Characterisation, cross-dressers, and castrated men in late antique hagiography
In the late antique Christian milieu, in which holiness and masculinity were virtually synonymous, the notion of the holy woman presented a paradox. Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in the vitae of the cross-dressing saints, which detail the stories of women who live their lives disguised as eunuchs in their pursuit of chastity and holiness.
This study draws on recent work in literary criticism and narratology to analyse the techniques used to develop the characterisation of the cross-dressing saints commemorated in the Coptic Synaxarion and to assess the impact of focalisation in this process. Particular attention is afforded to the heroines’ gendered characterisation and the use of the eunuch in this characterisation.
This study calls into question the claims of previous scholars, who argue that the eunuch identification has the same function in every vita. Significantly, it reveals that the figure of the eunuch does not have equal prominence in every vita, nor can it be claimed that it functions to inform each heroine in the same way. Rather, the eunuch assumes a unique significance with regards to each heroine.