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Sacred Fictions

Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity

By Lynda L. Coon

Publication Year: 1997

Late antique and early medieval hagiographic texts present holy women as simultaneously pious and corrupt, hideous and beautiful, exemplars of depravity and models of sanctity. In Sacred Fictions Lynda Coon unpacks these paradoxical representations to reveal the construction and circumscription of women's roles in the early Christian centuries.

Coon discerns three distinct paradigms for female sanctity in saints' lives and patristic and monastic writings. Women are recurrently figured as repentant desert hermits, wealthy widows, or cloistered ascetic nuns, and biblical discourse informs the narrative content, rhetorical strategies, and symbolic meanings of these texts in complex and multivalent ways. If hagiographers made their women saints walk on water, resurrect the dead, or consecrate the Eucharist, they also curbed the power of women by teaching that the daughters of Eve must make their bodies impenetrable through militant chastity or spiritual exile and must eradicate self-indulgence through ascetic attire or philanthropy.

The windows the sacred fiction of holy women open on the past are far from transparent; driven by both literary invention and moral imperative, the stories they tell helped shape Western gender constructs that have survived into modern times.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xxii

IN THE EARLY SEVENTH-CENTURY LIFE of the harlot-saint Mary of Egypt, the holy woman first appears to a virginal priest, Zosimas, as a demonized apparition floating along the banks of the Jordan River. At the same time, her extraordinary physical appearance resembles that of the Son of Man from Revelation (1.14), "his head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow." 2 She is also the bride from the Song of Songs...

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I . Hagiography and Sacred Models

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pp. 1-27

HAGIOGRAPHY IS AN EXALTED DISCOURSE that has formulated the literary representation of saints in popular and elite imagination during the two millennia of Christian history. 1 The often allegorical lives (vitae) of the saints were recited by priests during mass,' read by literate audiences, and depicted in art for illiterate Christians. The vitae of Christian holy women and men served the important function of reminding medieval Christians of their otherworldly citizenship and anticipated celestial residence....

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2. Gender, Hagiography, and the Bible

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pp. 28-51

AS THE MOST HEAVILY SCRUTINIZED BOOK of the medieval era, the Bible created the normative principles of medieval culture.1 Biblical images of women encompass the entire spectrum of Hebrew and Christian spirituality. Pregnant women symbolize the heavenly prototype of the earthly community (Revelation 12.1), and maternal and bridal figures represent earthly Jerusalem and the church (I Samuel 1-2; Galatians 4.26-27; Revelation 19.7-8, 21.2ff). Hebrew women serve as the guardians of Israel (Judges S.7) and personify human virtue...

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3. The Rhetorical Uses of Clothing in the Lives of Sacred Males

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pp. 52-70

IN THE HEBREW BIBLE, GOD SENDS Ezekiel a vision about the dangers of consecrated, symbolic vestments. Yahweh instructs the prophet that "when they [the Hebrew priests] go out into the outer court to the people, they shall put off the garments in which they have been ministering, and lay them in the holy chambers; and they shall put on other garments, lest they communicate their holiness to the people with their...

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4. God's Holy Harlots: The Redemptive Lives of Pelagia of Antioch and Mary of Egypt

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pp. 71-94

IN CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURE, JESUS, LIKE ELIJAH and Moses before him, purifies himself in the terrifying desert, and the wasteland of Palestine provides the battleground for Christ's warfare with Satan: "Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came to him"...

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5. “Through the Eye of a Needle”: Wealth and Poverty in the Lives of Helena, Paula, and Melania the Younger

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pp. 95-119

IN THE HEBREWAND CHRISTIAN BIBLES, wealthy widows house, nourish, and finance the prophetic and apostolic missions of God's most holy men. In Hebrew scripture, a wealthy woman from Shunern provides a sanctuary for Elisha: "50 whenever he passed that way, he would turn in there to eat food. And she said to her husband, 'Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God, who is continually passing our way. Let us make a small roof chamber with walls, and put there for him a bed...

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6. Civilizing Merovingian Gaul: The Lives of Monegund, Radegund, and Balthild

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pp. 120-141

IN HOLY SCRIPTURE WOMEN EXPRESS their piety through domestic service to godly men and the impoverished.1 In John (12.1-2), Martha, the sister of Lazarus, feeds Jesus and the apostles: "Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with...

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Conclusion: Sacred Fictions

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pp. 143-152

BUILDING ON MODELS IN THE HEBREW BIBLE, the Christian gospels established gender-based images of piety and faith that remained influential well into the modern period. In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, those images were most powerfully and widely transmitted through the popular medium of hagiography. In part the product of their environment, the vitae of saints are thus a cornucopia of information for the historian...


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pp. 153-202


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pp. 203-219


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pp. 221-228

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201673
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812233711

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 1997

OCLC Number: 759158244
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Sacred Fictions

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Women in Christianity -- History -- Early church, ca. 30-600.
  • Women in Christianity -- History -- Middle Ages, 600-1500.
  • Christian women saints -- Biography -- History and criticism.
  • Christian hagiography -- History -- To 1500.
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