Hello everyone and happy Sunday! Today’s post is something a little different, as you may be able to tell from the title. I have decided to write about a woman that may or may not have existed and a work that may or may not be completely fictional. That being said though, the tale encountered within of Alexandra and the bread crusts is simply too good not to share. Intrigued? Read below to find out what on earth I’m talking about!
The Lausiac History or Historia Lausiaca is a seminal work which documents the lives of the Desert Fathers who were early Christian monks who – shockingly- lived in the Egyptian desert. It was written in around 419-420 A.D by a man named Palladius of Galatia, a monk, who also loved writing and the work was requested by a man named Lausus who was the chamberlain at the court of the Emperor Theodosius II- so far so good.
However, the work soon became a fan favourite for monks all over the East who then all incorporated their own writings into the book when they transcribed it- which has created some issues. These additions have made it difficult for scholars to actually know which bits are written by Palladius himself and which bits are additions from random monks. It also is difficult to test the validity of the document and for a long time, the Lausiac History was believed to be a compilation of imaginary legends. To this day it is difficult to tell if the work is an accurate historical document which describes real events and people, or if it is just a work of imaginative literary fiction. Uncertainty aside however, one thing that is certain about this work is that it has some really weird stories in it. The one that immediately caught my attention was the story of Alexandra and the bread crusts.
So who is Alexandra?
Well, sadly we don’t really know! Palladius tells us that she is a maidservant and that is all we really get regarding her status and the only personal information we get is that she is called Alexandra. However one thing Palladius does tell us, is that Alexandra walls herself up in a tomb, leaving only a small space to receive bread, water and air. Alexandra doesn’t see anyone for ten years, the only interaction she has is with the woman who gives her food and drink through the tiny hole. One day – hopefully not ten years in – this woman asks Alexandra why she is in this tomb and Alexandra replies:
“A man was so distressed in mind because of me and, lest I seem to afflict or disparage him. I chose to betake myself alive into the tomb rather than cause a soul, made in the image of God, to stumble”
(Lausiac History, Palladius 5)
Yes you read that correctly. Alexandra was so pretty, a guy looked at her and became so distressed at her beauty that Alexandra felt guilty and locked herself away in a tomb. Crazy right?! How does she pass the time in her self imposed exile I hear you ask? She says this:
“From early dawn to the ninth hour I pray from hour to hour whilst spinning flax. The rest of the time I go over in my mind the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs. Then I eat my crusts and wait patiently for my hours to end in good hope.”
(Lausiac History, Palladius 5)
(She sounds like she would be a riot at parties)
So basically Alexandra sits in her tomb, eats her crusts and waits to die, all because she was so pretty she distracted a morally upstanding Christian male.
When taken at face value, this tale is quite amusing and certainly crazy, but under the surface it actually gets quite dark. When analysing the story of Alexandra and women in early Christian narrative, it becomes increasingly clear that they were subjected to what we now call ‘victim blaming.’
The men in these narratives consistently blame women for their beauty and consistently ignore their own complicity in their lustful thoughts and nature. The very fact that a man is so distracted by a woman’s beauty is somehow warped and flipped on its head so instead of questioning the male role in all of this we are left with a woman who takes the brunt of the abuse. Alexandra has to lock herself away and eat bread crusts whilst waiting to die because a man couldn’t control himself and frothed at the mouth when seeing her, yet somehow SHE is at fault. We witness the beautiful woman become impious, lustful and the embodiment of sin so that the men can remain pious and on a level of perceived moral superiority.
It’s twisted, but it happened. Whilst we don’t know for sure if this example is based on a real historical event, it is indicative of the problematic nature of female beauty for Christian writers.
I will be posting more about women in early Christianity and female martyrdom etc, so I hope you enjoy my future posts on this subject matter! In the meantime and for any women reading this- don’t lock yourself away in a tomb and eat crusts ok?
P.S Featured Image is not related to the post I used it because it’s from a church so it went with the religious theme. The photo is from St Agatha’s Church next to Easby Abbey – there is a post about the history on my Instagram if you are interested!
Palladius Lausiac History
W. K. Lowther Clarke (1918). The Lausiac History Of Palladius. The Macmillan Company.
Vorster. N. J (2002) ‘The Blood of Female Martyrs as the Sperm of the Early Church.’ Religion and Theology Vol 9 pp.8-41