actress of Antioch, penitent at Jerusalem. Her Legend has been immensely popular in East and West. It was written by someone well versed in the writings of the Desert Fathers, who purported to be James the deacon of bishop Nonnus. According to this fictional account, Pelagia was a beautiful but dissolute actress of Antioch, at the height of her renown, with many lovers, jewels, and servants. When some bishops were seated at the tomb of St Julian, listening to a sermon from Nonnus, she passed by, provocatively dressed, surrounded by her ‘fans’. All the bishops turned away shocked, except Nonnus, who was moved to tears by her zeal and success in her profession (regarded as Satan's) compared with the tepidity and slowness of his own and others' progress in holiness.
After a dream-troubled night Nonnos preached in the cathedral of Antioch and Pelagia walked in again, was converted on the spot, and asked for baptism. A deaconess Romana was deputed to be her sponsor and Pelagia was duly instructed and baptized. Soon afterwards she gave away all her ill-gotten gains, left her life of comfort and luxury, and went to live as a hermit, dressed as a man, on the Mount of Olives ( Jerusalem). There the deacon James visited the beardless recluse ‘Pelagius’; only after her death not long afterwards were her identity and her sex discovered.
The whole story, whose phrases and situations recall the writings of the Desert Fathers, is a product of that same monastic milieu, spread over Egypt, Palestine, and Antioch. It served as an exemplary story of repentance and perseverance, giving, like the Legends of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt, an imaginative glamour to relieve the monotony of monastic life. It was probably written in the 5th century; Eastern manuscripts of it survive from the eighth and Western ones from the 12th. But abridged versions occur as early as the Anglo-Saxon Martyrology (9th century), while a longer version, including speeches attributed to Satan, became popular through the Golden Legend (c.1263), widely diffused up to the Reformation. Artists ancient and modern have illustrated the Legend, while writers have retold the story with embellishments suitable to their times. Critical scholars of hagiography regard the whole story as a fiction, but in John Chrysostom's 67th homily on Matthew's Gospel there is a story of an actress of Antioch, who underwent a sudden conversion and spent the rest of her days in a convent, refusing to see her former friends. This may be the factual basis of the story. Feast: 8 October.
H. Delehaye, The Legends of the Saints (1962), pp. 150–5; H.S.S.C., iii. 241–6; Bibl. SS., x. 432–7.