Historical Women: The Corpse of an Unnamed Woman and a Monk

Hello everyone and welcome back to another post about a woman who we aren’t 100% sure actually existed. Like Alexandra last week, this woman is shrouded in mystery but unlike Alexandra’s her tale is even more bizarre. In fact, this post is less about the woman herself and more about the monk’s interaction with her. Intrigued? Read below for more!

So like last week we are once again back with the Desert Fathers. Unlike the story of Alexandra however the passage we are looking at comes from the ‘Sayings of the Fathers’ or the ‘Apophthegmata Patrum‘ if you are feeling fancy, which is one of many works that recall the sayings and tales of these desert dwelling monks. We don’t really know who actually collected these tales and sayings but some scholars believe that the collectors may have been groups of monks who would record and preserve the precious wisdom of the fathers for others. Of course in works like this, accuracy is an issue and we still don’t really know whether or not these works are 100% accurate.

Coptic Icon of Anthony the Great. Image taken from Wikipedia

That being said, Owen Chadwick in his book ‘Western Asceticism‘ argues that the “Sayings of the Fathers is undoubtedly an accurate and authentic representation of Egyptian monastic spirituality.” Like everything, this is open to debate and discussion and there will always be a level of uncertainty regarding the authenticity of ancient texts. One thing about this text however is certain and that is the whacky tales that can be found within. You thought Alexandra was bad? Just you wait for this one!

So we are in Scete this week, where a monk is having some real issues. What issues I hear you ask? Well my friends he is having women troubles. That’s right, he is being tormented by the memory of a woman – not just any woman – a “fair woman.” That is all we know about the woman in question so far, that she is pretty – it really isn’t much to go on. While the monk is being tormented and tempted by the memory of this beautiful woman however, a man comes to visit him to hell him that his wife is dead. Conveniently for the monk, this wife happens to be the same woman he was fantasising about and getting all worked up over. So now we know the woman in question was beautiful… but is now dead!

So you would think that the monk, knowing that the woman is dead would cease his fantasising and would just move on. After all that would be the more normal thing to do. But nope, he has other ideas and decides to go and pay her a visit. The tale goes like this:

“When he heard the news, he put on his cloak in the night and went to the place where he had heard she was buried. And he dug the place, and wiped the blood of her corpse on his cloak, and kept it in his cell when he returned. And when it smelt too much, he put it in front of him and hurriedly said to his temptation: “Look, this is what you desire. You have it now, fill yourself.” And so he chastised himself with the smell until his passions died down.”

If you are wondering whether you read that wrong – you haven’t. The monk was so tempted and frustrated by the memory of this unnamed woman that he went to her grave, dug her up and wiped her blood on his cloak so that when he felt super frustrated, he could sniff her blood and presumably ‘get relief.’

Picture taken by me of a window in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. It has no relation to the post- I just needed to break up the text!

The first time I read this passage I genuinely snorted laughing because it was so ridiculous. However the more I thought about it, the more disturbed I became. As I said earlier in the beginning of this post, this woman is shrouded in mystery and we don’t know anything about the woman in question other than she was married, attractive and dead. There is limited evidence, if any, to go on to suggest this woman existed. So why am I writing about her? Because the undignified and disturbing way in which she was treated by this monk is indicative of early Christian attitudes towards attractive women.

Put simply; they couldn’t handle them.

Like Alexandra last week, attractive women in early Christian narrative are portrayed as the lusty sirens, luring men to the rocks of temptation with their beauty. Like last week, it is not the male’s fault for being lured – he is seemingly so morally perfect he is incapable of sexual thoughts. It is the women, their bodies and faces so beautifully, yet paradoxically grotesque to the early Christian male, that force him to contemplate sex. A flash of ankle here, a bit of hair escaping there and the woman manages to do the impossible; lead the holy man against his will into temptation. But what is different about this woman is that she is physically incapable of luring or tempting anyone because of the fundamental and highly inescapable fact that she is dead. She is a corpse by the time this monk gets his hands on her and yet, somehow, she is still to blame for being so pretty! She is so attractive that even in death she is tempting the monk to her graveside in a last-ditch attempt at seduction.

That the monk chastises and ‘punishes himself’ using her blood and states that this was his desire could indicate a covert awareness in the problematic nature of his sexuality. But for me, it serves to make the woman a more demonised figure because she has reduced this holy man to this base activity. That the monk physically digs up a grave to extract the blood of a dead woman is, I would argue, indicative of a deep-seated issue, as the men project all of their sexual desires onto women and self-combust, channelling their pent up frustration into overt ignorance of their sexual desires. To me the monk sniffing her blood and ‘filling himself’ with the smell of it is almost a vindictive way of saying ‘look what you made me do’ rather than any true recognition of his desire.

Now we as modern readers look at this passage and think, quite rightly, that the monk is a disturbed, crazed and disgusting man. But would they have thought that then? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Bibliography

Chadwick, O., Cassian, J. & Benedict, 1958. Western asceticism : selected translations, London: SCM Press.

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