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E02571: The Penance of *Pelagia (recluse of Jerusalem, 5th c., S00250), a Greek hagiographical novel by a certain Iakobos, recounts the conversion of an actress from Antioch, who later lives as a recluse in Jerusalem, disguised as a man. Probably written in Palestine, Egypt, or Antioch before 600.

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posted on 2017-03-14, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Iakobos, The Penance of *Pelagia (BHG 1478)


The author is a certain Iakobos, deacon and disciple of bishop Nonnos, a former Tabennesiot monk. They visit Antioch together with a number of other bishops, at the invitation of the bishop of Antioch, and lodge at the shrine of the martyr *Ioulianos. While sitting by the gates of the martyrion, the chief actress of Antioch with her impressive jewels and large entourage passes by them. Nonnos is moved to tears, realising that the actress makes greater effort to beautify herself for her lovers than the bishops to beautify their souls for God. Later, he has a dream vision of a dirty dove which he cleans in the font of the church, a premonition of the conversion of the actress.

Nonnos joins the other bishops for a service at the great church of Antioch, where he gives a moving sermon. The actress happens to be in the congregation, and his homily affects her deeply. She requests to meet Nonnos, confesses her sins and is baptised. At baptism she reports that her name is Pelagia, though the city knows her as Margarito (‘pearl’). After her baptism, the Devil appears twice and complains at having been robbed of his servant, but he is sent away by Pelagia. Three days later, she offers all her property to the bishop in order that it be distributed for charity, and frees all the slaves of her household. Eight days later, Pelagia disappears from the city.

Three years later, the author, Iakobos, goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Instructed by Bishop Nonnos, he seeks out a certain holy recluse, known as Pelagios the Eunuch (who is in fact Pelagia). The saint recognises Iakobos, but he cannot recognise her, because none of her beauty can be seen on her body any more. Eight days later, it is known that the wonderworking Pelagios has died. All the monks from the region gather together for the burial and, while anointing the body, they find out that the saint was a woman. Virgins from the surrounding nunneries gather together and Pelagia is buried.

Text: Petitmengin 1981. Summary: E. Rizos.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Pelagia the Penitent, 5th-century recluse in Jerusalem : S00250 Julian, martyr in Cilicia, ob. c. 303-311 : S00305

Saint Name in Source

Πελαγία Ἰουλιανός

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Palestine with Sinai Egypt and Cyrenaica Syria with Phoenicia

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Caesarea Maritima Καισάρεια Kaisareia Caesarea Kayseri Turris Stratonis Hermopolis ϣⲙⲟⲩⲛ Ashmunein Hermopolis Thabbora Thabbora

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Ecclesiastics - bishops Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits The socially marginal (beggars, prostitutes, thieves) Eunuchs

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body


On the versions and manuscript tradition of the text, see: Petitmengin 1981.


The legend of Pelagia survives in three Greek, Latin, Georgian, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, and Slavonic versions. The earliest surviving manuscripts are those of the Syriac version, dated to c. 700, while the Greek ones come from manuscripts of the 10th and 11th centuries. The legend is likely to have emerged before the late 6th century, since the cell and tomb of Pelagia on the Mount of Olives were seen by the Piacenza Pilgrim in the 570s (E00456). The text also mentions the shrine of the martyr *Ioulianos at Antioch, which is known to have been destroyed by the Persians in 573 (E02105). In one of his apparitions in the narrative, the Devil complains about the conversion of Heliopolis-Baalbek, which was a stronghold of paganism into the early 6th century. The legend may have been based on the incident of the conversion of an actress mentioned by John Chrysostom, and it evolved into a fully developed piece of a monastic literature. The text is likely to come from Palestine or Syria, as it purports to. Even though an Egyptian connection may be echoed the statement that Nonnos was a former Tabennesiot monk, the text seems to have had limited impact in Egypt, and there is no Coptic version of it. The opening episode about Nonnos being moved to tears by the view of the actress is a pious legend first attested in Socrates, Church History 4.23.27, where it is associated with the Egyptian holy man Pambo of Nitria. In the Middle Ages, it became one of the most popular hagiographic legends of East and West alike, on which see Petitmengin 1981, vol. 2.


Text, French Translation, and Commentary: Petitmengin, Pierre, ed. Pélagie la pénitante. Métamorphoses d’une légende, Etudes Augstiniennes. Paris, 1981.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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