Though St Eupraxia does not count among the most popular and widely known women saints within the Byzantine world, as a regular ‘model nun’ she could not fail to attract the attention of nuns – and probably also monks – beyond the ritual celebration mandated by the church calendar on 25 July (alternatively also 24 July). Accordingly, we find her 5th century Vita in both the Greek and the Slavic tradition not only in hagiographical collections, but also in a number of mixed-content miscellanies of a monastic-ascetic character. Eupraxia was obviously a saint to be read about and imitated, but not someone to be venerated in a liturgical cult. The wider resonance of her Life can also be gleaned from its being quoted by John the Damascene in his Third Homily against the Iconoclasts and a another time in the Life of the 10th century Saint Athanasius the Athonite.
St Eupraxia’s Life is the story of a daughter of high birth who resigns from her prospective life of wealth and imperial fame to become a nun and subject herself to the strictest possible regime of ascetic life, excelling in her ascetic feats even the abbess of her convent, who is widely known for her ascetic prowess. The storyline of the Vita can be summed up in a couple of sentences, though the vita itself counts among the more extensive specimens of its genre (37 chapters according to the structure applied in the Acta Sanctorum). The story is set going by the death of Eupraxia’s father, Antigonos, a senator (synkletikos) of imperial descent. After Antigonos’ sudden death right at the outset of the Vita (ch. 3), Eupraxia and her mother, – who is also called Eupraxia –, remain for a while with their relatives, the Emperor Theodosios and his wife, at the imperial court. Eupraxia, the daughter, rejects marriage plans made for her by the emperor and his wife, and both mother and daughter then travel to Egypt, to inspect the Theban estates of Eupraxia’s mother, a wealthy and pious woman, who devotes her riches and possessions to the foundation and maintenance of monasteries at Thebes. Spending a short time together at one of the nuns’ convents on the family’s enormous estates, Eupraxia, the daughter, confesses her desire to stay at the nunnery and become a nun. Her mother yields to her pleads and leaves her at the monastery. A short time later (ch. 12), her mother returns once again to the monastery, only to learn from the abbess that she will die soon and follow her husband Antigonos. After the mother’s death, the emperor makes another effort to marry Eupraxia to a rich nobleman, but Eupraxia rejects the offer and the emperor accepts her decision to remain at the monastery (ch. 13). The rest of the Vita, which is about two thirds of the total length, relates basically the ascetic and other feats which Eupraxia professes in the face of hardships inflicted upon her by her envious fellow nun, the vile and wicked Germana, and the devil. Eupraxia submits herself to physically extremely demanding and mentally humiliating tasks (like hauling stones form one place to another, only to carry them back at the behest of the abbess) and exercises, which bring her repeatedly to the brink of exhaustion and almost death. Thus, after standing for 45 days on end day and night in the cold outside of her cell, she collapses and has to gradually brought back to life by a diet of broth. Even the infliction of two seriously bleeding wounds by the devil cannot bring her to relent from the menial task of serving her sister nuns. It is probably this lengthy and at times fairly realistic exposition of life at a monastery which accounts for the popularity of this text with nuns and monks alike, who must have read it as a manual of how to survive monastic community life and still become a saint. By way of evidence of the grace she found with God, she later on acquires the capacity of working miracles and healing. Eupraxia dies at the young age of 30 and was buried in the tomb of the monastery, where also her best friend and companion Julia, who died 5 days after Eupraxia, was entombed. The abbess likewise does not tarry long to follow Eupraxia and dies after having appointed a new abbess by the name of Theognia.
To some Eupraxia seems to be too much of a model nun to be true. Doubts have been raised whether Eupraxia is in fact a historical personage or rather a literary invention to provide for a kind of ideal model of a nun’s life. Though the narrative does not comprise any fantastic or highly implausible elements (apart from three of the major protagonists dying in rapid succession at the end of the Vita), the extreme and unfailing rigour and strictness of Eupraxia herself as well as the behaviour of the minor protagonists which resembles more that of idealized role types than true historical personages are indeed suggestive of a made-up story, but then hagiographers were expected to work out the ideal type by abstracting from the individual peculiarities of any truly historical figures. But unlike most other saints’ lives, the Life of Eupraxia makes also ample use of meaningful names for their protagonists, like Eupraxia ‘Good Deed’ or the abbess Theodoula ‘Servant of God’ (though this name does not appear in all text witnesses of the Greek tradition, and it is absent from the Slavic tradition, where instead Platonida is used in the second translation; s. below). Other names point in a stereotypical way to descent and associated character. Thus Antigonos would be the prototypical name of a person of high rank and birth, the name Julia of Eupraxia’s best friend bespeaks Roman origins, whereas her adversary’s name Germana points to the barbaric descent of a liberated slave. It was therefore argued that the text may possibly have been composed to serve polemic purposes following the dispute and quarrel between St John Chrysostom and the Byzantine Empress Eudocia over the right way of life for a Christian Emperor and Empress. The text would then in its beginning not be so much about the ideal nun’s life, but the ideal Life of Christian women of high birth, who according to St John Chrysostom were supposed to live in modesty and austerity.
There are at least historical references made within one of the versions the Life itself (BHG 631b), viz. with reference to emperor Thedosius, who must be identified as Theodosius I (reigned 379–395) rather than Theodosius II (reigned 408–450). If Eupraxia was indeed a real person, her life span can be determined on the basis of chapter 14 of the Life, where it is said that Theodosius died when Eupraxia was 12 years of age, which means that she must have been born in 383. Learning also at the end of the Vita that she was only 30 years of age when she died, her year of death would be 413. But then, the reference to emperor Theodosius cannot be taken as evidence of Eupraxia being a historical personage. Quite obviously, Theodosius, who did a lot for the church, is being invoked as the ideal ruler to serve as a shaming device against any other ruler, who does not live up to his standards, especially Theodosius’ immediate successor Arcadius and especially his wife Eudocia, who caused John Chrysostom to be exiled in 403.
Apart from the Slavic translation or rather translations (see below), the Life of Eupraxia is attested in Greek, from which the Slavic text was translated, Latin, Coptic, Syriac and Christian Arabic. The earliest extant textual witness is a Greek papyrus fragment dating from the 5th–6th century (Louvre, inv. no. E 7408). There is some reason to believe that the original was Coptic. The popularity of the text as reading stuff can be gleaned from the existence of a 17th century New Greek rendering which was being circulated in a number of manuscripts on Mount Athos.
With Slavic literary culture being basically a monastic culture, Eupraxia’s vita would certainly rank among the more likely texts to have been translated into Slavic at an early stage. According to Edmond Voordeckers (1973: 35) there existed three different Slavic versions, and Helmut Keipert (1975: 282) even speaks of several versions. According to a more recent investigation into the matter by Maya Petrova (2003) the total number of versions ought to be reduced to just two, which Petrova provides with the labels “Russian” and “South Slavic”. The first version is mainly attested within the Russian manuscript tradition, with the Bdinski Sbornik, a 14th century hagiographic collection, standing out for its uniquely gendered composition, apparently being the only extant South Slavic manuscript source containing the “Russian” version. As Maya Petrova points out, the language of the Russian version exhibits some markedly archaic traits, so that it may be safe to conclude that this version may date to a very early period, indeed, and that it is not so much a Russian, but an archaic South Slavic version. The second version, on the other hand, is found exclusively in manuscripts of South Slavic origin. At first glance, the situation is reminiscent of many other texts, where an archaic South Slavic translation appears to survive mainly in Russian copies, whereas within the South Slavic area the archaic version has been replaced by a later thorough revision of the text. This characteristic Russian-South Slavic alignment pattern could be interpreted in favor of one of the markedly different versions of the Life of Eupraxia being a retranslation of a much later date (presumably 14th century), which was made to have the older translation replaced. This appears to be corroborated by the fact that the presumably more recent South Slavic version is attested in late, 15th century manuscripts, all of which can be shown to be linked to Tărnovo and its surrounding monasteries and which contain primarily 14th century translations (Petrova 2003: 151). In this case the translation prevalent in the South Slavic manuscripts would be the more recent, replacive redaction. Upon closer scrutiny, though, the kind and amount of variation to be observed between both so-called versions by far exceeds what is usually found in cases of later revisions of an older translation. On the basis of a lexical comparison between both versions of the Life of Eupraxia Maya Petrova (2003: 148–150) concludes with respect to the South Slavic version that “there is no doubt that this Life is a different translation from a Greek original that, in respect of its content, was close (but not identical) with the one used for the protograph of the Bdinski Sbornik’s vita.” A closer scrutiny of both Slavic versions of the Life of Eupraxia against the backdrop of the Greek transmission of the vita clearly shows that we might rather be dealing with two independent translations of a roughly equally early date.
- Anthuenis 1996: Anthuenis, Tom. 25. Juli. Vita en Leven van onze zeer voortreffelijke moeder Eupraxia. Licentiaat OETC, KU Leuven, 1996. [RNB Sof. 1360].
- Scharpé, Vyncke 1973: Scharpé, Jan & Frans Vyncke. Bdinski Zbornik. An Old-Slavonic Menologium of Women Saints – A. D. 1360, Bruges: De Tempel, 1973, 202–234 [Codex Gandavensis (slavicus) 408].
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- Ivanov, Pičchadze 2008: Ivanov, S. A. & A. Pičchadze. “Eupraxia of Olympus: an unknown transvestite saint.” Analecta Bollandiana 126, 2008, 31–47.
- Keipert 1975: Keipert, Helmut. “Zur Parallelüberlieferung des «Bdinskij Sbornik» (Codex Gand. 408).” Analecta Bollandiana 93(3-4), 1975, 269–286.
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- Levi della Vita 1970–1971: Levi della Vita, G. “A Christian Legend in Moslem Garb.” Byzantion 15, 1970–1971, 144–157.
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- Madigan, Osiek 2005: Madigan, Kevin & Carolyn Osiek (eds.). Ordained Women in the Early Church: A documentary history. Baltimore/Maryland: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005, 56–61.
- Noret 1982: Noret, Jacques. Vitae duae antiquae sancti Athanasii Athonitae. [Corpus Christianorum, series graeca, 9] Turnhout: Brepols, 1982.
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- Petrova 2003: Petrova, Maja. The Bdinski Sbornik: A study of a Medieval Bulgarian Book. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Central European University, Budapest, 2003.
- Quisbel 1959: Quisbel, Gilles & Jan Zandee. “A Coptic Fragment from the Life of Eupraxia.” Vigiliae Christianae 13(4), 1959, 193–203.
- Voordeckers 1973: Voordeckers, Edmond. Introduction. In: Bdinski Zbornik. An Old-Slavonic Menologium of Women Saints – A. D. 1360, ed. by Jan Scharpé & Frans Vyncke, Bruges, 1973, 11–40.
- Vukovič 2015: Vukovič, Marijana. Martyr Memories: The Afterlife of the Martyrdom of Irenaeus of Sirmium between East and West in Medieval Hagiographical Collections (Eigth-Eleventh Centuries). Ph.D. thesis, CEU Budapest, 2015.