A post in an online forum queried whether an English translation existed of the “Halkin Vita” of Constantine. I had never heard of this item, but a little searching revealed that it is a medieval Greek Saint’s “Life”, mostly fictitious, of the Emperor. A reference to a medieval patriarch dates it to after the iconoclast disputes, and it is apparently extant in a single 13th century manuscript from Patmos, and was published by F. Halkin in volume 77 of Analecta Bollandiana, that great repository of scholarly editions of obscure hagiographical literature.
Hagiography is a funny business. It’s not history, nor biography. It is a genre of its own, which arose in the late 4th century, and is primarily related to folk-tale. There is quite a spectrum of material. At one end, a “saint’s life” may be entirely fictitious, for instance, and told mainly because it is interesting to hear. At the other end, we find “lives” which are full of details which are plainly derived from an eye-witness. Because it is a genre, the form of the tales is quite rigid in some ways, and standard incidents — the props of the genre — can be recognised by comparing texts.
The process of recognising material of historical value has exercised scholars, and the Bollandist scholars in particular have published considerable amounts of material for some centuries, although, like most people, I have never read a word of their work. There is a perceptible tendency, unfortunately, to simply assign all supernatural material and all homiletic material to the category of “folk tale”, and then to presume that the secular remainder may have some historical value. The risks in this approach are obvious — why do we suppose that a writer cannot invent plain details as well as marvellous? But how to proceed, when we are asking a question of a text which it is not designed to answer?
Unfortunately I could not access Halkin’s publication, which I suspect was accompanied by a French translation. A number of older volumes are on Google books. Volume 16 (1897), for instance, is here (US readers only, thanks to the usual greed of European publishers).
This volume opens with a martyrdom (“Acts”) of a certain Saint Dasius, preserved in ms. Paris graecus 1539 of the 11th century. The article is by Franz Cumont, the founder of Mithras studies, and opens with interesting remarks about how the Saturnalia was celebrated.
From the first words, we find some very curious notes on the Saturnalia which are certainly authentic. The soldiers in the garrison at Durostorum, the anonymous author says, had the custom, during the festival of Cronos, which they celebrated each year, to set up a mock-king. Wearing insignia denoting his rank, this person went out at the head of a numerous procession, and in the town gave himself up to every species of excess and debauchery . The license permitted on this occasion was treated as a special “gift” of Saturn, of whom the ephemeral king was treated as an terrestrial image.
These details agree with what profane authors tell us about the Roman Saturnalia. In each society a “king”, under some such name, presided at the festival, and helped things along by giving as ridiculous as possible orders to his “subjects”, and, just like the editor of our “Acts”, Lucian speaks of behaviour, for which Saturnalia was the pretext, as a “gift” of the relaxed sovereign of the Age of Gold, who every year regained his power for seven days. All these details from our text are therefore of an indisputable authenticity.
After which, I admit that I was rather curious to read the text itself. Sadly, in compliance with a vile custom not yet quite extinct, the editor provided no translation. Oh well.
But returning to the Analecta Bollandiana, isn’t it a shame that the scholarly publications of this recondite branch of knowledge remain offline? For only a few libraries can possibly hold that journal, and those libraries are open only to academics. Few of the latter will be avid readers of the AB, I suspect. Of course the publication makes money for the press, and, I would hope, at least something for the Bollandists themselves.
But wouldn’t it be a much better idea to go electronic, and make the material available online to us all? Would the Bollandists be a penny worse off? Somehow I doubt it.