Women Hymnographers of Byzantium
But let us also, like the young women, sing unto the Lord - Kassia
For one thousand years many men and a few women wrote hymns in Byzantium. Their contribution to world literature and to Greek letters constitutes a vast and priceless treasure of sacred poetry. It is impossible to exaggerate the value of this hymnography, since it expresses, as nothing else can, the spiritual riches, faith and beauty of Eastern Christianity. Some of these hymns are still sung today in many languages in Orthodox churches in every part of the world. Others remain unknown. Hidden in manuscripts stored in monastic libraries, they wait to be discovered.
We have the names of hundreds of Byzantine hymnodists. They came from all parts of the oikoumene, from Greece, Italy, Palestine and Syria, as well as from the islands of Cyprus, Crete and Sicily. Likewise they represented all classes of Byzantine society, from the obscure man who signed his hymn o amartolos (the sinner) to the Emperor Justinian (527-565), who wrote in imperial red ink the troparion "0 monoyenes yios" and then ordered its insertion into the Divine Liturgy. The names of the hymnographers stretch through the alphabet, beginning with alpha (Avvas) and ending with psi (Psellos). Problems of identity rise when poets share a name. For example, at least thirty-six church poets are named Ioannis.One of them, St. John, an 11th century bishop of Euchaita, administered a diocese and wrote hundreds of hymns. These include hymns for the Feast of the Three Hierarchs (January 30), a holiday that he originated. Much less confusing are the eight hymnographers who share the name Nikolaos.
No comparable problem, however, troubles the investigator of Byzantium's women hymnographers. For the most recent and comprehensive catalogue contains only six feminine names: Grigoris, Martha, Theodosia, Thekla, Kassiane and Palaiologina. Unless you are looking for them you are likely to miss them altogether.
From this short list two names must be eliminated at once: Grigoris, the first, the product of a Greek scholar's imagination, never existed. Martha, the second, did in fact exist in the 6th century and is a saint of the church (July 4). But there is no evidence that she composed hymns. Martha is mistakenly identified as a hymnographer because of her son, St. Symeon the New Stylite (521-592), who lived on top of a column near Antioch, performed miracles and wrote hymns. Thus only four women remain to be counted among the numerous monks, abbots, bishops, patriarchs and laymen who composed hymns for the Church.
Most of the hymn writers belonged to monastic or clerical orders. Yet their life styles present interesting variations. One of the earliest Greek hymn writers, St. Auxentius, led a hermit's life in Bithynia. He composed short easy-to-learn troparia which he then taught to the pilgrims who flocked to his hermitage. In contrast to him, St. Romanos the Melodos, Christendom's greatest liturgical poet, composed magnificent cathedral hymns while serving as deacon in a Church of the Theotokos in suburban Constantinople.
Sometimes the sacred poet belonged to a group of hymnographers located in a monastery. St. John Damascene, theologian and poet, belonged to such a group that flourished during the 8th century in the Monastery of St. Savas near the Dead Sea. During the 9th and 10th centuries the Stoudios Monastery of St. John in Constantinople became the center of a hymnographical renaissance, inspired by its hymn writing abbot, St. Theodore the Studite (759-826).
Most often, however, hymnographers wrote as individuals wherever they lived, whether on column top, in a cave, palace or monastery. Monasteries, indeed, housed the majority of sacred poets, including our four women hymnographers in Byzantium. Theodosia, Thekla. Kassiane and Palaiologina each lived and wrote her hymns in a convent. It is unlikely that a school or center of hymn writing nuns ever existed since women writers were at all periods rare in Byzantium. Women were in fact discouraged from writing anything. Didymus of Alexandria actually forbade women from writing books"without restraint and on their own authority." Critics accordingly treated women writers with condescension. The Patriarch Photios judged the literary work of the Empress Eudokia to be "rather good for a woman and a pampered empress."
A single hymnographic tradition sustained all the sacred poets, the many men and the few women. Regardless of their ethnic origins, Latin, Greek, Slav or Semitic, their common language was Greek, prized as the idiom of classical antiquity and revered as the speech of the Bible. In the Bible, which they knew by heart, the hymnographers found their themes, plots, imagery and vocabulary. Therefore the hymns of the Orthodox Church are intensely scriptural. They are also rooted in the teachings and dogmas of the Church. Hymnographers were always required to sing the praises of God orthodoxos—in an Orthodox way, with correct belief.
In a variety of forms ranging from the short simple troparion of a single strophe to the long complex kontakion and kanon of multiple strophes, Byzantine hymnographers contributed to Greek letters countless thousands of new songs and hymns on Orthodox Christianity's major themes. With one voice they hymned the philanthropia of God,
manifested in the Incarnation, God become human. Kassia's famous troparion, for example, is a hymn to divine love extended to a fallen woman. Likewise, they sang with confidence of theosis, the deification of fallen humanity. One of our women hymnodists, Theodosia, proclaims that she herself is becoming like God. Furthermore, the hymnographers of Byzantium formed one harmonious choir to exalt the Theotokos, the woman from whom God took on human flesh. In that choir there exists one female voice, that of Thekla. Finally, all the liturgical poets composed hymns in honor of the saints, filling volume after volume.
Faithful servants of God, Byzantium's men and women hymnographers dedicated their souls and talents to the Church enriching with their songs the services of all its liturgical cycles. In return, the Orthodox Church honors its sacred poets, enrolling many of them among the saints. To cite only a few, Saints Andrew of Crete (July 4), John Damascene (December 4), Kosmas of Maiouma (October 14), Romanos the Melodos (October 1). In icons and frescoes the canonized poets carry scrolls inscribed with verses from their hymns. Golden halos encircle their heads.
Although the long list of poet-saints includes some minor and mediocre figures, no woman hymnographer appears in it. Even Kassiane is excluded, despite the fact that the Byzantines recognized her as a hymnographer of the first rank, and despite the fact that her hymns, along with those of her sister hymnographers, are unimpeachably Orthodox.
Both the denial of canonization to Kassia and the disproportionately small number of women can be explained by the second-class status of women in Byzantine society and culture. One of Christendom's most prestigious dogmatic theologians, St. Cyril of Alexandria, had bluntly proclaimed that "the male must always be in command, and in second class the female everywhere." Thus women in Byzantium were discriminated against legally, socially, economically and ecclesiastically as well.
Women endured segregation in church standing apart from their fathers, sons, brothers and husbands. Because the Church strictly enforced the apostolic prohibition against women's voices being heard in church, women were sentenced to eternal silence. Confirmed by the dual authority of the Scriptures and the Church Fathers. ecclesiastical teaching and practice asserted and justified woman's inferiority and her subordination to man. Denied letters, learning and voices, women were categorically confined to home and family. Illiteracy was inevitably the fate of the masses of Byzantine women.
Few women, those fortunate enough to be members of the aristocracy or imperial families, enjoyed the privilege of Greek letters and learning. Anna Comnena, the world's first woman historian, was the daughter of an emperor. The name of one of our four women hymnographers, Palaiologina, testifies to her imperial lineage. Kassia, according to the sources, belonged to an aristocratic family in Constantinople. We may assume that Theodosia and Thekla came from the same privileged social class. All four were educated privately at home by tutors.
Piety and mere literacy, however, did not suffice for the successful writing of hymns. In addition to thorough knowledge of liturgy and Scriptures, literary skills that could be attained only by careful education and practice were required. To write hymns one had to be logios or logia (educated, erudite). It is not therefore surprising that women constitute such a tiny minority among Byzantium's sacred poets.
Besides a common social and educational background, our quartet of hymn writing women shared a common vocation. They were all nuns. Being monachai, they lived in convents that sheltered them from the distractions of life in the world. In the convents, furthermore, women gained freedom from the restrictions and obligations which ancient customs and laws imposed upon them as daughters, wives and mothers. Equally important is the fact that women in the religious community were liberated from the discriminatory restraints placed upon them by canon law and practices in parish chapels and churches. In Byzantine convents women regained their voices, to teach, sing and pray aloud. Elsewhere it was "decreed that woman shall not speak in church, not even softly or an undertone, nor should they sing along or take part in the responses…" Only in nunneries could pious and talented women like our four hymnographers find opportunity and encouragement to add to the church's repertory of hymns.
Three of our women hymnographers were contemporaries living in the same city. Theodosia, Thekla and Kassia lived in convents located in Constantinople. From this "God-protected" capital with its seven hills crowded with palaces and churches, a monarch ruled the empire, while a patriarch governed the church. Thus our hymnographer-nuns dwelled close to the center of imperial and ecclesiastical power.
To some extent the lives of Theodosia, Thekla and Kassiane must have overlapped. They were equally fortunate to have been alive in the ninth century. During these critical decades Byzantine women, especially those in Constantinople, assumed exceptionally prominent and activist roles in the affairs of government and Church. When the ninth century began, a woman ruled the empire in her own right. Athenian-born Eirene signed herself "Great Basileus and Autokrator of the Romans." Except for the army no one expressed outrage. Earlier in 787 Eirene had restored Orthodoxy and the veneration of
icons. Revoking the restoration in 815, the iconoclasts ascribed her religious policies to "female simplicity." In 843 Orthodoxy was permanently restored by another woman, the Empress Theodora, who reversed the policies of her dead husband, Theophilos.
In the defense of Orthodox traditions these imperial women were not alone. Lay women and nuns alike defied emperors and patriarchs, resorting to street demonstrations and acts of resistance. Women suffered persecution, exile and martyrdom. They were among the first martyrs in the long struggle to defend icons in Orthodox worship.
The surviving hymns of Theodosia, Thekla and Kassia are precious documents from this historic period, recording the spirit of Orthodox women and their participation in stirring events. Through them the rarely heard voices of Byzantine women at least reach our ears.
THEODOSIA MELODOS: For too long Theodosia has been a shadowy figure in the history of Byzantine hymnography. Her name first appears in 1661 in a work published in Rome by Leo Allatius (1596-1669). This polymath scholar, a Chiote turned Catholic, mentions "Theodosia Melodos" and quotes three passages from her hymn to Hosios Ioannikios. From the start the name of an obscure nun is associated with the most celebrated Orthodox hermit of her day. In the Vatican where he worked for five decades, Allatius had seen a manuscript containing Theodosia's hymn. Yet he does not include her in his catalogue of 71 Greek hymnographers. Her name does not appear in such a list until 1867, two hundred years later. Another hundred years passed before her hymn was finally published in 1972. Regardless of this publication within the past few years, hymn and author as yet remain in undeserved obscurity.
An elaborate kanon of 220 verses, Theodosia's hymn is divided into 32 strophes. It was composed to be sung during the orthros of the Feast Day of Hosios Ioannikios the Great (754-846), who is commemorated on November 4. Theodosia wrote her hymn not long after the death of Ioannikios. Its preservation in four manuscripts which date from the 11th to the 17th century indicates that Theodosia's hymn enjoyed some popularity. Nevertheless, the Church preferred for the Menaion a hymn by Joseph the Hymnographer, Byzantium's most prolific hymn writer and a contemporary of Theodosia.
It was written and first chanted probably in the Mone Klouviou, a female monastery known only through references in the lives of Ioannikios. Located somewhere in the "environs of Constantinople," this convent had close contacts with the venerable holy man and ex-soldier who lived for half a century in the high mountains of Bithynia. From these facts we may conclude that Theodosia was a nun in this convent.
Of the hymn's authorship no doubt exists, although a note in the margin of the Vatican manuscript assigns it to Patriarch Ignatios, another 9th century hymnodist. The hymn contains the nun's claim to authorship, authenticated by her signature Theodosia. She bears, it is worth noting, the name of the heroic activist nun who was martyred in 729 for resisting the sacrilegious destruction of Constantinople's most holy icon of Christ. (St.Theodosia instantly became the role model for many courageous Byzantine women.)
Although we know practically nothing about the life of Theodosia Melodos, through her hymn to Ioannikios we become acquainted with her personality and with the world in which this Orthodox woman lived and wrote her hymns eleven centuries ago in Byzantium.
Theodosia begins the hymn with a personal prayer. Introducing herself as a penitent, she asks for God's pardon. After confessing that "darkness of sins" surrounds her, she prays to the Sun of Righteousness:
make to shine upon me the light of forgiveness
Awareness of her spiritual imperfections continues in a prayer to the Theotokos, whom Theodosia trusts as a "source of graces."
In a third prayer Theodosia no longer speaks as a private person, but rather in her capacity as a poet with a public and sacred mission to perform. Addressing the Savior, she petitions him for divine assistance in her liturgical tasks:
grant to me an outpouring of wisdom that I may glorify in hymns the sublime life of the saint.
Thus Theodosia believes that the private and public sides of her life are intimately related. Unless God forgives and inspires her, she cannot compose a hymn worthy of her subject. Since a holy man of God is her theme, she must strive for holiness.
Beginning with the second strophe the awesome figure of the hermit Ioannikios dominates the hymn. Theodosia addresses him with reverent admiration in 23 of the hymn's 32 strophes. She invokes him formally with such titles as theophoros (God-bearing), theopnevstos (inspired by God) and theoleptos (seized by God). More frequently she calls him "father," suggesting a personal relationship to the saint, the kind and wise teacher of all monastics.
Theodosia draws a vivid and sympathetic portrait of Ioannikios the ideal monk. To free his soul from the flesh he disciplined himself, leading an austere existence on the mountains, under the heavens. His virtues embodied the monastic ideals of engrateia (self-control) apatheia (freedom from passions) karteria (endurance) and tapeinosis (humility). In addition, Theodosia praises Ioannikios' compassion:
having showered generous mercy on the needy, O most blessed one.
Throughout Theodosia focuses on the hermit's inner world, describing the nobility of his soul, his communion with God. She does not hesitate to compare her contemporary with the spiritual giants of the past—with Abraham, the Prophet Elijah and St. John the Forerunner from the Scriptures, as well as with Saints Anthony and Euthymios from the 4th century, the golden age of the Desert Fathers.
An unsophisticated ex-soldier, knowing only thirty psalms, Ioannikios was for half a century the influential advisor of emperors and patriarchs and the fearless champion of Orthodoxy. A nun, responding appreciatively to his holiness, translated his life into poetry.
Hosios Ioannikios was fortunate in his female hymnographer. Theodosia was not only learned, imaginative and skilled in the use of language. She also shared Ioannikios' vision and faith. Theodosia too searched for God, confident that she was growing into the divine image.
A note of triumph rings throughout Theodosia's verses. She sings of victories. Ioannikios' defeat of Satan and of the iconoclast heresy. Above all, she celebrates the triumph of his spirit over matter. By writing a luminous hymn in honor of Hosios Ioannikios, Theodosia Melodos, a Byzantine nun reveals that she valued and shared those victories.
THEKLA THE NUN: Next to nothing is known about Thekla the Nun, our second hymnographer. Evidence derived from her one surviving hymn suggests that she was a nun of the ninth century. Thekla's hymn was first published in Venice in 1796 by St. Nikodemos Hagioreites (1749-1809). In the prologue Nikodemos lists and describes the 22 hymnographers who are represented in his collection of 62 kanons in honor of the Theotokos. The list ends with the name of the only woman in it: kai Thekla e glyketate Echo—and Thekla, the very sweet Echo. Her name is not cited in any other general list of Byzantine hymnodists until our century.
Thekla's hymn consists of 198 verses, divided into 33 strophes. It is preserved in at least three manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 17th century. Thekla composed this hymn for the esperinos or vesper of Tuesday. It was most likely first sung by the author's sister nuns in an unknown convent.
Written by a woman, in honor of a woman, for and about women, Thekla's hymn is unique in the corpus of Byzantine hymnography. It is the only kanon we have that was composed by a woman in honor of the Theotokos. No other hymn is so completely dominated by women. The Theotokos appears in almost every line. The single voice heard in the hymn is feminine, that of the author. Other women are mentioned: Eve, the first woman; Anna, the mother of the Theotokos; and St. Thekla, Christendom's first woman martyr. There are also references to the female sex, nuns and female martyrs.
In striking contrast to Theodosia, whose vision extended beyond the walls of her convent to the larger monastic world, Thekla concentrates her vision on woman's experience and history, on life and worship within the convent. An exclusively feminine perspective prevails throughout her hymn.
At the same time, this unprecedented voice from within the Byzantine convent projects also a portrait of the hymnographer, distinctly a more forceful personality than Nikodemos' "very sweet Echo." Thekla contributes to Greek letters not only a graceful hymn to the Mother of God but also a unique spiritual autobiography of a Byzantine nun-hymnographer.
Thekla was, first of all, a true believer, committed to her Church, its doctrines and teachings. Relying as well on her own experience, this devout and pious woman proclaimed in her hymn the reality of the Incarnation. "Thekla asserts that she herself has seen God incarnate. Like all other verses, her declaration is addressed to the woman who made the Incarnation possible:
We proclaim you, O Theotokos, the throne of God the Word, on which sat God whom I saw as a mortal being.
In a similar passage Thekla again insists on the truth and validity of her personal religious experience as an Orthodox believer.
Thekla valued equally her monastic vocation and its ideals. Source of spirituality in the convent, the Theotokos illumined Thekla's life as a woman religious. Into her hymn the nun-hymnographer weaves varied praises of Mary's "divine glory," of the mystery of her virginal maternity, along with Mary's "divine glory," along with homage to her as the
nun's inspiration and model. Near the end of the hymn Thekla expresses her fervent devotion to the Mother of God, a devotion shared with the entire community of nuns. She also expresses vividly the nuns’ dependence on the Theotokos in the pursuit of the monastic vocation:
exalting you in hymns worthy of God, O Theotokos, we beseech you with words of praise, strengthen and safeguard us in virginity and purity.
Thekla's words here reflect the Byzantine nun's dedication and piety, her adoration of the Theotokos. In Thekla's hymn we thus hear the songs and prayers of the women behind the walls of a Byzantine convent.
Secure in her faith and confident of her creative imagination, Thekla takes pride in her leitourgia as church poet. She therefore proudly offers her hymn to the Theotokos, whom, she says, she has "faithfully glorified." Comparing her gift to the two pennies of the poor widow in the Gospel story (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4), Thekla asks the Mother of God to accept:
the hymns of my lips.
Orthodox believer, nun and poet, Thekla is also the outspoken champion of her sex. In her encomium to Mary the most exalted of all Eve's daughters, Thekla also extols lesser women, the heroic female martyrs and loyal defenders of the faith:
and behold women now strive gallantly for Christ's sake and the female species rejoices, as the first martyr, the virgin Thekla, proclaims.
Herself a witness of women's sacrifices and resistance to the iconoclastic enemies of Orthodoxy, Thekla expresses her immense pride and joy in their heroism. She knew too that this heroism was not peculiar to the women of the ninth century. The martyrdoms of countless women had been recorded in the annals of Christianity from its earliest days.
To symbolize the long record of women's active witness for Christ our hymnographer chooses Saint Thekla (September 24), her namesake. Converted by St. Paul in Iconium, Thekla had followed the apostle and shared his mission of preaching the Gospel. Held in high honor as "The First Martyr among Women and Equal to the Apostles," Thekla became a legendary model for Christian women, including our hymnographer. St. Thekla and her many imitators made it easy for Thekla the Hymnographer to claim for women a glorious place in the history of the Church.
Thus in her hymn to the Theotokos, Thekla the Nun reveals herself to be a fulfilled and self-confident woman. A true daughter of the Church, called to be a nun and a sacred poet, Thekla offers to Greek letters not only a hymn to the Mother of God, but more importantly her testament to a woman's life spent in harmony with God.
KASSIA THE MELODOS: The fame of Kassia the Melodos, our third hymnographer, outshines by far all other women writers in both medieval and modern Greek letters. The romantic heroine of folklore, the inspiration of poems, novels and dramas, Kassia has been a household word among Greeks for a thousand years. Celebrated in her own time for her beauty, piety and learning, this ninth-century nun-hymnographer is the only woman whose hymns have been admitted into the liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Known formally by its first words, Kyrie, e en pollais amartiais, (Lord, she who in many sins), and familiarly as To troparion tes Kassianes, her masterpiece has appeared in numerous anthologies, been translated into many languages, rendered into demotike by Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) and set to music by Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960). Sung during the Orthros of Holy Wednesday, no Orthodox hymn is more beloved.
Its author, Kassia the nun, was a worthy daughter of Byzantium. The child of a high-ranking court official, she was born and educated in the imperial city of Constantine. While Kassia was still a girl, Theodore, the erudite, influential abbot of the Stoudios Monastery, praised her learning and literary style, which he found remarkable for the time and for one so young. Few women could write at all in the ninth century, let alone write well.
Nor did Kassia's character and piety fail to match her literary accomplishments. Early in life she proved her devotion to the then embattled Church. This well-born young lady openly defied imperial policies against the veneration of holy icons. For her defiant activism in defense of Orthodoxy Kassia suffered persecution and was once beaten with the lash. She nevertheless continued her fearless resistance, visiting imprisoned Orthodox monks and comforting exiles with letters and gifts. Later this resolute woman condemned lack of courage and commitment, "I hate silence," she wrote, "when it is time to speak."
When Kassia penned these words she was a nun who had just missed becoming Byzantium's empress. According to the chronicler's testimony, Kassia's beauty had bewitched Theophilos, the crown prince in search of a suitable wife. Beautiful Kassia, however, had broken the spell when she answered sharply the prince's sexist slur against women. Wounded to the heart by her reply, Theophilos then gave the golden apple and half his throne to the maiden who had held her tongue in silence.
Having thus lost out on becoming the empire's first lady, Kassia built a convent on Xerolophos, Constantinople's seventh hill. There she took the veil and was tonsured a nun. Until her death sometime in the second half of the ninth century Kassia lived in this cloister which bore her name, "leading a philosophical life pleasing to God."
The foundress of the cloister was also the first lady, a strict, vigilant and energetic abbess. The abbess governed her nuns, regulated life and worship in the convent and still found time to pursue her literary interests. Kassia's writings include both secular and sacred poetry. They survive in a number of manuscripts dating from the 11th to the 16th century.
The secular writings project the forthright personality of a woman wise in the ways of the world. A sharp-tongued observer of human frailties, Kassia had strong convictions and dislikes. These she expressed tersely in a series of seven statements all of which begin with Miso—I hate. Kassia scorned pretense of all kinds, "I hate the fool who acts the philosopher," she wrote, and "I hate the rich man who groans that he is poor." She despised time-servers: "I hate the person who is forever changing his ways." She condemns those who unlike God (Acts 10:34) discriminate among people: "I hate the judge who is a respecter of persons."
Kassia's sacred poetry made her Byzantium's, and indeed Christendom's, only woman hymnographer of distinction. For centuries her name automatically has appeared on all lists of Byzantine liturgical poets. In the first such known list, drawn up in the 14th century by Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos, himself a hymnographer, Kassia is mentioned last, one of the eleven most distinguished Greek hymnodists. She enjoys such prestige that 37 hymns of uncertain authorship, including the Akathistos Hymnos, have been attributed to Kassia in manuscripts and liturgical books.
Likewise Kassia is Byzantium's best known woman composer. A gifted composer, this hymn writing abbess wrote original musical settings for most of her hymns. She is therefore properly called Melodos". Later other church poets borrowed her music for their hymns.
The surviving 23 genuine hymns indicate Kassia's interest in many aspects of the Church's liturgical cycles. She provided the services of her convent with many new hymns. Signed by her name, Kassias, the kanon for the dead is her longest hymn. Its 32 strophes were composed to be sung in the convent's cemetery during memorial services held on Saturday. Her shorter hymns, stichera, represent her lyric and dramatic genius. These monostrophic compositions include hymns honoring the saints, some obscure like Saints Gurias, Samonas and Abibus (November 15), others more prominent like the Apostles Peter and Paul, or John the Baptist for whom she composed four stichera. In nine joyful hymns, including the majestic Avgoustou monarchisantos ("When Augustus ruled"), she celebrates Christmas, the coming of Christ into the world.She also wrote three hymns for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (February 2) with which the Nativity cycle ends.
Kassia's reputation rests primarily on her troparion for Holy Wednesday. This penitential hymn for which Kassia composed the music, has been hailed by critics as a masterpiece of religious poetry, admired for its beauty of words and depth of feeling. A true poet, Kassia in this short hymn portrays profound human emotions and experiences. In the figure of the sinful woman, whose story Luke (7:36-50) introduced into Christian literature, Kassia traces with feminine grace and sensitivity the Lenten journey of repentance, the soul's exodus from sin to salvation. The Byzantine nun does not condemn the sinner. Rather she sings a new song, celebrating the sinful woman's intuition, her recognition of Christ's divinity and her pursuit of holiness.
The abbess translates into poetry, into words of haunting beauty and truth, the speechless tears of the erring woman in the Gospel story. Except for a brief introductory passage, the troparion consists of an intensely dramatic monologue. It begins with the woman's confession, in which she admits guilt and responsibility for her moral degradation:
For night holds me in its grip, the goad of lust, a murky and moonless love of sin.
Then through passionate sequences of petitions to the Lord she moves towards redemption, led from darkness to light by Christ.
who has great mercy beyond all measure
In the end the repentant sinner finds hope, forgiveness and peace.
Across the more than 10 centuries which separate us from the Byzantine nun, Kassia the Melodos communicates the reality of the Christian passover from death to life, as well as her serene belief in the transforming grace of divine philanthropia.
PAIAIOLOGINA: Palaiologina, our fourth hymnographer, is chronologically the last and most obscure. A nun connected with the imperial dynasty, she lived in Thessalonika during the 14th century, five hundred years after Theodosia, Thekla and Kassia. No hymn of hers has yet come to light. Palaiologina's first name is not recorded. Nor do we know whether she was an imperial princess by birth or by marriage. She died sometime before 1387.
This tantalizingly little information about this princess comes from a single source, the 15th century historian Grigorious Sphrantzes (1401-1477). A courtier and diplomat, the historian faithfully served the last three emperors: Manuel II, Palaiologos (1391-1425), John VIII (1425-1448), and Constantine XI, who died a martyr on the tragic Tuesday of May 29, 1453.
Writing on Corfu in his old age, Sphrantzes interrupts his history of the fall of Byzantium to pay tribute to "the most holy Thomais" his godmother. When Thomais was a young girl, her guardian, the sister of Neilos Cabasilas, Archbishop of Thessalonike, had brought her from Constantinople to Thessalonike, which at that time was the second city of the empire. There, Sphrantzes writes, the guardian and her ward "lived in the Convent of Saint Theodora with Palaiologina, a virtuous and learned lady about whom I often heard high praises from our memorable emperor Lord Manuel." Manuel II Palaiologos had known our Palaiologina during one of the two periods when he had been governor of Thessalonike (1369-1373) and (1383-1387), before he ascended the throne in 1391. Years later the aged monarch, who had himself written hymns, reminisced about his hymn writing kinswoman to his young attendant Sphrantzes.
The historian credits Palaiologina and the archbishop's sister with teaching his revered godmother "virtue and literature." This Sphrantzes must have learned from Thomais herself. On the death of her two teachers, Thomais and another nun inherited all their possessions. After the capture of Thessalonike by the Turks in 1387, Thomais returned to Constantinople.
Sphrantzes himself knew at first hand the hymns of Palaiologina, "I read her compositions, many hymns to Saint Demetrios and Saint Theodora and to other saints as well." Thus he informs us that Palaiologina wrote hymns for the two most popular saints of Thessalonike, the city's tutelary patron and the ascetic ninth-century nun for whom Palaiologina's convent was named. Somewhere, perhaps in the palatine library of Manuel II Palaiologos, Sphrantzes had in his youth seen a manuscript containing Palaiologina's now lost hymns.
From nostalgic recollections of his youth in the days before the empire fell, Sphrantzes bequeathed to the history of Greek letters and hymnography the name of Palaiologina, a pious, learned and virtuous Byzantine princess who wrote hymns in the 14th century. Thanks to him we know that during Byzantium's last century the company of its hymn writers included a woman.
With Palaiologina we have come almost to the end of Byzantium. We have also reached the end of our list of women hymnographers and the finishing line of this essay. But one final word is in order—a composite profile of Theodosia, Thekla, Kassiane and Palaiologina, a quartet of Byzantine women. They belonged to the sex that did not enjoy equality and freedom. But as members of the elite and aristocratic social class and as women religious they transcended the restrictions and limitations imposed on their sex. They were pious and purposeful, as well as talented, intelligent and educated. Their monastic vocation enabled them to pursue holiness and at the same time to fulfill their leitourgia as sacred poets. Theodosia, Thekla, Kassiane and Palaiologina, women hymnographers of Byzantium, deserve recognition and honor in the history of Greek letters.
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