Women's bodies, men's souls: Sanctity and gender in Byzantium

Paul Halsall, Fordham University


This study applies quantitative and prosopographical techniques to sainthood as an aspect of Byzantine cultural and religious history in an effort to rethink the shape of sanctity. It focuses on why so few women became saints in Byzantium in comparison to their numbers in Western Europe and in the early Christian period, and why, in later centuries, Byzantium produced virtually no new female saints. In early chapters, a statistical analysis of previously collected but under-analyzed data on Byzantine saints leads to a new typology of the cult of saints. Rather than laying stress on the type of new saint in each century, as earlier scholarship had done, data about the ongoing public cult of saints (surviving documents, church dedications, seals, relic lists, iconography) are quantified and measured. The conclusion is that the world of Byzantine saints was dominated throughout by a small group of male leading figures and that these figures—all very early or legendary saints—established the parameters of sanctity. Later chapters rely on a study of the Lives of saints of the ninth to eleventh centuries—the last period in which significant numbers of women achieved sainthood in Byzantium—in order to probe the writers' conceptions of gender and sanctity for both male and female saints. Even in the Lives of earlier female saints, there was a tendency to remove any sexual attributes and to assimilate holy women to the model of holy men. By the eleventh century, the criteria for female sanctity embodied contradictions which were ultimately irreconcilable: an impasse was reached between the hagiographers' explicit defense of women's holiness and the implicit preconceptions of women's roles that the Lives reveal. Special attention is paid to hagiographical discourse about the small group of married women saints. Purposeful arguments that women could manifest holiness in marriage, an institution of growing religious significance after the ninth century, were undermined by writers who were unable to escape the androgynous model of female sanctity. When the saints' proponents laud even married women with accolades such as “a man's soul in a woman's body,” an acute level of cultural contradiction is apparent.

Subject Area

Middle Ages|Religious history|European history|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Halsall, Paul, "Women's bodies, men's souls: Sanctity and gender in Byzantium" (1999). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9926896.