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Saints in disguise : a literary analysis of performance in Byzantine hagiography

Julie Van Pelt (UGent)
(2019)
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Abstract
Byzantine hagiography has produced a number of stories of holy men and women who pretend to be someone other than who they truly are, hiding their true identities underneath a disguise. Some saints feign insanity, acting like a mad person. Others, female saints, pretend to be men in order to enter a male monastery. Finally, there are those who hide their true identities from their most beloved family members. It is somewhat surprising that such characters, who engage in dissimulation and mislead those in their environment, are the protagonists of stories belonging to the genre of hagiography, which was oriented towards edification. Within late antique Christian narrative, disguise and dissimulation of identity were often portrayed as characteristics of the Devil. Moreover, Church authorities strongly condemned any form of pretence, even with regard to roleplaying in the context of the theatre, which was rejected as the province of the Devil and associated with, precisely, illusion and deception. This study examines sixteen Lives of disguised saints (4th-10th cent.). These narratives are for the first time studied together from a literary perspective and with a focus on roleplaying. On the one hand, this study aims to show which narrative devices are used in Lives of disguised saints in order to still portray their holy protagonists in a favourable light. On the other hand, its goal is to elucidate why hagiographers may have chosen to write stories about disguised saints in the first place. The analyses demonstrate that these Lives reflect early Christian ideas regarding theatre and performance, exploring the relation between illusion, reality, and truth. Stories about disguised saints have the potential to show concretely that the reality surrounding us does not always mirror truth in a transparent way, and that illusions, being part of reality, tend to acquire truth-status, with dangerous consequences. It is this danger which lies at the basis of the Christian rejection of theatre performances, where reality and illusion become almost inseparable. Lives of disguised saints not only warn the public about these risks, they also offer a training in acquiring the mental disposition necessary to deal with the ambiguities of everyday reality, where, like in the theatre, nothing is what it may seem, and truth is often not immediately perceptible. In other words, they train the public not to be taken in by the material phenomena surrounding us, and, just like the disguised saints, who manage to remain themselves underneath their disguises, to focus on inner, spiritual life and to look for truth within.
Keywords
hagiography, disguise, performance, narrative, illusion, truth

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Chicago
Van Pelt, Julie. 2019. “Saints in Disguise : a Literary Analysis of Performance in Byzantine Hagiography”. Gent.
APA
Van Pelt, J. (2019). Saints in disguise : a literary analysis of performance in Byzantine hagiography. Gent.
Vancouver
1.
Van Pelt J. Saints in disguise : a literary analysis of performance in Byzantine hagiography. [Gent]; 2019.
MLA
Van Pelt, Julie. “Saints in Disguise : a Literary Analysis of Performance in Byzantine Hagiography.” 2019 : n. pag. Print.
@phdthesis{8618440,
  abstract     = {Byzantine hagiography has produced a number of stories of holy men and women who pretend to be someone other than who they truly are, hiding their true identities underneath a disguise. Some saints feign insanity, acting like a mad person. Others, female saints, pretend to be men in order to enter a male monastery. Finally, there are those who hide their true identities from their most beloved family members. It is somewhat surprising that such characters, who engage in dissimulation and mislead those in their environment, are the protagonists of stories belonging to the genre of hagiography, which was oriented towards edification. Within late antique Christian narrative, disguise and dissimulation of identity were often portrayed as characteristics of the Devil. Moreover, Church authorities strongly condemned any form of pretence, even with regard to roleplaying in the context of the theatre, which was rejected as the province of the Devil and associated with, precisely, illusion and deception.
This study examines sixteen Lives of disguised saints (4th-10th cent.). These narratives are for the first time studied together from a literary perspective and with a focus on roleplaying. On the one hand, this study aims to show which narrative devices are used in Lives of disguised saints in order to still portray their holy protagonists in a favourable light. On the other hand, its goal is to elucidate why hagiographers may have chosen to write stories about disguised saints in the first place. The analyses demonstrate that these Lives reflect early Christian ideas regarding theatre and performance, exploring the relation between illusion, reality, and truth. Stories about disguised saints have the potential to show concretely that the reality surrounding us does not always mirror truth in a transparent way, and that illusions, being part of reality, tend to acquire truth-status, with dangerous consequences. It is this danger which lies at the basis of the Christian rejection of theatre performances, where reality and illusion become almost inseparable. Lives of disguised saints not only warn the public about these risks, they also offer a training in acquiring the mental disposition necessary to deal with the ambiguities of everyday reality, where, like in the theatre, nothing is what it may seem, and truth is often not immediately perceptible. In other words, they train the public not to be taken in by the material phenomena surrounding us, and, just like the disguised saints, who manage to remain themselves underneath their disguises, to focus on inner, spiritual life and to look for truth within.},
  author       = {Van Pelt, Julie},
  keywords     = {hagiography,disguise,performance,narrative,illusion,truth},
  language     = {eng},
  school       = {Ghent University},
  title        = {Saints in disguise : a literary analysis of performance in Byzantine hagiography},
  year         = {2019},
}