Reading Time: 15 minutes
By Mary Clare Young, Christendom College
The following essay won Best Wildcard Essay, in the Summer 2022 Clarifying Catholicism Theology Essay contest. To view other category winners, click here.
From the dawn of the genres of acta and passiones, female virgin martyrs have occupied a prominent place in hagiography. One such martyr is St. Justina of Antioch, a fourth-century virgin martyr. Several accounts of her life and martyrdom are found in hagiographic texts ranging from the tenth-century Byzantine Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes to the thirteenth-century British South English Legendary. Despite the differences between these works and the elements that color how they tell her tale, some commonality in portrayal remains. St. Justina’s portrayal in these two accounts provides an example of how hagiography of virgin martyrs, even if written for a range of vastly different audiences, portrays these saints in a positive light that highlights the dignity and uniqueness of Christian womanhood.
To understand how these works portray St. Justina, one first must understand their historical and literary contexts. The Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastesis a tenth-century Byzantine collection of the lives and martyrdom narratives of the saints, written in Greek. This particular menologion is part of a Byzantine literary trend dating from the eighth century, as it is one of several surviving collections of saints’ lives (menologia). This genre presents the lives of the saints according to the Church’s calendar for oral use of liturgical. Metaphrastes’ ten-volume menologion consists of revised and rewritten versions of earlier vitae, passiones, and acta; this exemplifies the Byzantine literary genre of metaphrasis, which reworked older stories into polished, rhetorical pieces. Arising from an imperial commission to “gather, sift, and stylistically revise the saints’ Lives in circulation at that time,” as Claudia Rappsays, it developed under the oversight of its editor-in-chief, Symeon Metaphrastes, an imperial court official. His menologion is a centerpiece in Byzantine literature; it became the empire’s prevailing menologion, and the over seven hundred manuscripts containing at least excerpts of it attest to its immense popularity in medieval Byzantium. It also inspired later medieval Byzantine hagiographic works and filled the need for religious literature in the Byzantine world of Basil II.In short, the Menologion is a monolith amidst hagiography of the Christian East.
Beyond the imperial commission behind this work, the relation between historical context, style, and audience of the Menologion elucidates the specific purposes for Metaphrastes’ recording of saints’ lives in a metaphrastic menologion. The metamorphosis of the Byzantine empire into a smaller empire in the ninth and tenth centuries meant that authors needed to adapt for a different set of readers. If they wrote about saints’ lives, they had to account for a smaller and specific audience, rather than a universal one, which required a rhetorical, elaborate, style, and to address theological issues which the new empire had to handle. This specific audience was the Byzantine cosmopolitan upper class, so, according to Papaioannou, the work had to fit their “tastes and interests.” This elite, literate audience included monks and nuns, considering that many monastery libraries contained copies of these works. Rapp points out that among the nuns, for example, there would have been literate ex-aristocrats who would have been able to read and study these texts. That these two groups—cosmopolitans and religious—would have been the main audience is attested by the fact that menologia were used for liturgies in monasteries and churches in the cities. Therefore, while St. Justina’s storywas, as suggested by its reference to both male and female saints in Antioch, meant for an audience of both sexes, her story was intended for very specific groups. The Menologion’s stylereflects this intent to provide suitable hagiography for this audience. Metaphrastes and his assistants transformed older textsinto works that would appeal to this literate, learned audience. As Efthymiadissays, “The efforts of Symeon and his team were concentrated on prefixing new prefaces to each text, purging linguistic features which appeared ‘demotic,’ and, where deemed necessary, toning down the rhetorical excesses of the elaborately written models.” An earlier acta and passio about her underwent metamorphosis into the Menologion version.The style is rhetorically elegant, and suitable for being read aloud. The introduction, using metaphors of flowers, seeds, and fruitfulness to introduce St. Justina as an example of sanctity from a significant Byzantine city, exemplifies this. All of these elements at work in this elite-intended collection will help to account for way that it talks about St. Justina.
The story of St. Justina in the South English Legendary takes a very different form due to differences in audience and style. This collection, written in Middle English, was composed in the last half of the thirteenth century to tell people about the stories and battles of the soldiers of Christ. Judging from didactic asides on sexual sins and lust, the authors of St. Justina’s story may have wanted to emphasize this moral especially. Minnie Wells proposes that Franciscans possibly wrote it. However, authorship is still a matter for scholarly debate, and the collection’s exact use remains unclear. Written for a lay audience, The South English Legendary often adopts a violent tone. Karen Winstead argues that virgin martyr accounts at this time in England use such graphic violence to depict the “unruliness” of these women and discourage this behavior. The “Life of St. Justine” contains earthy vocabulary, such as repeated uses of “wench,” indicative of its appeal to a common-man audience. Nevertheless, this collection, like the Menologion, was vastly popular; in fact, it is the fourth-most common text in surviving Middle English manuscripts. St. Justina’s story, both here and in the Menologion, would have become familiar to a broad audience.
Overall, the differences in audience mean that each version of St. Justina’s story will be colored by different styles and emphases. Her story in the Menologion will be written to suit a learned audience, while the South English Legendary will tell her story for the far less literate lower classes. Still, beneath these differences, there remain key similarities in narrated themes that point to a common message underlying both works, though they may be portrayed with some differences to accommodate their audience.
Most obviously, both collections use the same basic narrative of St. Justina’s life. The Menologion and South English Legendary present the same general sequence of events, which may signify that, even though no firm evidence shows that the earlier Menologion influenced the South English Legendary’s version, both works at least may draw from the same source material. Furthermore, neither collection tells only St. Justina’s story in her vita. In the earliest hagiographic works about St. Justina, her story was narrated alongside that of St. Cyprian, a pagan magician converted by her influence. The inclusion of St. Cyprian’s story persists into the Menologion and South English Legendary. Although the Menologion begins by saying that Justina will be the “subject” of this tale, it nevertheless is called “The Life, Conduct, and Passion of Saints Kyprianos and Ioustina.” The South English Legendary names its version for only St. Justina, calling her “Justine;” however, despite the condensed nature of the work, he still remains an important character. In fact, his point of view occupies the narration of many events in both texts. The South English Legendary describes her temptations from his point of view at times, and the Menologion includes his baptism, public confession, and lengthy testimony during his trial. His inclusion with St. Justina is a fascinating and crucial point of similarity.
Furthermore, both accounts focus on the devil as the Christian’s primary spiritual enemy, his wiles, and how to defeat him. After narrating St. Justina’s conversion and her conversion of her family, the Menologion introduces the devil as her enemy. Because of her sanctity, it “was impossible to escape the snares of the evil one,” and the author notes that she will suffer temptation. He then addresses the reader directly, exhorting, “Pay attention! The story is not without its grace, and you should learn also how the Devil led her into temptation.” This explicit address stresses that Metaphrastes wanted his audience to learn about the devil’s wiles and how one can defeat him. When she spurns the lustful advances of Aglaïdas, she uses the Sign of the Cross not against him, but “against the one who was steadily attempting to wage war against her through him”—in other words, the devil. As the text will show, the devil can be defeated through the power of the Sign of the Cross and saintly perseverance. The South English Legendary also depicts the devil as her primary spiritual antagonist. Almost immediately, the author introduces the devil when he compares how Christians “bind” themselves to Christ in Baptism to how the young Cyprian binds himself to the devil as “the devil’s man.” Because of its everyman style and apparent moralizing intent, the author bluntly stresses the devil’s attempts to tempt Justina sexually and his incompetence in seducing her, despite vaunting his power. Again, as in the Menologion, he cannot withstand the Sign of the Cross and other spiritual tools.
This focus on the Sign of the Cross as a weapon and the overall imagery of weaponry and war throughout St. Justina’s conflict with the devil is a significant similarity underlying both texts, although the Menologion employs this device more frequently for its rhetorical goals. In the Menologion story, the Sign of the Cross is described in martial language and used as a weapon. When Justina and her family become Christians, the bishop “fortified them with the sign of the cross, just as a citadel with a wall.” When Aglaïdas, a man lusting for her, attempts to rape her, she makes the Sign of the Cross before physically defending herself, “holding” it “before her like a weapon.” Her fight against the devil, working through her attacker, is thus described as war. Further language of weaponry and war appearswhen the devil, working for Cyprian, first tries to tempt her to sexual sin. She uses prayers—the Psalms—as “weapons,” and then, again, uses the Sign of the Cross, which drives him away. Again, during her martyrdom ordeal, she uses the Sign of the Cross one more time as “a weapon.”This motif of the Sign of the Cross as a weapon pervades the whole work, befitting the author’s need for a rhetoric style that would appeal to an audience in the Byzantine world of the general-emperor Basil II and the theme system pervasive in the empire. The South English Legendary, being directed at a lay rather than upper-class audience, does not explicitly use martial language to the same extent as the Menologion or compare the sign of the cross to a weapon. However, the image of the Sign of the Cross as a powerful tool for defeating the devil remains. When the devil, working for Cyprian, tries to tempt her for the first time, she makes the Sign of the Cross, and “[t]he devil lost all his power; the toad was overcome.” She gives the next devil “the same treatment.” However, when another devil, disguised as a holy virgin, tries a third time to lead her astray,her use of the Sign of the Cross is described as if she “raised God’s banner,” which seems to signify the beginning of battle or a charge in battle. The devil admits to Cyprian that the Sign of the Cross is so powerful that it causes “great torment” for the demons. Regardless of style, the message remains in both works: the sign of the cross is a foolproof means for defeating the devil.
By depicting St. Justina as victorious over the devil through her prayers and use of the Sign of the Cross, ultimately, both accounts depict St. Justina as a woman made powerful through Christ. The devil admits in the story of the South English Legendary that her feminine strength is not powerful, but the strength of “her master,” Christ, enables her to defeat the devil in such a shameful manner. The Menologion uses martial imagery, as described above, which appropriately emphasizes for its audience the power of a woman in whom Christ works. The South English Legendary exaggerates her power by describing twice how merely looking at Cyprian destroys his magic. This would make the point even stronger and more memorable, which better serves a lay audience than fancy rhetoric. The texts show that, while the forces of evil expect woman to be weak, she becomes powerful through Christ and can defeat evil.
The significance of all these themes is that hagiographers of St. Justina, through the centuries, sought to portray her as a model of Christian womanhood; among the qualities of Christian womanhood exemplified by Justina is imitation of Mary. By depicting St. Justina as an imitatio Mariae, her hagiographers are signifying, in manners suitable for their audience, the importance of living this trait as a Christian woman.Just as the Blessed Virgin crushes the head of the serpent, the devil, Christian women must crush evil through virtuous living. St. Justina, by repeatedly and decisively thwarting the devils, illustrates this moral. The Menologion portrays this through both general descriptions and stylistic allusions, befitting for its elite, learned audience.It explicitly contrasts Justina with Eve; when the devil tries to tempt her to unchastity through lies,the author comments her aversion to acting like Eve, for she refuses to “submit to the fate of Eve her foremother.” This seems to portray Justina as a kind of “new Eve,” just as Mary was a new Eve because she cooperated with God in defeating the devil. The South English Legendary also links St. Justina to Mary, albeit with less stylistic panache and a simpler, general portrayal more suited for its unlearned lay audience. Initially, one demon boasts that, because he seduced Adam and Cain, he can seduce Justina, an “ordinary wench.” Introducing figures connected to the Fall reminds one of Eve, implying that the devil believes that Justina will be just like her. Therefore, whenever Justina decisively rejects temptation, the author is implying that she is not like Eve—an implicit similarity to Mary. Furthermore, Justina is “full of God’s grace,” reminding one of Mary as “full of grace” (Luke 1:28). Overall, despite different means of portrayal, both worksteach that feminine sanctity is lived in imitation of Mary.
Furthermore, by including other conversion stories, primarily that of St. Cyprian, in the account of her life and martyrdom, the authors signify that Christian womanhood, lived in imitation of Mary, involves bringing others to Christ. Earlier hagiography of female virgin martyrs show how they inspire others to admire or emulate their love for God. This trend continues into these accounts of St. Justina. Mary’s cooperation with God in defeating devil brought salvation to the whole world, and Justina’s hagiographers stress how her example brought salvation to others. The inclusion of St. Cyprian’s story in her hagiography stresses this point. As illustrated in both texts, through the holy and chaste example of St. Justina, St. Cyprian renounced his evil ways and embraced Christ. Without her witness of the power of the sign of the cross and Christ, Cyprian would not have come to see that he must worship the true God. The South English Legendary, in line with its emphasis on sexual morality, stresses his turn from lust to chastity, for now he “loved her purely” and not “foully.” In the Menologion, she sanctifies more than Cyprian; through her example and martyrdom, she “brought forth a martyr’s harvest of great beauty, brimming with fruit.” Both Cyprian and her parents embrace Christ because of her. How Justina brings others to Christ is portrayed differently in each textbecause of the variation in style required for their audiences. In the Menologion, Justina converts Cyprian through actions, but her words help to convert her parents. For a learned audience in a world of theological questions, as discussed above, this example of apologetics is fitting. However, this would not suit the unlearned audience of the South English Legendary, so omitting the rhetorical conversion of her parents and focusing on Cyprian makes the same point for a different audience.
Justina’s chastity and fortitude, highlighted by the authors, flesh her out as a model of true Christian womanhood. Christian womanhood involves chastity; as described above, St. Justina lives chastely and fights vehemently against unchaste temptations, a point especially stressed in the South English Legendary with its undertones of sexual morality.Furthermore, as described above, she is steadfast against temptation. In the South English Legendary, she and Cyprian show no fear during their martyrdom. Except for brief “cowardice” during one torment, the Menologion highlights her astonishing courage. During one torture, she, glorifying God, heroically withstands torture, defying expectations of her “female and weak gender.” Her strength to remain chaste and strong comes not from herself, but from God.
This understanding of St. Justina as meant to model Christian womanhood corrects modern interpretations of female martyr hagiography based solely on gender. Winstead supports such a view, arguing that these accounts in South English Legendary, including Justina’s, are depicted as “gender conflicts.”She believes that later medieval hagiographic works “celebrated the exploits of a charismatic heroine who defies society and humiliates her adversary,” and the South English Legendary in particular depicts virgin martyrs as “powerful, often disorderly women.” In particular, she stresses that St. Justina’s life illustrates the “mishaps” of men—Cyprian and the demons—in the face of Justina. Relatedly, Papaioannou describes St. Justina’s account and other female martyr accounts in the Menologion as about “women who test social expectations.” St. Justina’s story, among others, contains elements such as “the accentuated agency of women” and “the presence of antiheroes, especially sexually aggressive men and women, who challenge the virtue of the main characters.” However, viewing hagiography of St. Justina—and female martyrs—through this gender lens results in a narrow interpretation that misses deeper meanings at play. On a basic level, it fails to account for the spiritual elements of her contrast with Eve and comparison with Mary. This view misunderstands that Justina is triumphant not through her strength, but from God’s, as the demons themselves acknowledge. The world expects her, as woman, to falter, but she, through Christ, vanquishes their assaults. Interpreting these accounts with a Marianunderstanding provides a much richer view of St. Justina and the ideal Christian woman. Justina is a strong woman, but she defeats the devil instead of merely dominating men, not with her mere human feminine genius, but with the strength of Christ in the example of Mary.
These portrayals of St. Justina in accounts as varied as the Menologion and South English Legendary exemplify the positive depiction of female martyrs as Marian models of Christian womanhood through whatever style is needed to reach a work’s audience. They teach similar themes in different styles for their audiences. Despite the different historical and literal contexts of both accounts, each work conveys a beautiful and rich understanding of the Christian woman as powerful through Christ. Though St. Justina is just one female martyr, she is a counterexample to gender-obsessed views of female martyr hagiography. She shows the beauty of feminine sanctity that anyone, from Byzantine elite to British commoner, can imitate.
Carnadent, John, and John Stiltingo, Constantinus Suyskeno, John Periero, John Cleo, eds. Acta
Sanctorum Septembris ex Latinis & Graecis aliarumque gentium antiquis monumentis
Servata primigenial Scriptorum phrasi. Volume 7. New edition. Paris: Victor Palme,
1867. Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/actasanc47unse/page/n9/mode/2up
(accessed November 12, 2021).
Papaioannou, Stratis, ed. and trans. Christian Novels from the “Menologion” of Symeon
Metaphrastes. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, edited by Jan M. Ziolkowski. Vol. 45. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.
Winstead, Karen A., ed. and trans. “Saints Agatha, Lucy, Justine, and Barbara: The South
English Legendary.” In Chaste Passions: Medieval English Virgin Martyr Legends, 27-
43. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000. JSTOR (accessed September 4, 2021).
Chew, Kathryn. “‘On Fire with Desire’ (πυρουμένη πόθῳ): Passion and Conversion in the
Ancient Greek Novels and Early Christian Female Virgin Martyr Accounts.” In Early
Christian and Jewish Narrative, edited by Ilaria Ramelli and Judith Perkins, 247-271. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2015.
Crachiolo, Beth. “Seeing the Gendering of Violence: Female and Male Martyrs in the South
English Legendary.” In ‘A Great Effusion of Blood?’: Interpreting Medieval Violence,
edited by Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery, and Oren Falk, 147-163. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. JSTOR (accessed October 9, 2021).
Crostini, Barbara. “The Emperor Basil II’s Cultural Life.” Byzantion 66, no. 1 (1996): 55-80.
JSTOR (accessed September 7, 2021).
Efthymiadis, Stephanos. “Hagiography from the ‘Dark Age’ to the Age of Symeon
Metaphrastes.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography. Vol. 1,
Periods and Places, edited by Stephanos Efthymiadis, 95-142. Farnham, England:
Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011.
Frederick, Jill. “The South English Legendary: Anglo-Saxon Saints and National Identity.” In
Literary Appropriations of the Anglo-Saxons, edited by Donald Scragg and Carole
Weinberg, 57-73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Gumbinger, Cuthbert. “The Cult of the Mother of God in the Byzantine Liturgy.” Franciscan
Studies 1, no. 3 (September 1941): 49-61. JSTOR (accessed October 9, 2021).
Hussey, J. M. The Byzantine World. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.
Rapp, Claudia. “Figures of Female Sanctity: Byzantine Edifying Manuscripts and Their
Audience.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 50 (1996): 313-333, 335-344. JSTOR (accessed
September 8, 2021).
Wells, Minnie E. “The Structural Development of the South English Legendary.” The Journal of
English and German Philology 41, no. 3 (Jul. 1942): 320-344. JSTOR (accessed October
Winstead, Karen A. Virgin Martyrs: Legends of Sainthood in Late Medieval England. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1997. JSTOR (accessed September 8, 2021).
Claudia Rapp, “Figures of Female Sanctity: Byzantine Edifying Manuscripts and Their Audience,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 50 (1996): 314. JSTOR (accessed September 8, 2021).
Stratis Papaioannou, ed. and trans., introduction to Symeon Metaphrastes, Christian Novels from the “Menologion” of Symeon Metaphrastes, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, ed. Jan M. Ziolkowski, vol. 45(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), xi.
Papaioannou, vii-viii; Stephanos Efthymiadis, “Hagiography from the ‘Dark Age’ to the Age of Symeon Metaphrastes” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography, vol. 1, Periods and Places, ed. Stephanos Efthymiadis (Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011), 130.
Rapp, 315; Efthymiadis, 129-130; Papaioannou, x. However, he can be called the “author” of this work (Papaioannou, vii).
Rapp, 315; Papaioannou, viii; Efthymiadis, 130.
Rapp, 319; Barbara Crostini, “The Emperor Basil II’s Cultural Life,” Byzantion 66, no. 1 (1996): 69. JSTOR (accessed September 7, 2021).
Rapp, 323; Symeon Metaphrates, “Life, Conduct, and Passion of Saints Kyprianos and Ioustina,” in Papaioannou, section 1. Subsequent citations of the “Life” will be from the English translation, cited by author and section number. Citations of introductory matter and commentary will be by editor and page number.
Papaioannou, “Notes to the Translation,” on the title, 283. The original acta and passio that may have been the source of this can be found in this edition of the Acta Sanctorum (John Carnadent, John Stiltingo, et al., eds. Acta Sanctorum Septembris ex Latinis & Graecis aliarumque gentium antiquis monumentis Servata primigenial Scriptorum phrasi, vol. 7, new edition (Paris: Victor Palme, 1867). Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/actasanc47unse/page/n9/mode/2up [accessed November 12, 2021].) However, it is beyond the scope of this paper’s thesis and this author’s ability to investigate closely for certain connections between the two.
Karen Winstead, ed. and trans., “Saint Justine,” in “Saints Agatha, Lucy, Justine, and Barbara: The South English Legendary,” in Chaste Passions: Medieval English Virgin Martyr Legends” (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 27. JSTOR (accessed September 4, 2021). Citations of Winstead’s commentary will be cited with author’s name, title, and page number; the primary text itself will be cited by title and page number.
Minnie E. Wells, “Structure of the South English Legendary,” The Journal of English and German Philology 41, no. 3 (Jul. 1942): 324. JSTOR (accessed October 4, 2021).
Karen A. Winstead, Virgin Martyrs: Legends of Sainthood in Late Medieval England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997),71. JSTOR (accessed September 8, 2021).
“Saint Justine,” 27-28; Winstead, Virgin Martyrs, 72-73.
Winstead, Virgin Martyrs, 73-74.
“Saint Justine,” 35, 38.
“Saint Justine,” 27.
Acta Sanctorum, 200-226.
Metaphrastes, 1. The Greek translated as “subject” is διήγημα, which is related to words meaning to describe, narrate, etc. (cf. Henry George Liddell, and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, eds. Sir Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie [Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1968], s.v. “διηγέομαι.”)
Examples from the South English Legendary: pp. 37-38, 39; Metaphrastes, 26-34, 40-46
“Saint Justine,” 35.
Metaphrastes, 8. The verb in the original Greek is περιτειχίζει, “to wall around” (LSJ, s.v. περιτειχίζω).
Ibid., 12. The Greek translated as “weapon” is ὅπλον, which can mean “arms,” etc. (LSJ, s.v. ὅπλον).
Ibid., 53. In all these cases, the author uses forms of ὅπλον.
J. M. Hussey, The Byzantine World (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 34, 97-98.
“Saint Justine,” 35.
Metaphrastes, 24; Rapp, 324, n. 66.
“Saint Justine,” 35.
Kathryn Chew, “‘On Fire with Desire’ (πυρουμένη πόθῳ): Passion and Conversion in the Ancient Greek Novels and Early Christian Female Virgin Martyr Accounts,” in Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, eds. Ilaria Ramelli and Judith Perkins (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 249.
“Saint Justine,” 39.
Metaphrastes, 1. Interestingly, what Papaioannou translates as “martyr’s” is ἀθλητικόν.
“Saint Justine,” 39.
Ibid., 47. The original Greek is τῇ θηλείᾳ φύσει καἰ ἁσθενεῖ; however, φύσει is better translated as “nature” and not “gender.”
Winstead, Virgin Martyrs, 76.
Papaioannou, xvii. Another example of gender-based interpretation is Beth Crachiolo’s thesis that female martyr stories in the South English Legendary are “narratives about women’s bodies as objects” through the “entertaining” purpose of graphic, violent descriptions of their deaths (Beth Crachiolo, “Seeing the Gendering of Violence: Female and Male Martyrs in the South English Legendary,” in ‘A Great Effusion of Blood?’: Interpreting Medieval Violence, eds. Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery, and Oren Falk [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004], 162. JSTOR [accessed October 9, 2021]).However, because so little of St. Justina’s account here is about her martyrdom, this point does not apply specifically to the interpretation of her life here.
“Saint Justine,” 38; Metaphrastes, 24-25.