Roughly one fourth of the Bdinski sbornik, well-known among palaeoslavists as the finest exponent of the Orthodox Slavic women’s miscellanies, consists of vitae of holy harlots: the opening vita about Mary, the niece of Abraham, the concluding vita about Mary of Egypt, and in the middle of the Ghent-based manuscript the shortest one, devoted to Thaïs (folios 106v-111r). As can be read in the translation, the plot of Thaïs’s story – playing in Egypt and featuring Anthony the Great († 356) – is a typical example of a vita in two contrasting stages: a very sinful and a very pious one. In the first stage Thaïs, a ravishing beauty, is selling her body, albeit under compulsion. The second stage is full of repentance, which will ultimately lead to her state of holiness. A plot element shared with the Life of Mary, Abraham’s Niece is the role of a male intercessor and rescuer coming to the brothel, here father Paphnutius (“Pafnot” in the Bulgarian text).
This ‘helper’ (in terms of Greimas’s actantial model) is a character who in the original, fifth- or sixth-century Greek vita was called ‘Serapion’. Although the name Paphnutius seems to have entered the Life of Saint Thaïs since the translation into Latin, probably still in the sixth-century, this does not imply that this Bulgarian text has been translated from the Latin. More likely, it has been argued, the Slavic and the Latin texts go back to the same lost Greek version. Maya Petrova-Taneva’s in-depth examinations of the few (five) preserved medieval Slavic descriptions of Thaïs’s life have taught us that they all represent one single translation, that this narrative circulated among South Slavs and East Slavs, and that it should be interpreted, in terms of genre, as standing midway between a vita and a sermon. The lack of a fixed feast date for Thaïs in the Slavic tradition indicates that her instructive story, as well as those of other holy harlots, may have functioned first in sermons, before being explicitly connected to a saintly cult.
Whereas it is far from certain whether Thaïs was a historical person, it is clear that her vita and all other medieval Christian stories about holy harlots refer to the passage in the Gospel of Luke (7:36-50) where Jesus meets and forgives the anonymous sinful woman who wets his feet with her tears. Like the Gospel passage, The Life of Thaïs teaches the reader that no sin is so grave that it cannot be forgiven. At the same time, and more in line with the less extraordinary lives of the average medieval recipient of such texts: one does not have to be a strict ascetic to become an example of contrition. As the second sentence reads: “for those who really want to repent their sinful deeds, this story is both useful and humbling”. This obviously will have applied for the audiences of the sermons containing Thaïs’s wonderful example. And surely the entourage of the intended private reader of the Vidin Miscellany, Theodora of Wallachia (the mother of the Vidin tsar Ivan Sratsimir, whose wife Anna commissioned the miscellany), will also have wanted that this and other vitae would be instructive for her – and maybe even diverting.
As its above-mentioned Latin translation suggests, the Egyptian-based Life of Thaïs was also successful in the West. Paphnutius, one of the Latin dramas by the tenth-century German canoness Hrotsvit von Gandersheim (Hrotsvitha Gandeshemensis) – who in the meantime has received a lot of scholarly attention –, deals with the story of Thaïs. Later in the Middle Ages, we know of English, French and Spanish versions, whereas the story became widely popular with modern audiences thanks to the French novel Thaïs (1890). This fairly voluminous work, by the future (1921) Nobel laureate in Literature Anatole France, is of course an adaptation of the medieval story. Here, the rescuing hermit Paphnutius (“Paphnuce”) dramatically falls in love with the title hero. Whether instructive or not, France’s brothel-themed novel in its turn inspired several other fictional works of heterogeneous quality: from Jules Massenet’s French opera Thaïs (1894) to Ryszard Ber’s shocking late communist Polish costume film of the same name (Thais, 1984).
The following translation has been made with the help of the 1973 edition by Scharpé and Vyncke and the high-resolution scans from the Ghent-Pittsburgh Bdinski sbornik collaboration.
The Life and Deeds of Saint Thaïs
(trans. Michel De Dobbeleer & Alexandre Popowycz)
My dear brothers, I want to tell you the bright and wondrous life of the blessed Thaïs, how she started and ended it, and gained renown. Since for those who really want to repent their sinful deeds, this story is both useful and humbling.
This blessed woman had a mother who lived in the flesh. Already as a girl, Thaïs was really a beauty to the eye. From childhood on her mother took and installed her in a place of depravity. The fame of her beauty spread everywhere, and from far and wide everybody came to see her. They might stare as much as they could, they could not get enough of the beauty of her face. Many of them sold the belongings of their fathers, and brought along much gold, because they wanted to fulfil their desire with her; and others their clothes, because they wanted to do the same.
Having heard of her, that with her beauty she drew many men into depravity, father Paphnutius put on a white laymen’s shirt, took a gold coin with him and went to her. And having arrived at her place, he saw her, took the gold coin and gave it to her. She took it and spoke to him: “Enter the room.” He took her with him and went inside. After they had entered, he saw a high made-up bed. And after she had climbed into the bed, she called the old man. And he climbed in and sat next to her. He spoke to her: “Is there no other, more inner room than this one, for us to go in and lie there?” The blessed spoke to him: “Well, if it is people you are ashamed for, no one can see you in this place. Or if it is God you are afraid of: wherever we go, God will see.”
Having heard these words, the old man spoke to her: “So you know that God exists?” She spoke to him: “Yes, I know that God exists, and His reign and suffering.” The old man said to her: “So, if you know this, then why did you ruin the sons of men?” Having heard this, she threw herself at the feet of the old man and spoke: “This I know, that repentance suits those who commit sin, but wait for me just three hours, and do to me whatever you want for the bad things I have done. Having ordered her where he wanted to find her, he let her go.
Then, having taken all that she had earned by the deeds of the flesh, she burned it in the middle of the city and said: “Come and see, all you who have made love to me; see the things I gained burning right now. The value of what she burned equalled four hundred pounds of gold.
And she went to the old man. And he took her by the hand and led her into the monastery of the Virgin. Having asked for a dark and small cell, he locked the blessed in it, and nailed the door and sealed it with lead. And there was a small window, through which she was to receive food. And he ordered to give her bread and water every day. The blessed spoke: “Father, where do you order me to relieve myself?” “In your cell, as befits you.” She spoke to him again: “How do you order me to pray to God, so that He would forgive me?” The old man said to her: “You are neither worthy to pray to Him, nor to pronounce His name with your mouth, nor to raise your hands to Him, because your mouth is foul and impure, and your hands have defiled themselves among the lawless. But just sit down and look eastward, do not say anything apart from these words: “You Who have created me, have mercy upon me.”
She spent three years in her little cell. The old man, though, felt pity for her and went to father Anthony to see whether God had forgiven her or not. Paphnutius arrived and told him what had happened to her. Then father Anthony spoke to his disciples: “Each of you, lock yourselves in your cells tonight, so that we might see to whom of us He reveals this news for which father Paphnutius has come here. They locked themselves in as had been ordered to them, and Paul, the youngest disciple of the old father, had a vision. And lo, open skies, a bed standing there made up, and great splendour around it, and three virgins with candles guarding the bed, and an imperishable wreath lying on top of the bed. Having seen this, he spoke: “No one is worthy of this splendour of this bed and wreath except father Moses.” And a voice came, saying: “It is not father Moses’s, but Thaïs’s, the harlot.” Morning came, and he told the vision which he had seen.
And having returned with joy, the old Paphnutius entered the monastery and unsealed the door, aiming to lead her out. Having seen him, she begged with the following words: “Leave me in this cell until I die, for manifold are my sins, so that God may forgive them to me.” The old man said to her: “Look, the Lover of mankind has accepted your repentance.” And he led her out. And the blessed spoke to him: “Believe me, father, that since I entered this cell, until this hour no breath came out of my nostrils without sins coming out of me.” The old man said to her: “Not because of your repentance has God forgiven you your sins, but because of the thought you have had.”
Having thus repented during fifteen days, she fell ill, and after living three more days, she found rest in the glory and grace of God, having accepted the reign of heaven with all those who have pleased Him forever. O great praise to the repentance of Thaïs: how she died and found herself dead and revived, through our Saviour Jesus Christ, glory and honour to Him forever. Amen.
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