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The Sex Lives of Saints

An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography

By Virginia Burrus

Publication Year: 2011

Has a repressive morality been the primary contribution of Christianity to the history of sexuality? The ascetic concerns that pervade ancient Christian texts would seem to support such a common assumption. Focusing on hagiographical literature, Virginia Burrus pursues a fresh path of interpretation, arguing that the early accounts of the lives of saints are not antierotic but rather convey a sublimely transgressive "countereroticism" that resists the marital, procreative ethic of sexuality found in other strands of Christian tradition.

Without reducing the erotics of ancient hagiography to a single formula, The Sex Lives of Saints frames the broad historical, theological, and theoretical issues at stake in such a revisionist interpretation of ascetic eroticism, with particular reference to the work of Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille, David Halperin and Geoffrey Harpham, Leo Bersani and Jean Baudrillard. Burrus subsequently proceeds through close, performative readings of the earliest Lives of Saints, mostly dating to the late fourth and early fifth centuries—Jerome's Lives of Paul, Malchus, Hilarion, and Paula; Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Macrina; Augustine's portrait of Monica; Sulpicius Severus's Life of Martin; and the slightly later Lives of so-called harlot saints. Queer, s/m, and postcolonial theories are among the contemporary discourses that prove intriguingly resonant with an ancient art of "saintly" loving that remains, in Burrus's reading, promisingly mobile, diverse, and open-ended.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion

Title Page

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pp. v-vi

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Introduction: Hagiography andthe History of Sexuality

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pp. 1-18

The Sex Lives of Saints? What could such words possibly signify? Surely everyone knows that the repression of erotic desire is the hallmark of Christian sanctity: a "sex life" is precisely what a proper saint lacks. At most, ascetic eros - encoded as yearning for God - may be seen as the residue of an imperfectly sublimated sexuality ...

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Chapter 1 - Fancying Hermits: Sublimation and the Arts of Romance

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pp. 19-52

"How often, when I was living in the desert, in the vast solitude which gives to hermits a savage dwelling-place, parched by the flames of the sun, how often did I fancy myself among the pleasures of Rome (putavi me Romanis interesse deliciis)]" (Ep. 22.7). Thus begins Jerome's account of his own brief career as a hermit, ...

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Chapter 2 - Dying for a Life: Martyrdom, Masochism, and Female (Auto)Biography

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pp. 53-90

Loosing her tongue, Ambrose's Agnes gives shameless witness to her desire for the executioner's sword: by such violent proxy is she made Christ's bride (Ambrose, On Virgins 2).1 In contrast, Jerome's unnamed youth (subjected to a still stranger persecution) bites his tongue, thereby excising his shameful ...

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Chapter 3 - Hybrid Desire: Empire, Sadism, and the Soldier Saint

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pp. 91-127

Martin of Tours, a Pannonian ex-soldier credited with the militant conversion of Gaul to Christianity, is best known to us from the Life penned by the Aquitanian ascetic Sulpicius Severus. Much admired for its delicate engagement with classical traditions of historiography and biography, Sulpicius's Life of Martin also ...

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Chapter 4 - Secrets of Seduction: The Lives of Holy Harlots

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pp. 128-159

The peculiarly promiscuous Lives of loose women are not easy to tie down to a particular time, place, or even textual version, in large part because their immense popularity led quickly to multiple translations and uncertain attributions of authorship. Thus, although the Syriac tale of Mary, part of a longer ...

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Postscript (Catching My Breath)

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pp. 160-162

Countereroticism will not tolerate conclusion. There can be no end to love in the lives of saints, no end to the reading and rewriting of holy Lives. Nonetheless, readers, writers, and lovers alike honor the power of the interval, the necessity - even the intense desirability - of the pause. Let us pause, ...


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pp. 163-198


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pp. 199-208


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pp. 209-214

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pp. 215-216

I am deeply grateful to Dean Maxine Beach, my colleagues in the Theological School and Caspersen School of Graduate Studies of Drew University, and the Association of Theological Schools Lilly Theological Research Grant: their combined assistance enabled me to take a break from teaching and committee duties ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812200720
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812220209

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion