Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Virginia Burrus - The Virgin, Her Mother, and the Virgin Mother: Mariology in the Life of St. Helia

This communication will explore the distinctive role of the Virgin Mary in The Life of St. Helia, a little-studied hagiographical work preserved in a ninth-century manuscript and a tenth-century copy, of possible late fourth- or early fifth-century Spanish provenance.  The text presents a debate between the virgin Helia and her mother in three parts, the first a private exchange, the second (by appeal of the daughter) taking place in the presence of a bishop, and the third (by appeal of the mother) taking place before a judge.  The topic of their debate is the relative merits of virginity and marriage; its method is predominately exegetical.  Novelistic narrative elements frame the polemical dialogues, including the mother’s torture of her daughter and Helia’s secret escape dressed as a man, further dramatizing the strife between mother and daughter. In this charged context, an oppositional Eve/ Mary typology is elaborated to justify virginity as a superior form of both marriage and maternity, with emphasis on the virgin’s painless and joyful fertility.  The promotion of Mary as an exemplar of feminine fertility resonates intriguingly with two pseudo-Hieronymian letters possibly deriving from the same Spanish context and likely authored by women—“Nisi tanti seminis” and “Quamlibet sciam sacerdotali”—both of which emphasize not literal child-bearing but the fruits of women’s teaching, writing, and spiritual labour.  

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