|An illustration from Anatole France's novelisation of the Thaïs story.|
Because what follows is so awful, this is the part where I say that if discussion of the physical and emotional abuse of women and of gendered insults distresses you or brings back feelings and experiences you'd rather it didn't, you should probably not read this.
I don't want to hurt anyone.
I was never cut out for a PhD. My research methodology was always sort of half-arsed, and I'd go off down side roads that weren't relevant, and meant nothing. And then my dad died, and I struggled to finish my work at all. So in the end, my thesis on the narrative of religious conversion in Late Latin ended up getting bumped down to an MPhil, and an MPhil is what I have.
During my weird cul-de-sacs of research, my academic supervisor, John Morgan, suggested that I start looking beyond the two books I'd settled on as my points of reference and look for some more conversion narratives. He sent me to go read the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (which isn't very good) and, after that, said, "Why not go and look at the Lives of the Fathers?" So I dutifully went to Swansea University's library – and bear in mind this was in about 1998 or 1999 and these things weren't immediately available on the internet yet – and found their own copy of Patrologia Latina volume 73, only to find that the stories in the Vitae Patrum were only in Latin, and if I wanted to know what it was. I had to translate it all myself.
Too much like work, that. I was too lazy to translate the whole blessed thing, and I wanted religious conversion narratives. Few of the hagiographies in the Lives of the Fathers were about miraculous conversions, really, or at least weren't about the conversion. But as I was paging through the vast, dusty tome, wondering what to do, I found four, all together in the back of the book, with an interesting quirk of the title. And I translated them all from the beginning.
Vita Sanctae Thaïsis Meretricis; Vita Sanctae Pelagiae Meretricis; Vita Sanctae Mariae Meretricis; Vita Sanctae Mariae Aegyptiacae. Thaïs, Pelagia, Mary, Mary the Egyptian. All given the title Sancta, Sainted. All given the suffix Meretrix.
Yeah. I said "whore" there. The word gets translated in Latin dictionaries as "prostitute" or "harlot" or "courtesan" even, but you need to know that in Latin it is a swear word. It's a slur. Men throw it at women from the classical period on (for example, it's one of the slurs thrown at Clodia in Cicero's Pro Caelio) and it has that exact force that the more polite translations of words like that just don't. It is an insult. It is a blot on the language.
And there are four narratives in the Latin catalogue of saints that are given that title. And I thought, I know, I'll go straight to these, because they're going to be about the conversions. And I was right, largely, for three of them (Mary is the ward of a kindly old divine who leaves the reservation for a bit and turns tricks before the sweet old hermit who cares for her comes and leads her back into the fold, and of all these stories, hers is probably the least awful by quite some distance, which isn't saying much). I'm probably going to look at Pelagia and Mary the Egyptian too, later on, but today, let's just look at Thaïs.
Thaïs's story is the shortest in the Lives of the Fathers, a single page, so short in fact I translated it afresh last night. You should probably go read it. Go on, I'll wait. It's here:
The Life of Saint Thaïs, the Whore, by an Unknown Hand.
To summarise, Thaïs is the most beautiful sex worker in her region; Paphnutius (himself the protagonist of a series of stories of his own) visits her and pretends to buy her for sex; he browbeats her into repenting and publicly humiliating herself; he takes her to a convent where he seals her in a cell with her own effluent and orders her to pray a simple mantra of repentance; three years later he comes back and lets her out; she refuses, until he tells her she has been saved by her own self-loathing, and then she comes out, and, broken, she dies shortly afterwards.
As I translated it that first time, entirely ignorant of the story, I remember going cold. Each successive scene made me recoil in horror; open-mouthed, I remember sitting, shaking, at the end of the text I had just written. Because I was translating it word by word I had to read it with a closeness, an intimacy. It was like something blurry coalescing in front of me.
Even now, the blank, direct awfulness of it is hard for me to read. I have returned to it in my writing again and again. I wrote a futuristic capitalist Thaïs; I wrote her twice into White Wolf books. I made her a heroine in my own fiction. I wanted to redeem her. I wanted to give her the agency and freedom that had been stolen from her.
I am not sure the story of Thaïs can be redeemed.
I close my eyes and I see her kneeling in her own piss and shit, blank-eyed, head-lolling, starved, only kept alive by the mantra she is forced to repeat to such an extent that when the ritual is broken, she dies in two weeks. I see abuse of the worst kind.
I gave a talk about the Desert Fathers for my friends at the Swansea Egypt Centre many years ago, and I remember a group came from the local Orthodox congregation, and I talked about Macarius and Antony and Paul and Paphnutius and Zosimas, and of course I spoke of Thaïs, and an elderly man, angered by what I had said, came to me at the end and gently challenged me, and said, wasn't Paphnutius being kind to her? Couldn't he have simply known what it was she needed to be saved? He reiterated the opinion in a letter sent to me via the Egypt Centre, and I must admit, even though that in my 20s I wasn't as strident in my opinions as I am now, I did not budge, and I have not budged as I have gotten older.
I don't think what is done in the story is worth it. It can't be. I can't respect a faith that would see a broken skull-faced shell as a better thing than a human woman with thoughts and loves. I can't see it.
But this sort of thing, what is also scary about it is how normal it is. The story of Pelagia has magical healings and a visitation from Satan; Mary the Egyptian levitates, knows things she cannot and is buried by an angel disguised as a lion. Both stories have framing sequences, surprises, rhetorical flourishes. But in the story of Thaïs, so plainly, brutally told, nothing happens that isn't explicable. No one really knows anything that isn't available through non-supernatural means. There is a vision granted to a starving monk, that is all. She's not allowed agency. She's brow-beaten, tamed like you'd break in a horse, and then, shamed into obedience, destroyed utterly.
And the ending: it isn't even three years knee deep in piss and shit with nothing to do but break your spirit forever that made her a saint – it was that she had been shamed enough to agree to it. It repels me.
I think that's what upsets me so much. While (although she's still on the calendar, 8th October) authorities think she's fictional, of all the stories in the Lives of the Fathers this is the one that could happen. Abuse of women on this scale happens even now. It has a truth to it that chills, that reveals the lolling, blank-eyed death's head of fundamentalism. I cannot approve of it.