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Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity.

Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity. By Lynda L. Coon. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. xxiv + 228 pp.; 5 illus. $39.95 cloth.

Lynda Coon's Sacred Fictions is one of a number of recent books on hagiography that have come on the crest of renewed interest in saints and saints' lives shown by historians and religionists since the late 1960s. Where the work of structural anthropologists and cultural theorists sparked the turn in attention through the scholarship of figures such as Evelyne Patlagean or Peter Brown, more recently the discussion has received added impetus from literary theory. With both "the body" and "rhetoric" as favorite topics for scholarly debate, hagiography remains a rich and fruitful area of consideration for historians of any kind.

That said, Sacred Fictions stands apart as one of the best works on hagiography to appear in the last decade. Coon's goal, in a basic sense, is to understand how hagiography was "made." From the first, Coon insists that hagiography be approached as "sacred fiction": literary inventions for religious purposes, even in the case of historical figures and even when written by someone who knew the holy man or woman personally. Within that perspective, Coon takes on the major questions of how hagiography presents women saints and, more delicately, how hagiographers construct the categories of gender (male or female). Drawing on notable vitae of the late antique church, both west and east, her focus is the hagiographer's craft and specifically the literary and rhetorical tools available for such usage.

Coon's most important contribution is her demonstration of the degree to which the Bible and biblical exegesis determined hagiography. Biblical figures provided the models through which to present, and thereby to interpret, individual saints and other figures in their stories. Biblical tropes provided the types both for characters and events. Biblical stories provided the scripts through which to give the accounts. Biblical verses--or parts thereof--provided the descriptive details through which to flesh out a saint's appearance, a location, or an encounter. In itself this is not new. What is different, however, is the extent to which Coon demonstrates the use of biblical texts or tropes as a rhetorical strategy with social, ecclesiastical, and political implications and consequences. At the same time, Coon shows the ease with which biblical images, types, and events could be joined with the familiar inheritance of Greek and Roman rhetorical traditions. The results were powerful indeed: mutually reinforcing cultural stereotypes could be presented, articulated, and appropriated into the emerging dominance of a Christian society within Christian states (whether eastern empire or western kingdom).

Coon is at her best in the first half of the book, particularly in her investigation of gender construction through the significations of hair, cosmetics, clothing, and adornment. Here the combination of biblical types with Greek and Roman literary and philosophical commonplaces yields fascinating material and fresh insights. In the second half of the book, Coon explores her three main character types for female saints: penitent-harlot-turned-repentant-hermit (Pelagia of Antioch, Mary of Egypt), late Roman patrician philanthropist (Helena, Paula, and Melania the Younger), and early medieval Frankish cloistered nun (Monegund, Radegund, and Balthild). As Coon emphasizes, these three were enduring and dominant images of female sanctity, with influence lasting well into recent times. The careful construction of these saints as images is Coon's concern, rather than any "quest for the historical saint." Rightly so, for the power of these literary constructs has generated not a little of what has determined how women have been viewed and understood in western culture and history, whether secular or sacred.

If the second half of the book is less effective than the first (and perhaps it is not), there are two reasons. First, Coon sets forth her own rhetorical figures and tropes in the first half, and these become both repetitive and, at times, too simplistic for the genuine complexity of some of the vitae she analyzes in the second half. The rich quilting she uncovers in the first chapters allows for more textured analysis than she in fact undertakes in her specific studies. Second, although she is deliberate in drawing on both eastern and western hagiographical texts, her own grounding is clearly stronger in the western material and in the history of medieval Europe into which those texts flowed. She is careful in how she uses her material; that is, she is responsible and specific in her use of evidence, as in her discussion of the development of ecclesiastical garments in the western late antique church. But she does not provide such contextual discussions for her eastern texts, which would have set them, also, into a richer historical panorama. Nor has she engaged in any depth the important work of scholars like James Goehring or David Brakke, who have seriously changed the terms on which we must understand the sacred fictions of Antony the Great and the Egyptian desert fathers.

These observations are not meant as criticisms that detract from the worth of this book. Rather, they point to places where the work Coon has undertaken here invites more. And that, too, is a contribution for which we can be glad. Read this book and think about your favorite saint's vita: you will see it anew and think again.

Susan Ashbrook Harvey Brown University
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Author:Harvey, Susan Ashbrook
Publication:Church History
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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