[Matrona of Perge in the Menologion of Basil II, Source: Wikimedia Commons]
According to her vita, Matrona of Perge was born to a somewhat wealthy family in Perge in the region of Pamphylia (in what was then the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire and is now southern Turkey). Her husband, a man the vita later implies to have been somewhat abusive, disapproved of her devotion to God. She fled him, disguising herself as a eunuch and joining a male monastery in Constantinoples under the name Babylas. Eventually her secret was revealed to her superior, Bassanios, in a dream. When her husband came seeking her, Bassanios sent her to Emesa. From there she went first to Jerusalem, then to Beirut. When she returned to Constaninople several years later, she brought her companions from Beirut to found her own monastic community of women.
Here’s where we get to the interesting bit. On her return to Constantinople, she did not wear a nun’s habit. She continued to dress as a monk. So did the rest of her community, with the full knowledge and support of her superior in the Church hierarchy. This was no woman living as a monk without the knowledge of the community in which she lived. This was an entire community of monastic women who looked like monastic men.
Nor did she remain quietly in her monastery. A summary Theodore Lector’s Ecclesiastical History (the original has unfortunately been lost) tells us that she publically opposed Emperor Anastasios I’s monophysite policies. After her death sometime around 510-515, she was venerated as a saint. Her cult and her community persisted at least until the 12th century, after which historical record is silent.
*They are now sometimes known as “transvestite nuns.” My issues with that term, let me not talk about them right now. If I do, I’ll go on for another page or more. Also, pronouning historical figures.
Vita Prima, translated by Jeffrey Featherstone and with an introduction by Cyril Mango
Vita Altera, translated by Khalifa Ben Nasser
Featherstone, Jeffrey, trans. “Life of St. Matrona of Perge.” In Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation, edited by Alice-Mary Talbot, 18-64.
Mango, Cyril. “Introduction to the Life of St. Matrona of Perge.” In Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation, edited by Alice-Mary Talbot, 13-17.