary's vita in the West, including information on the earliest Greek and Latin versions, historical contexts for the three poems translated in this volume, and a 10-page treatment of the French tradition of the story. The authors also provide a 41-point list of the major points of Mary of Egypt's story, based upon the text attributed to Sophronius, which are then used to catalogue points of difference in subsequent narrations of the story.

While these translations have something to offer many sorts of readers, the introduction suffers a bit from the authors' desire to please too many masters. In the foreword, the authors/translators identify their primary audience as monastic, while indicating that the work will also be interesting to scholars and general readers with a variety of interests. While the authors provide a relatively thorough accounting of relevant recent scholarship, they also attempt to downplay scholarly controversy in the introduction, presumably in the interest of avoiding debates which might be distasteful to some devotional readers. This modus operandi might on occasion cause some confusion on the part of the reader, in particular on the part of the readers without extensive scholarly background to whom the authors are trying to appeal. I find three potential sorts of difficulty which this introduction might pose to some readers. Firstly, some points of contention regarding the textual history of Mary's story-most prominently, the contested authorship of the seventh-century Greek text-are addressed only in the footnotes. Thus, a casual reader of the introduction might be left with the impression that points are settled which are, in reality, very much still under debate. More worrisome is the fact that one major point of debate regarding the first extant Latin version of the text-namely, its authorship-is glossed over in such a way as to be confusing to knowledgeable scholars, and misleading to other readers. The author of this Latin version is referred to in the introduction first as "Paul the Deacon of Naples," and subsequently as "Paul the Deacon," but in the transmission history of the text, these are two different people. This version of Mary's story was long attributed to the well-known eighth- century author known as Paul the Deacon; this attribution was called into question in the mid-twentieth century, and the text is now generally (although not universally) thought to belong to a ninth- century deacon of Naples named Paul. The text is identified by Feiss and Pepin as an early ninth century work, but by "Paul the Deacon." Thus, Pepin's and Feiss's references to the author have the potential to be misleading to those not familiar with this history (which is not mentioned in this volume).

Finally, Feiss and Pepin's discussion of the Spanish poem translated in this volume illustrates the difficulties in trying to discuss scholarship without directly engaging in its debates. As the translators explain, this Spanish poem was itself a translation of a twelfth-century French version, T. Eight pages of the introduction (pages 30-37) discuss the T version and recent interpretations of this version of Mary's story by Brigitte Cazelles and Duncan Robertson. However, when Feiss and Pepin turn to their discussion of the Spanish Vida on page 41, they use Sophronius' Greek text as the basis of their comparison. This strategy allows the authors to downplay interpretive differences they have with Cazelles and Robertson, but also exaggerates the innovation of the Spanish poet. This avoidance of controversy furthermore deprives the reader of a direct argument for Feiss's and Pepin's interpretations over Cazelles's and Robertson's.

One major interest of books such as this, which offer multiple versions of a single saint's hagiography, is the opportunity to consider the sources and implications of the variations. However, those looking in this introduction for an interpretive scholarly argument on the interrelations of the three texts or the implications of variants for the tradition as a whole will be disappointed. The introduction clearly catalogues variations in Mary's story between the three versions included, as well as in comparison to the earlier versions attributed to Sophronius and Paul. However, the authors make inconsistent effort to account for these differences. In some instances, Pepin and Feiss offer interesting and insightful commentary on the differences between the various versions of Mary's Life. For example, in their discussion of the Spanish poem, the authors explain the Spanish poet's particular representations of the roles of money and travel in the story, implying mendicant and Franciscan influences. However, other indications of differences between versions are left without explanation. For instance, what should we make of the differing journey times for Mary and Zosimas in the different poems? What are the implications of the alterations Hildebert makes to Mary's conversion story, such as making the boat she travels on to Jerusalem full of ordinary travelers, rather than pilgrims? Furthermore, some of the most interesting scholarly observations are made only in the footnotes; for instance, on page 28, "Hildebert wants to suggest that only very exceptional people can succeed in the eremitical life apart from church oversight." This inconsistent presentation of comparative interpretation can be frustrating for a reader who wants guidance as to what to make of the differences between stories.

The primary value of this book thus lies in the translations it provides of the three medieval poems on St. Mary of Egypt. By offering these poems together in one volume, Pepin and Feiss have afforded readers the welcome opportunity to compare differing versions of a single saint's story. The introduction provides useful historical summaries of some relevant aspects of the tradition, but unfortunate elisions of some scholarly points make me hesitant to recommend the introduction to those for whom it was presumably meant, namely those with little scholarly background in the subject. Those interested in in-depth scholarly analysis, furthermore, will be better served by looking at the work of Coon, Cox Miller, and others. Although these scholars, in most cases, treat different versions of the story than those translated here, they offer a more complete interpretive framework for considering the differences between texts and their implications.

[1] Burrus, Virginia. The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography. Edited by Daniel Boyarin, Virginia Burrus, Charlotte Fonrobert and Robert Gregg, Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Coon, Lynda L. Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Miller, Paticia Cox. "Is There a Harlot in This Text? Hagiography and the Grotesque." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33, no. 3 (2003): 419-35. Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Vol. 106, Cistercian Studies. Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1987.