Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity

By Heffernan, Thomas J. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity


Heffernan, Thomas J., The Catholic Historical Review


Sacred Fictions:Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity. By Lynda L. Coon. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1997. Pp. xiii, 228. $39.95.)

The study of the saints has undergone a renaissance in the past twenty years, and a considerable amount of this effort has focused on the vitae of female saints. For example, this ambitious study, Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity, might be profitably read alongside John Kitchen's, Saint's Lives and the Rhetoric of Gender (Oxford, 1998), both of which examine identical subjects. Dr. Coon's chief focus is on selected biographies of Christian women composed both in the east and in the west from 400 to 700. She reads these sacred biographies as theological texts that "exploited biblical rhetoric to empower and bridle sacred portraits of women." While her readings are often illuminating, exegetical might better reflect her actual method since there is little actual theological study in these pages. Her book has six chapters: the first three chapters treat broad thematic issues (e.g., a review of the genre of sacred biography; gender and the Bible; rhetoric and the use of clothing in hagiographies) and three chapters discuss eight female vitae, viz., Saints Pelagia of Antioch, Mary of Egypt, Helena Augusta; Jerome's Life of Paula; the anonymous life of Melania the Younger; and finally Saints Monegund, Radegund, and Balthild. The subjects are well known, and the scope of the study is broad. The bibliography is extensive, the notes judicious and a useful resource.

Her study is a close reading of these texts illustrating their dependence on biblical models, and how those models were transformed by their historical situations, e.g., Baudonivia's depiction of St. Radegund's duty to her household is read as a motif designed to limit the saint's authority and thus satisfy the expectations of her seventh-century audience. Coon identifies three paradigms prominent in female sacred biographies: the repentant hermit, the philanthropist, and the cloistered nun. She suggests that the vitae contain the universalist message that if these holy women (all daughters of Eve, who brought death into the world) can so transform themselves, then there is hope for all. …

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