The Life of Saint Helia: Critical Edition, Translation, Introduction, and Commentary, eds. Virginia Burrus and Marco Conti, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013
As the very first critical edition and English translation of the Life of Saint Helia, it is perhaps appropriate to think of Burrus and Conti’s book as a rescue effort. Establishing the date and provenance of the text is the primary aim of the introduction. The text survives in only two tenth-century manuscripts of a tenth-century anthology of saints’ lives that were themselves written sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries (pp. 2-14). The question of the Life of Helia’s authorship is a bit more fraught. The few scholars who have studied the text offer suggestions ranging from Priscillianist monks to direct associates of Jerome. Burrus and Conti are quite cautious in this regard, presenting each position’s strengths and challenges while not staking a firm position of their own. However, the editors suggest that two fourth-century letters from Spain exchanged between a pair of Christian ascetic women, extant in a single manuscript, contain language associated with Mary’s virginal fertility that has intriguing parallels in the Life (40-41). “Do such affinities,” they ask, “suggest that the writers of the two letters and the Life of Helia might belong to the same milieu [as these women]” (pp. 41-42)? In any case, those who work on textual criticism will rejoice in the fact that Burrus and Conti’s edition contains not only a critical apparatus, but also a detailed discussion of the manuscripts as well as helpful appendices that trace parallels between Helia’s citations of the Psalms and several Old Latin biblical manuscripts.
The Life itself follows well-established rhetorical conventions of antiquity. It begins with a brief recusatio, a stylized pronouncement of an author’s lack of rhetorical ability, wherein he begs forgiveness for his chosen genre of confabulation. The narrator sets the story in Dyrrhacium, a town in the province of Epirus Nova. As a young girl, Helia decides on a life of virginity, even though she is ignorant of all Scripture. Upon hearing from her window the preaching of a wandering presbyter, she converts to Christianity and sets herself on a perpetually ascetic path. However, the narrator’s voice quickly fades away after setting the scene, and the reader is enveloped in a debate between Helia and her mother concerning the values of virginity and marriage, respectively. Helia’s mother is relentless. When she cannot prevail over her daughter using biblical examples, she turns to interpretations of Paul, which the virgin easily repudiates. The mother then attempts to enlist the help of a local bishop and, failing there as well, drags her daughter before a judge in the hopes he might rule in the mother’s favor—and, notably, that he might marry the virgin himself. The work ends abruptly, giving no resolution or final martyrdom account such as we might expect from a hagiographic text.
The exegetical debate between Helia and her mother raises some interesting questions regarding the creation and utilization of biblical exegesis in this period. The deftness with which Helia moves from argument to argument gives the impression that the author has a deposit of such arguments at his disposal, perhaps even Jerome’s Against Jovinian (p 32). While we cannot say that the text reflects actual debates that proponents of a virginal life were having, we can certainly point to it as an example of debates in which they imagined they could or would have had similar confrontations. A close engagement with The Life of Saint Helia might therefore provide some insight into how the community—whether it be Priscillianist, Jeromian, or otherwise—attempted to locate themselves within the tradition of Scripture and its interpretation. What is more, the Life appears to present the question of asceticism as an exegetical debate between women. As Burrus and Conti point out, the Life also explicitly involves an itinerant Christian teacher taking on a woman as a student (pp. 21-22). The basilica where she seeks refuge also appears to house an ascetic community of men and women who read and practice together. The Life, therefore, might contain many interesting insights for those interested in the role of gender, Scripture, education, communal practice, and their interaction.
The rhetorical form and function of the text raises several compelling questions. Although Helia’s voice dominates throughout the dialogue, the overall form of the Life matches the rhetorical exercises of ancient Roman schoolboys (p. 47). As Burrus and Conti point out, even if we cannot say that the Life of Saint Helia was written by a woman and even if we become certain that it was written by a man, the text is manifestly written in a woman’s voice (p. 57-58). If this text is written by a man, what does it mean that he transforms his voice into that of a female virgin (p. 58)? It is even possible, in my view, to read the author’s prologue—in which he announces his intention to write the tale as a fabula and thus take on the voice of a virgin—as somewhat playful in tone. This is particularly puzzling because the actual fabula that the author weaves seems burdened by its own seriousness. The conflict between the mother and daughter is less than civil and the stakes of the debate become greater as the narrative moves along. I believe that it might be worthwhile to explore the tonal and rhetorical shifts that occur as the author vacillates between his own voice as narrator and the voices of the characters in the dialogue.
One final element of this text that I find compelling is its resemblance and near citation of the Acts of Thecla. Thecla is never mentioned in the Life, but Burrus and Conti convincingly show that the author of the Life of Saint Helia is very familiar with Thecla’s story. They observe that, “By thus weaving recognizable elements of Thecla’s well-known narrative into Helia’s, the Life adapts that narrative to the demands of a different cultural moment. Helia’s town has a bishop as well as a governor or judge; her teacher is not an apostle but a presbyter” (p. 53). Although she was still quite important to those arguing for perpetual virginity, Thecla’s story was, so to speak, “dated.” Helia is thus a new voice required for a new age, one in which internal struggles such as those waged by Ambrose and Jerome (p. 52) became the new normal. “Whereas,” say Burrus and Conti, “the Acts of Thecla suggests eventual reconciliation, the Life of Helia leaves the antagonism suspended” (p. 53). A deeper comparison of the two texts might shed a little light on how the community that produced the Life of Saint Helia confronted the shifting cultural landscape Burrus and Conti describe.
The translators provide a quite readable rendering of the text, especially given that the Latin can at times come across as stilted. Indeed, one can see how the tonal clash between the whimsy of the prologue and the sometimes turgid narrative that follows led some scholars to propose that the prologue is a later addition—a position now rejected due to lack of evidence (p. 177). Naturally, one’s appreciation of the Latin prose will be a matter of taste. However, the editors’ incisive and varied commentary makes it very evident that the text is a treasury worthy of excavation. It is quite rare that scholars gain access to a “new” text from antiquity that is as rich and promising as the Life of Saint Helia. Burrus and Conti’s recovery of this text from obscurity is a gift in that sense, and I look forward to seeing what scholarship its publication will inspire.
Alexander D. Perkins is a P.h.D. Candidate in Christianity in Antiquity at Fordham University