The Life of St Antony between Biography and Hagiography

Authored by: Hägg Tomas

The Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography

Print publication date:  December  2011
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754650331
eBook ISBN: 9781315612799
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043966


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In the history of biography as a major literary form, the Life of St Antony, the great Desert Father (d. 356), is a key text, though this is not always realised. In histories of ancient Greek biography, it mostly goes unmentioned simply because it is a Christian text. In general surveys of the biographical genre, it suffers the common fate of all hagiography: definitions of biography are apt to exclude everything that does not answer to modern demands for historical accuracy and verification. 1 1

Cf. e.g. the entry ‘Biographical Literature’ (by P.M. Kendall) in The New Encyclopædia Britannica which excludes hagiography from ‘genuine’ biography and places it in the category ‘special-purpose biography’, Lives written for propaganda, celebration, commemoration or edification. Only recently has a more open attitude gained ground, as in Lee, Biography.

The true aim of biography, we are told, is to be the servant of history and strive for objectivity. So defined, the genre locks out not only medieval hagiography but also many of the biographical texts of classical antiquity. Biography as a form of literary art in its own right, with a variety of purposes and special rhetorical means of achieving them, is anachronistically reduced to a sub-category of historiography.

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