Classical Languages and French Studies
Saint Perpetua is a well known figure, popularized for her unapologetic Christianity, famous for her powerful and still feminine display of agency within a male-centric society. Perpetua, a young Christian woman who had not even been baptized at the time of her arrest (Perpetua and Shewring 2), is given merit not only for her act of martyrdom, but additionally and specifically for her womanhood. According to Rev. Fergal Cummins in his essay “The ‘Theology of the Body”, “[Perpetua’s] prison diary became one of the most intimate of all early Christian texts” because it details Perpetua and Felicity’s young motherhood, and in the case of the latter, the prison birth of her child (Cummins 11). It is because of the challenges she faces as she balances both motherhood and martyrdom that she is recognized as a powerful female martyr, as well as the patron saint of mothers (Bremmer and Formisano 166). However, the femininity of both women saints within Perpetua’s diary is not the only theme of gender that appears there. The diary’s accounts of dreams experienced by the martyrs while in prison as well as details regarding their treatment and death reveal much about ancient Roman and early Christian views of sexuality and gender roles. While this information is a valuable and deeply interesting, it is critical to note that the purpose of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity is not to make a statement about male or female roles within society. The motivation of female Christian martyrdom was not to emphasize one’s gender, social class, or any such worldly self-categorizations, but rather to champion one’s religious beliefs and propagate the Faith. Similarly, these mentions of gender within the Diary of Perpetua are employed only as a device by which the author can appeal to the understanding of a contemporaneous audience, with the goal of better expressing emotions through stereotypes of polarized gender identities. This paper will contain an exploration of three different instances within the account of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity during which themes of gender, piety, and transformation are utilized to make a broader point regarding faith and martyrdom in the context of the early Christian world.
The most prominent and consistent reminder of gender within Perpetua’s diary is the motif of motherhood. The two central figures representing this motif are the martyrs Perpetua, a recent mother, and Felicity, a young pregnant woman. Their motherhood is manifested within the story primarily in connection to physicality; this focus on the body is largely due to the physical nature of the martyrs’ punishment, an attempt to impress upon the readers the challenge of living in prison and to foreshadow the embodied sacrifice to come. At one point within the account, Perpetua is separated from her child in prison. She describes the physical changes that take place, those signifying her separation from her child as the day of her execution approceed: “And as God willed, no longer did he [the child] need to be suckled, nor did I take fever; that I might not be tormented by care for the child and by the pain of my breasts” (Perpetua and Shewring 5). The attention drawn to Perpetua’s breasts as representative of her motherhood functions as a reminder her humanness. In addition, the physical separation of Perpetua from her child (and its apparent approval by God) is presented in preparation for the conclusion of the account; as the woman’s child is a gendered symbol of her earthly identity, the dissolution of their physical ties marks a turning point within her narrative of martyrdom. The acknowledgement of Perpetua’s child as a marker of her earthly nature is reinforced as her child is cited numerous times as justification for why she should not accept the path of martyrdom: “And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying: Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child”. In this way, while Perpetua’s physicality as expressed through her gendered body and mothering role is indicative of her worldly nature, it provides greater opportunity for visual storytelling within the diary in order to better illustrate the tale of her transformation into a saint and martyr.
Another motif prominent in Perpetua’s Diary is the mention of modesty. Due to the nature of the social trends of the 3rd century BCE when Perpetua was executed, regulations and taboos regarding propriety were most often associated with women. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the concept of modesty within the context of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity is more a facet of piety than of gender. This disparity in interpretation of such expressions of modesty stem from two differing ideologies. A pagan Roman view of propriety would be prompted by societal standards of female presentation, but an early Christian justification for the pursuit of modesty within the frame of martyrdom is motivated by the desire to appear as serene as possible while undergoing trial. Perpetua’s Diary explains the Christian perspective on this matter: “…It was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair dishevelled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory” (Perpetua and Shewring 19). With regards to this disparity, it is beneficial to identify instances of contention between the Pagan and Christian interpretations of modesty within this account. When Perpetua and Felicity are brought out before the spectators to be killed, it is noted in the diary that they are made to wear nothing but debasing nets over their bodies. The audience’s reaction is striking: “The people shuddered, seeing one a tender girl, the other her breasts yet dropping from her late childbearing” (Perpetua and Shewring 19). This brash display of feminine physicality is shocking to the spectators, and draws their attention to the cruelty of the acts about to take place. (It is worth questioning why specifically the womanhood of the martyrs elicits guilt within the hearts of the audience members). Perpetua and Felicity are taken out of view and reappear wearing loose clothing instead, which is an institution of modesty upon the women. The imposition of modesty by the audience upon the martyrs is not admirable, for it is not done out of sympathy for the women but rather out of their own guilt, and is yet another flex of power upon them. However, after she is clothed, Perpetua’s robe gets disheveled; she bends down to adjust it and cover herself, for she is noted as being “mindful rather of modesty than of pain” (Perpetua and Shewring 19). This act of self-imposed modesty should be viewed not as Perpetua conforming to the audience’s level of comfort with her body, but rather as a small act of agency over her own appearance and the way she is presented. The interest behind Perpetua’s expression of agency increases when understood in the context of Kate Wilkinson’s book Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity. She asserts: “Modesty was frequently framed for the public as part of an ongoing process of self-representation” (17). Modesty within the diary could be viewed as an application of gender stereotypes upon Perpetua for her womanhood. However, with the direction of Wilkinson’s quote, it is more faithful to the Passion to view modesty as a form of self-representation executed by Perpetua herself, for the sake of her spirituality rather than her sexuality.
The third and perhaps most prominent theme within the account of Perpetua’s martyrdom is that of transformation. Throughout the diary, each development in the young woman’s story works to bring her closer to the spiritual world (such as the vivid dreams she experiences) or to dissolve her ties to the earthly one (as her child is weaned). Furthermore, there is one particular episode within the diary which is continually viewed as one of the most provocative pieces on gender within an early Christian context. While still in prison, Perpetua dreams that rather than death by wild beasts, she must face death by opponent in the amphitheatre. As she prepares to fight, she undergoes a transformation: “ And I was stripped naked, and I became a man” (Perpetua and Shewring 9). Where in the real account of the women’s execution their femininity is revealed when they are stripped of clothing, in Perpetua’s dream she transforms into a man. Here, Perpetua utilizes a common societal understanding of masculinity to communicate her level of power and resistance in that moment, rather than to comment specifically on the interplay of male and female gender roles. To further explore Perpetua’s choice, one might consult John W. Coakley’s book Women, Men, and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators. Coakley touches on the puissance of female saints and martyrs within a male-centric society. He writes, “…It was precisely the women’s closeness to Christ, paradoxically linked with their supposed physical weakness and inferiority to men, that generated their powers” (Coakley 11). Although women were considered to have close spiritual ties with divinity, this belief was connected to feminine weakness. Therefore, as in this dream of Perpetua’s she transformed into a man to gain the strength she needed to fight, it can be assumed that her dream was rooted more firmly in her worldly, Pagan understanding of gender and physical piety. When comparing this dream sequence (in which she stands naked and masculine) to the actual event of her execution (in which she both adhered to her femininity and expressed modesty), it becomes clear that the gendered message of this account is that piety and physical modesty are the way to spiritual dignity. When Perpetua is facing execution, she remains courageous and dignified, and was documented as the most vibrant martyr: “Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain” (Shewring 20). Her memory is honored by her sacrifice.
The diary of Perpetua remains a much-consulted source on texts addressing martyrdom and early Christian women. Through themes of physicality, modesty, and transformation the account reveals much about understandings of gender within the Roman Empire and within Christian communities. The diary remains an extraordinary text due to its coverage of Perpetua’s mental state during her imprisonment and prosecution, as well as an account of the historical proceedings of her punishment. It is prudent to note that there is much chance for error when analysing both the spiritual and social aspects of the account, for there is no certain guarantee that the diary was actually written by Perpetua herself. Regardless, the account of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity remains an excellent resource on the social climate of faith, gender, and martyrdom within the context of the Roman Empire of the 3rd century.
PERPETUA, Saint and Martyr., and Walter Shewring. The Passion of SS. Perpetua and Felicity MM. A New Edition and Translation … Together with the Sermons of S. Augustine upon These Saints … Translated … by W.H. Shrewing. London, 1931.
Jan Nicolaas Bremmer, and Marco Formisano. Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae Et Felicitatis. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Cummins, Rev. Fergal. “The ‘Theology of the Body’, Saturating The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas.” Academia, May 2018, www.academia.edu/37066209/The_theology_of_the_body_saturating_The_Passion_of_Perpetua_and_Felicitas_Reflecting_on_this_African_patristic_and_feminine_expression_of_the_theological_truth_meaning_and_beauty_of_the_human_body.
Wilkinson, Kate. Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Bremmer, Jan Nicolaas, and Marco Formisano. Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae Et Felicitatis. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Hahner, Leslie A., and Scott J. Varda. “Modesty and Feminisms: Conversations on Aesthetics and Resistance.” Feminist Formations, vol. 24, no. 3, 2012, pp. 22–42., doi:10.1353/ff.2012.0029.