Back to top

The Life of St. Thais: Introduction


1 For modern translations of the medieval lives of the prostitute saints, see Ward, Harlots of the Desert. On sinner-saints in general, see Dorn, Der Sündige Heilige. Not only are the sinner-saints few in number, they are allocated in a time and place safely distant from the later Middle Ages. See Weinstein and Bell, Saints and Society, p. 105, who see the church and hagiographers for the most part requiring life-long virtue as a necessary if not sufficient basis for sainthood.

2 An early printed edition (Cologne: Greven, 1515) of the martyrology of Usuard has the following entry for Thaïs on August 28: Taysis, quondam peccatricis, quam sanctus Pafnucius abbas convertit et in cella arcta inclusit, ubi in maxima poenitentia exactis annis tribus, postea quievit in pace ("[The feast of] Thaïs, formerly a sinful woman, whom St. Paphnutius converted and enclosed in a narrow cell, where, after spending three years in profoundest penitence, she rested in peace"); quoted in PL 123.411.

3 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 226-27. For other close analogues of the Thaïs legend, see Ward, Harlots of the Desert, pp. 77-79.

4 Heribert Rosweyde, ed., De vita et verbis seniorum libri x, historiam eremiticam complectentes (Antwerp: Plantin, 1615). The short title by which the collection was known in the Middle Ages, Vitae Patrum, was added in the second edition, 1628. The whole is reprinted in PL 73-74. For the Vita Thaisis, see note 5, below.

5 The translated excerpt here is taken from Ward, Harlots of the Desert, p. 83. For the Latin text of the Vita Thaisis (BHL 8012) in the Vitae Patrum, see PL 73.661-62 (also AS Oct. 4.225). The most significant early texts in Syriac, Greek, and Latin, have been collected and printed by Nau, "Histoire de Thais." For an alternative view of the early development of the legend, see Freire, A versão latina, 1.18-24. The iconographical tradition is described in Kirschbaum and Bandmann, eds., Ikonographie der Heiligen, p. 428, and Rochelle, Post-Biblical Saints Art Index, p. 228. The most recent and exhaustive study of all aspects of the development of the Thaïs legend is by Gloria Ann Capik, "La Vie de Thais: Prolegomena."

6 Gayet, Antinoë et les sépultures de Thaïs et Sérapion, pp. 35-36 (our trans.).

7 Ibid., p. 40.

8 Battifol, "La Légende de Sainte Thaïs," 207-17. Battifol's position is affirmed by H. LeClercq in Cabrol and LeClercq, eds., Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, 1, pt. 2.2337-40, and somewhat more hesitantly by Capik, "La Vie de Thais," p. 40.

9 Hrotsvitha, abbess of Gandersheim, Opera, ed. Homeyer, pp. 328-49. Pafnutius is available in English (Paphnutius) in The Plays of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, trans. Wilson, pp. 93-122. For other Latin versions and epitomes of the Thaïs legend, including a poem by the twelfth-century poet Marbod, see BHL 8012-19. Capik, "La Vie de Thais," pp. 13-24, has the most complete listing and discussion of Latin versions (pp. 13-24), and of translations into medieval French (pp. 46-66) and Middle English (pp. 67-87), as well as Bohemian, Dutch, German, and Italian (pp. 88-97).

10 Hrotsvitha, Plays of Hrotsvit, trans. Wilson, p. xi.

11 Hrotsvitha, Plays of Hrotsvit, trans. Wilson, p. 112. For a good discussion of Hrotsvit's use of allegory and symbolism see Charlotte Thompson, "Paphnutius and the Cultural Vision." Thompson notes (p. 115) that in the tenth century the converted harlot was gaining popularity as a figure for the Church and the sinning soul rescued by grace.

12 Capik, "La Vie de Thais," pp. 132-55.

13 Anatole France, Thaïs, trans. Douglas. For an interesting analysis of the reasons for the popularity of France's novel in its own time, as well as its subsequent decline, see Booth, "Irony and Pity Once Again."

14 NHC is known variously to scholars as the North English Homily Collection, the Northern Homily Collection, and, as here and in the standard edition (see below), the Northern Homily Cycle. There is as yet no description of the NHC that is at once comprehensive and easy to follow. Despite its outdated nature, J. E. Wells' Manual of the Writings in Middle English, which includes the NHC under the heading of "Homilies and Legends" (pp. 287-92), may be the simplest place to begin (see also Gerould, Saints Legends, pp. 164-76). The revised version of the Manual contains no parallel listing in the section on saints' legends, though individual legends of saints, including Thaïs, are included in the bibliographical section (Charlotte D'Evelyn, "Saints' Legends," in MWME 2.313-39, 556-635). A recent brief guide is Morey, Book and Verse, pp. 323-30, useful for further references and especially for its list of the gospel pericopes from Nevanlinna's edition. Still valuable, however, is Carl Horstmann's detailed discussion and description of the contents of the different NHC manuscripts, Altenglische Legenden, pp. lvii-lxxxviii. Informative though more specialized discussions can be found in the following: Heffernan, "Orthodoxies Redux," 75-87; NHC 1.1-4; Heffernan, "The Authorship of the 'Northern Homily Cycle.'"

15 San Marino, Huntington Library MS HM 129, fol. 114r; see below and note 20.

16 For the other versions see: Arnoldus of Liège, An Alphabet of Tales, ed. Banks, 1.2-4; Jacob's Well, ed. Brandeis, pp. 22-23; ScL, 2.215- 22; the 1438 Gilte Legende (not printed); William Caxton, The Golden Legend, ed. Ellis, 5.240-44.

17 Karras, Common Women. See Chapter 6, "Saints and Sinners," pp. 102-30, and especially p. 125 for a discussion of Thaïs.

18 Karras, Common Women, pp. 80, 125.

19 See Augustine's De Civitate Dei 14.18, trans. Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, pp. 579-80. See also Shakespeare's King Lear 3.iv.84.

20 For a full description of MS HM 129, see Dutschke, et al., Guide to Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Huntington Library, 1.164-73. For the most recent and accurate listing and categorization of NHC manuscripts, see NHC 1.2-4, and Heffernan, "Orthodoxies," p. 81n8. Existing printed versions of the Thaïs story in NHC are: 1) the original unexpanded version, London, BL MS Add., in Rosenthal, "Vitae Patrum," pp. 158-59; 2) the Vernon Manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Eng. poet. A.1), in Horstmann, "Die Evangelien-Geschichten," p. 279; 3) the expanded version, BL MS Harley 4196, in Rosenthal, Vitae Patrum, pp. 159-60, and Nevanlinna, Northern Homily Cycle (who also prints the biblical text and homily which preface the legend), 2.229-33. Of these the closest to HM 129 is the Vernon text.

21 Benskin and McIntosh, "A Medieval English Manuscript of Irish Provenance." See also McIntosh and Samuels, "Prolegomena to a Study of Medieval Anglo-Irish."

22 See also the same couplet in the Northern manuscript Additional 38010, printed in Rosenthal, "Vitae Patrum," p. 158.

23 Benskin and McIntosh, "A Medieval English Manuscript of Irish Provenance," p. 129.
The Whore Who Became a Saint: The Cult and Legend of St. Thaïs (feast day October 8)

Thaïs is one of a small and select company among the ranks of the saints. Along with Mary Magdalene, Mary of Egypt, and Pelagia (to name the most well known), she is distinguished not for her zealous guarding of virginity, ordinarily the most cherished attribute of the female saint, but for the repentance to which she is moved following a life of sinful sexuality.1 Her October 8 feast day, which she shares with Pelagia, is mentioned in Greek menologies but she is not named in the standard Roman martyrologies.2 Although no liturgical cult ever formed around Thaïs, her legend enjoyed widespread popularity throughout the Middle Ages. Numerous early versions of the legend of Thaïs and her converter, Paphnutius, exist in Greek, Syriac, and Latin, but the basis for all the later medieval redactions and disseminations is the Vita Thaisis, a sixth- or seventh-century Latin translation (traditionally attributed to Dionysius Exiguus or Dennis the Little) of an earlier Greek life. This in turn may have been based on an anecdote, concerning the Egyptian abbot Serapion and an unnamed courtesan, in the Sayings of the Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum).3 The Sayings circulated during the Middle Ages sometimes separately but often as part of a larger collection of fourth-sixth-century hagiographic and ascetic writings, the Lives of the Fathers (Vitae Patrum), about the desert monks and hermits of Egypt and Palestine. Various individual lives of desert saints, including Antony, Paul the Hermit, Mary of Egypt, and Thaïs, were also incorporated into Vitae Patrum manuscripts. The most comprehensive version of this collection is the first modern scholarly edition, by the humanist scholar Heribert Rosweyde.4

In her Vita, Thaïs is portrayed as an Egyptian courtesan whose beauty has reduced many young men to a state of abject poverty in attempts to buy her favors. Hearing of the bloodshed caused by quarrels among the would-be lovers of Thaïs, a monk named Paphnutius decides to visit her, with the following result:
He handed her a silver piece as the price for committing sin. She accepted the price and said, "Let us go inside." When he went in, he sat down on the bed which was draped with precious covers and he invited her, saying, "If there is a more private chamber, let us go in there." She said, "There is one, but if it is people you are afraid of, no one ever enters this room; except, of course, for God, for there is no place that is hidden from the eyes of divinity." When the old man heard this, he said to her, "So you know there is a God?"
When Thaïs answers in the affirmative, Paphnutius expresses amazement that her belief does not fill her with fear and regret with regard to the loss of her own soul, as well as those of the young men she has led to damnation. Overwhelmed by the monk's words, Thaïs bursts into tears and asks for a suitable penance which Paphnutius obligingly supplies. After publicly burning all her worldly goods, Thaïs is sealed into a monastic cell and when she asks the monk where she is to urinate he charitably responds, "In the cell, as you deserve." Thaïs accepts this, along with further humiliation, as her just deserts, but after three years Paphnutius himself becomes a little anxious and seeks advice from St. Antony. A vision soon follows indicating that Thaïs has been forgiven; she is removed from the cell and dies fifteen days later.5

What germ of historical truth, if any, lies behind this dramatic story? St. Antony, the desert father, is real enough, and a monk by the name of Paphnutius is mentioned in the life of St. Antony. The name "Thaïs" is identical to that of the famous courtesan who was associated with Alexander the Great. But nowhere do we find historical evidence for the association of these names with the narrative events just summarized or, indeed, for anything like the events themselves. At the beginning of the twentieth century a sensation was caused when the Egyptologist Albert Gayet announced that the mummified remains of Serapion and Thaïs had been discovered in Egypt. These remains were placed on display at the Musée Guimet in Paris, and in a stunning display, Gayet staged the resurrection and entombment of Thaïs before the eyes of his enchanted audience. In his published account of the results Gayet takes a more cautious attitude: responding to the criticism that he was said, on one day, to have identified the legendary Thaïs with the remains he had uncovered, only to deny this claim the next day, he writes, for the record, "I have no convincing document that would allow me to identify the bodies exhumed from the necropolis with the historical Serapion and Thaïs. Neither do I have any authorizing me to claim the opposite; under these circumstances, loyalty forbids me to pronounce."6 Nonetheless it is clear where his own heart lies and the remainder of his essay seeks to establish grounds for believing in the possibility, at least, of the identification. Towards the conclusion he takes the audience on what might today be called a "visualization," a recreation in heightened romantic prose of the site as it would have been perceived by Thaïs and Serapion in the fourth century: "Who was this Serapion?" wonders Gayet, ". . . . Without doubt, one of those unknown solitaries, withdrawn into the ideal mountain of dreams which is the mountain of Antinoë, so hollowed out with grottoes that one might call it one immense beehive."7

This is great stuff, almost as good as the story of Thaïs herself, with Gayet exerting a charismatic power to compel belief reminiscent of nineteenth-century mesmerists. History, alas, has not been kind to either, and an essay published in 1903 by Pierre Battifol convincingly reduces Gayet's work to the "art of faking mummies." Battifol not only casts doubt on Gayet's most fundamental assumption, that the name recorded on the sepulchre is actually that of Thaïs, he further builds an excellent case for the legend of Thaïs having arisen in the late fourth century as an entirely fictitious morality story. In the eyes of the most ascetical monks at this time, he explains, Christians who sinned after having received baptism could not receive remission for their sins. A memoir written by the Egyptian bishop Ammonios records a message sent by St. Antony whose purpose was to counter this extreme theological position (which had already been officially repudiated by the church): "Those who after their baptism have fallen into sin, as happens nearly everywhere, if they beg for divine mercy, if they lament their faults sincerely, they are mercifully received in grace by God, and all their sins are remitted." The city of God, in other words, was not just a city of the perfect and the pure, but a city of penitents and the creation of the legend of Thaïs became a way of confirming at the popular level the words of St. Antony.8

True or not, the legend, with its message that no sinner is beyond the reach of God's compassion, has inspired a variety of rewritings, including a Latin play, Pafnutius, by the tenth-century canoness Hrotsvit of Gandersheim.9 One of six dramas composed by Hrotsvit in rhymed rhythmic prose, Pafnutius aims, while imitating the style of the Roman comedian Terence, to offer a holy alternative to works in which "the shameless acts of lascivious women" were portrayed.10 While scholars remain undecided as to whether Hrotsvit's plays were ever actually performed, their sophistication is not in doubt. Typical of her elaboration of the allegorical potential of the figure of the harlot are the words Paphnutius uses to describe Thaïs to the abbess whose protection he solicits on her behalf:
I have brought you a half-dead little she-goat, recently snatched from the teeth of wolves. I hope that by your compassion its shelter will be insured, and that by your care, it will be cured, and that having cast aside the rough pelt of a goat, she will be clothed with the soft wool of the lamb.11
More recently, Thaïs' story has given rise to a novel by Anatole France (1891), an opera by Massenet (1894), a Broadway play (1911), and a Hollywood film (1918).12 The first of these offers an extraordinary inversion of the prostitute's salvation at the hands of the monk. For France, the prostitute is the heroine, priestess of the life-affirming religion of love, and Paphnutius is the lascivious villain whose life-denying asceticism is both wrong-headed and a sham. In refusing Thaïs' love he loses his chance at a kind of existential salvation, a choice he regrets for the rest of his life.13 If much of France's highly original interpretation seems ludicrously anachronistic, he does raise a question that may have occurred to more than one reader, medieval as well as modern: just how pure are the motives of a monk who frequents a brothel? Is it not, in fact, possible that a secret lust has been deflected by the embarrassing perceptiveness of the whore who knows that there is no place God does not see? While no medieval version shares France's underlying conviction that belief in God is merely an illusion, the complex set of responses which the legend itself enables can be seen as one of the sources of its continuing fascination.

Thaïs in the Northern Homily Cycle

Unlike many of the sources for the saints' lives gathered together in this collection, the Northern Homily Cycle (NHC) is not a legendary. Extant in twenty manuscripts and three distinct recensions, the NHC is in essence a sermon collection: the prologue announces the author's intention to provide vernacular versions of the Gospel lections for Sundays (although other days are also provided for), in order to supplement sermons for laymen who go to church regularly but do not understand Latin or French. Beginning with Advent, each item offers a paraphrase of the day's gospel, followed by an explanation in part dependent on patristic exegesis and concluding in some (but not all) cases with an illustrative tale. Along with narratives of saints and monks, the tales offer bits of folklore, risqué fables, and accounts of miraculous beasts. Originally composed in a Northern dialect at the beginning of the fourteenth century, perhaps by an Austin canon, the collection is clearly aimed at a popular audience but often reveals a greater level of sophistication and erudition than its near contemporary, the South English Legendary.14

The Gospel passage for which the NHC Life of St. Thaïs serves as illustration is John 3:16-21, a text which was assigned to the Monday following Pentecost and part of which I quote below:
Because the light is come into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest: because they are done in God.
The NHC-poet's exposition of this passage skillfully elaborates the metaphors of light ("Criste that lufly lyght") and darkness ("syne that es gastely myrkness"), concluding with a vividly concrete simile of the robber who works in the dark:
He braydyth on the thefe that hatith lyght
And doith his robry on the [n]yght;
He dredith more man is syght
Tha[n] God is that seith al his plyght.15

God's; sees; condition
These words lead directly into the tale, where the homily's thematic linkage with Paphnutius, who seeks ever a place more withdrawn from public sight, and Thaïs, who knows that God sees everywhere, soon becomes apparent.

Unlike the other five Middle English adaptations of the legend of Thaïs, the NHC-poet finds only the first part of the story relevant for the purpose of illuminating the gospel passage from John.16 The single scene elaborated by him is the initial encounter between Thaïs and Paphnutius for which he creates some lively dialogue. The second and for many redactors more significant component of the tale, which details Thaïs' imprisonment and suffering along with her final release, is reduced to a mere eight lines. Although this is not one of the NHC-poet's more original or imaginative efforts, by limiting his narrative in this way, he does achieve a stronger thematic focus: first, on the impossibility of concealing evil from God and, second, on the will to repentance as itself definitive.

According to Ruth Mazo Karras, the story of Thaïs, of all the medieval English representations of prostitute saints, places the most emphasis on money. The Church taught that women bore the major responsibility for a sexuality viewed primarily in negative terms, and it was lustfulness and sexual immorality which chiefly defined the prostitute; the connection with financial exchange, though less significant, nonetheless brought with it the further taint of venality.17 The twelve pence which Paphnutius offers Thaïs in the NHC are more than the typical price of a prostitute in the fourteenth century,18 and thus draw attention to the commercial nature of the transaction, but generally speaking it is difficult to see anything uniquely English about this version, which follows the Vita Thaisis found in the Vitae Patrum very closely. More significant, perhaps, is the author's selection of this particular legend to illustrate his gospel pericope. The words of Jesus as quoted by John are, after all, concerned with wrongdoers who hide from the light, a category which potentially includes just about any sinner one might care to name. Yet the metaphor of furtive concealment does perhaps have a specific and powerful affinity with the image of sexual sin for medieval writers and audiences, as suggested, for example, by St. Augustine's emphasis on the shameful need, in brothels and marriage-chambers alike, for secrecy and privacy in sexual intercourse, or what Shakespeare's Edgar would call "the act of darkness."19

NHC Texts of Thaïs

Sixteen of the twenty extant manuscripts of the NHC belong to the original early fourteenth-century recension whose primary home was in the North of England, perhaps in Yorkshire. The first of the two major expansions is represented by the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts, dating from the late fourteenth century, which render the collection in a Midland dialect, and add new homilies particularly for each day in the octaves of Easter and Pentecost. The second major expansion is found in two fifteenth-century manuscripts, Cotton Tiberius E. VII and Harley 4196. Like the first recension, this version is composed in a Northern dialect; distinguishing features include the introduction of fresh material from the Vulgate into the previously composed homiletic material, expansion of narrative items, though without greatly changing them, and the addition of a series of saints' legends as readings for Christmas week. Our text, taken from a manuscript copy of NHC in the Huntington Library in San Marino, MS HM 129, belongs to the original unexpanded version. The Anglo-Irish provenance of this early-fifteenth-century manuscript (see below) suggests the widespread popularity of a collection that began to be dispersed throughout England by the end of the fourteenth century.20


As one might expect of a late copy of a work that had circulated widely in different parts of the country, HM 129's text of the Life of St. Thaïs displays a variegated linguistic profile, partly preserving the original Northern dialect of NHC, but also revealing features identified by Michael Benskin and Angus McIntosh as characteristic of the English-speaking parts of southern Ireland.21 The original dialect of NHC is evident in the retention of some mainly Northern words such as till (line 12, "to"), kythe His brethe (line 30, "show His ire"), and grete (line 35, "wept"). On the other hand, graythyd (line 15, "arrayed"), although not uncommon in Northern texts, is more widespread in the South (its rhyme-word said [line 16], however, suggests that the original form here was the Northern form graid, preserved in Vernon, greide/seide, and Harley 4196, graid/said). The Northern present-indicative suffix is found in lyis, rhyming with Tayis (lines 1-2), and in dedys/ledys (lines 25-26).22 By contrast, within the line, where rhymes are not affected, the scribe uses the South English and Midland form of the third-person present singular, as is usual for Medieval Hiberno-English (MHE): -eth/-th, as in seith (line 22) and doth (line 28) (compare Add. 38010, sees and duse). The apparently Northern/Northwest form of the feminine singular pronoun, scho, might also be the choice of the Anglo-Irish scribe of HM 129 rather than deriving from a genuinely Northern exemplar. Also typical of the Anglo-Irish provenance established by Benskin and McIntosh is the combination of traits observable in the following examples: and (line 2), a back-spelling of an, resulting from the tendency of MHE to drop the -d from the consonant pairs -nd and -ld; doubling of consonants: gaff (line 7, "gave"), gyff (line 19, "if"), whare off (line 28, "where- of"), yyff (line 32, "if"), and casst (line 31, which is also characteristic of Middle Scots). The striking form whare (line 44,"were") is typical of texts from the counties immediately north and west of Dublin in the fifteenth century.23

Indexed in

IMEV 40.


Cambridge, University Library Gg.5.31, fols. 91r-91v.

London, British Library MS Add. 38010, fols. 96r-97r.

London, British Library MS Harley 4196, fols. 96v-97r.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng. poet. A.1 (SC 3938), fol. 195v. [The Vernon MS.]

San Marino, Huntington Library MS HM 129 [olim Phillipps 20420], fols. 114r-114v. [Base text.]

Previous Editions

Horstmann. "Die Evangelien-Geschichten." P. 279.

Rosenthal. "The Vitae Patrum." Pp. 158-59. [BL MS Add. 38010.]

Go To The Life of St. Thais