- The Life of Saint Helia: Critical Edition, Translation, Introduction, and Commentary ed. by Virginia Burrus, Marco Conti
The Life of Saint Helia: Critical Edition, Translation, Introduction, and Commentary
New York: Oxford University Press, 2014
Pp. 212. $150.00.
In this volume Burrus and Conti make readily available for the first time this fascinating and little-known work of late antique female hagiography. The text, based on two tenth-century Spanish manuscripts, is presented together with a readable English translation in 96 pages. If this is longer than one expects for a saint’s life, it is because the Life of Saint Helia constitutes not only a fantastic tale of a young woman’s holy life, but also an extensive debate in three books in which Helia offers numerous scriptural arguments against her mother and a local judge in favor of Christian ascetic virginity. The volume includes a 74-page Introduction containing a thorough treatment of the text’s manuscript history and provenance, and 20 pages of commentary that discuss the literary and cultural context of select passages.
The Life opens with a prologue that frames the work as a kind of pious rhetorical exercise that purports to relate an actual life but also subtly acknowledges that the work is substantially fictional. As the text begins, we are told that the [End Page 489] devout Helia longed for Christ as her bridegroom of her own accord, apart from any human counsel. Yet, she ultimately receives guidance in Christian asceticism from a visiting presbyter, whom she hears through a window as he is reading Scripture. Later she visits the presbyter, who assigns scriptural readings for her and confirms her desire for virginity. Numerous elements in the Life, such as influence by a visiting presbyter, wearing male clothing, and receiving help from a porter, recall the story of Thecla.
In Book 1 Helia cites and expounds on numerous biblical examples of virginity, including Abel, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Daniel, the Virgin Mary, the Apostle John, John the Baptist, and Paul. In reply, Helia’s mother offers scriptural arguments on behalf of marriage, mentioning married biblical heroes such as Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Micah, Susanna, and Peter. An interesting element within this exchange is the mother’s support for the apostolic primacy of the married Peter, over against Helia’s more egalitarian view of apostolic authority and preference for the virgin Paul. At each step, Helia is presented as her mother’s superior in biblical knowledge and exegetical insight.
In Book 2 Helia’s mother asserts that Paul in 1 Cor 7 recommended virginity merely as his own advice, not as a divine command. In reply Helia tries to show that in the Old Testament virginity was veiled in mysteries and marriage was the surface-level norm, whereas since the coming of Christ virginity is explicitly the nobler calling to be accepted, not as a command but by freewill. Helia insists that she does not disparage marriage by claiming that virginity earns greater merit. The mother’s position is that children should obey their parents, and if Helia refuses to marry in obedience to her mother, then Helia must regard marriage as a sin. Language of warfare is used metaphorically throughout the debate, and Helia’s mother eventually has her daughter beaten and left out in the cold. Helia is advised by her presbyter mentor to consult the bishop, who gives her sanctuary in the basilica but is ineffective in persuading the mother to accept her daughter’s ascetic commitment. Finally, the mother appeals to the local judge to bring Helia before a tribunal.
In Book 3 the language of war has escalated to large-scale violence, as Helia’s paternal aunt gathers a small army to protect her niece, but they are defeated by imperial forces. The rest of the work relates Helia’s testimony before the tribunal. The judge speaks only briefly; Helia’s long speeches make up most of Book 3. A key argument in this book is that Helia is not trying to remain without a spouse, but rather wants to become the bride of Christ. In this section and throughout the...