Has a repressive morality been the primary contribution of Christianity to the history of sexuality? The ascetic concerns that pervade ancient Christian texts would seem to support such a common assumption. Focusing on hagiographical literature, Virginia Burrus pursues a fresh path of interpretation, arguing that the early accounts of the lives of saints are not antierotic but rather convey a sublimely transgressive "countereroticism" that resists the marital, procreative ethic of sexuality found in other strands of Christian tradition.
Without reducing the erotics of ancient hagiography to a single formula, The Sex Lives of Saints frames the broad historical, theological, and theoretical issues at stake in such a revisionist interpretation of ascetic eroticism, with particular reference to the work of Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille, David Halperin and Geoffrey Harpham, Leo Bersani and Jean Baudrillard. Burrus subsequently proceeds through close, performative readings of the earliest Lives of Saints, mostly dating to the late fourth and early fifth centuries—Jerome's Lives of Paul, Malchus, Hilarion, and Paula; Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Macrina; Augustine's portrait of Monica; Sulpicius Severus's Life of Martin; and the slightly later Lives of so-called harlot saints. Queer, s/m, and postcolonial theories are among the contemporary discourses that prove intriguingly resonant with an ancient art of "saintly" loving that remains, in Burrus's reading, promisingly mobile, diverse, and open-ended.
Introduction: Hagiography and the History of Sexuality
CH. 1. FANCYING HERMITS: SUBLIMATION AND THE ARTS OF ROMANCE
The Queer Life of Paul the Hermit
The Queer Marriage of Malchus the Monk
Hilarion's Last Laugh
Prolongations: Fantasies of a Faun
Reading (as) Another, Woman
CH. 2. DYING FOR A LIFE: MARTYRDOM, MASOCHISM, AND FEMALE (AUTO)BIOGRAPHY
Testimony to (Woman's) Survival
Fragments of an Autobiography
CH. 3. HYBRID DESIRE: EMPIRE, SADISM, AND THE SOLDIER SAINT
Domination and Submission in the Life of Martin
The Hagiographer, the Ethnographer, and the Native
CH. 4. SECRETS OF SEDUCTION: THE LIVES OF HOLY HARLOTS
The Lamb, the Wolf, and the Fool: Mary, Niece of Abraham
Seduction of the Eye: Pelagia of Antioch
Sacrifice in the Desert: Mary of Egypt
The Joy of Harlotry
Postscript (Catching My Breath)
Virginia Burrus is Associate Professor of Early Church History at Drew University. She is the author, most recently, of The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy.
"Brilliant and important. . . . From page one she challenges approaches to hagiography that dismiss ascetic desire as the sublimation of sexuality and a pathological hatred of the body."
"This fine book detects a vibrant eroticism in tales of fourth- and fifth-century saints. Rather than read ancient saints' lives as anti-erotic, or, worse, an-erotic, Burrus reveals a flourishing ars erotica."
~Journal of Religion
"Burrus's interweaving of ancient and modern voices is as meditative as it is analytical, but the overall effect is to induce the reader into an alternative view of what constitutes the allure of the saintly life. . . . After The Sex Lives of Saints hagiography will never be the same."
~Journal of Early Christian Studies
"An engrossing, thought-provoking, and thoroughly enjoyable read.""
~Journal of the History of Sexuality