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Art. 1a, Thais: Introduction

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); BnF: Bibliothèque nationale de France (Paris); CUL: Cambridge University Library; MED: Middle English Dictionary; NLW: National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth); PL: Patrologiae cursus completus . . . series latina (Migne).

The legend of a famed courtesan turned saint, Vita sanctae Thaisis meretricis, appears in Book 1d of the Latin prose Vitae patrum. In the same sequence of saints’ lives there also appears the Latin legend of Saint Marina, which eventually entered Harley 2253 as a hybrid comic/holy tale in Middle English (see art. 32). The Anglo-Norman tale of Thais printed here is positioned after The Lives of the Fathers (art. 1) in both its manuscripts. Beyond their common general source, these two works are intimately related. Both The Lives of the Fathers and The Story of Thais are the products of a single unnamed poet who worked for a patron, the twelfth-century Templar Henri d’Arci. The same poet also created the Anglo-Norman Antichrist and Vision de saint Paul. All four works are preserved in the Paris manuscript.

The story of Thais first surfaces in a Greek text dated fourth or fifth century, which depicts the protagonist as a well-known prostitute of fourth-century Egypt (Cazelles, p. 289). Thais was probably not an historically real woman, but instead a fictive construct meant to exemplify to its extreme a theology of salvation for the earnestly penitent. Moving from Greek to Latin, it entered the vast assemblage of texts relating the lives of the early Church Fathers, the Vitae patrum. In this context, it becomes a story of the holiness of Abbot Paphnutius (formerly called Serapion), a disciple of Saint Anthony the Great, who promoted an inclusive doctrine of salvation for the errant.

In medieval Europe the Thais legend achieved autonomous status by means of many hagiographical retellings. It was dramatized by Hrothvitha of Gandershiem in the tenth century, used for a Latin poem by Marbod, Bishop of Rennes, in the eleventh century, and included by Jacobus de Voragine in his thirteenth-century compendium of saints. For fine overviews of the tradition, see Kuehne; Cazelles, pp. 289–302; and Whatley, pp. 155–63. A memorable allusion to Thais by Dante, who condemns her for flattery, derives from a separate tradition (Inferno 18.133–35). Except for a passage not appearing in the Paris manuscript, the Harley text has not been previously printed. Cazelles identifies the Harley/Paris version as Thais A, and provides useful translations of the medieval French Thais B and Thais C.

[Fols. 21vb–22ra. ANL 584. Scribe: A. Quire: 2. Initials: Scribe A left a space for a large initial V at line 1. Meter: Couplets in alexandrine lines. Layout: Two columns. Editions: Meyer 1895, pp. 167–68 (lines 132–73 only); Perman, p. 285 (lines 142–70 only). Other MS: Paris, BnF MS français 24862, fols. 97va–98vb (ed. Meyer 1895, pp. 147–51; Perman, pp. 280–86; O’Connor, pp. 223–24 [final 22 lines, which name Henri d’Arci as patron]). Latin Source: Vitae patrum, Book 1d.20 (PL 73.661–62; trans. Baker); Perman, pp. 286–88. Middle English Analogues: Northern Homily Cycle (ed. Whatley, pp. 155–68); Rosenthal, p. 143. French Analogues: Cazelles, pp. 289–309 (Thais B, Thais C). Latin Analogues: Hrothsvitha, Paphnutius, pp. 12–27; Marbod (see Kuehne, pp. 79–80); Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. Ryan, 2:234–35. Translations: Cazelles, pp. 299–301.]

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