Last week in class, we studied the early Christian martyrs, and I was pleased to see that we were going to study Perpetua and Felicity as exemplars, reading the 3rd century account of their martyrdom. Except, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading the text itself, because who wants to read about martyrdom, right? Pain, suffering, death, possibly with gory details, ew.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity is a beautiful, joyful, and moving text. Really. I entirely see why the early church treasured it and passed it down to us.
After the somewhat wordy introduction, the text describes Perpetua’s arguments with her father over her faith, her time in prison along with Felicity and several Christian men, their trial, and their death. It includes a large section that, scholars believe, really was written by Perpetua herself, while she was in prison awaiting her sentencing and death: which makes this the earliest record of a Christian woman’s voice that we have.
Here are some things that struck me, organized by theme rather than their order in the text:
There are two miracles involving women’s bodies in this story. The first involves Perpetua, a young Roman noblewoman who has an infant son that she’s been nursing. He was in prison with her at first, but at her sentencing, her father took the child from her, and refused to have him brought back to the prison so he could nurse.
And here is the miracle:
And even as God willed it, the child no long desired the breast, nor did my breast cause me uneasiness, lest I should be tormented by care for my babe and by the pain of my breasts at once.
God not only weaned the child, but dried up her milk.
What a gentle, motherly miracle: such womanly care for a woman’s particular needs, to take care that this nursing mother’s breasts wouldn’t ache because her baby wasn’t there to nurse. I just found this incredibly moving.
The other miracle involves Felicity. Felicity, a slave, was eight months pregnant, and the Romans wouldn’t throw a pregnant woman to the lions. She was afraid that she’d be separated from her companions: that they would be martyred together while she was held back in prison to be killed after she’d delivered, possibly with actual criminals instead of with Christians.
Therefore, joining together their united cry, they poured forth their prayer to the Lord three days before the exhibition. Immediately after their prayer her pains came upon her, and when, with the difficulty natural to an eight months’ delivery, . . . Thus she brought forth a little girl, which a certain sister brought up as her daughter.
God heard her prayer, and induced her labor. She was able to give birth among her friends, and die for her faith together with them, knowing that her daughter would be raised as a Christian.
And then there’s this really interesting passage in Perpetua’s vision, the day before they were to fight:
Then there came forth against me a certain Egyptian, horrible in appearance, with his backers, to fight with me. And there came to me, as my helpers and encouragers, handsome youths; and I was stripped, and became a man. Then my helpers began to rub me with oil, as is the custom for contest; and I beheld that Egyptian on the other hand rolling in the dust. And a certain man came forth . . . and he carried a rod, as if he were a trainer of gladiators, and a green branch upon which were apples of gold. And he called for silence, and said, ‘This Egyptian, if he should overcome this woman, shall kill her with the sword; and if she shall conquer him, she shall receive this branch.’
Her body becomes a man’s body, for the purpose of the fight and the pre-fight warmup routine; but she retains her identity as a woman.
Another point, not strictly about women’s bodies, is the contrast in the portrayal of Perpetua and her father. Here he is, this Roman paterfamilias, the source of power and status in the household: and yet, he is portrayed as pathetic: weak, ineffectual, wanting his daughter to lie to save his good name, and basically having a weepy tantrum when she refuses. She, on the other hand, is the very picture of virtue.
The Woman and the Serpent
In the first of Perpetua’s visions, she sees
a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven . . . And there was right at the ladder’s foot a serpent lying, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that would go up, and frightened them that they might not go up.
and when she ascends the ladder,
I said: it shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ. And from beneath the ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the first step I trod on its head.
Shades of Gen 3:14, right?
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
They will strike at your head,
while you strike at their heel.
Then in her second vision, where she’s fighting the Egyptian,
He tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels smote upon his face. And I rose up into the air and began so to smite him as though I trod not the earth. But when I saw that there was yet delay, I joined my hands, setting finger against finger of them. And I caught his head, and he fell upon his face; and I trod upon his head.
She concludes this section:
And I awoke; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.
This is followed by the last words we have from Perpetua herself:
Thus far I have written this, till the day before the games; but the deed of the games themselves let him write who will.
Veneration and Intercession
Right away in the preface, I was struck by this:
that both you who were present may call to mind the glory of the Lord, and you who now know by hearing may have communion with those holy martyrs, and through them with the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is glory and honor for ever and ever. Amen. (emphasis mine)
This is a very early testimony to, and rationale for, the practice of venerating the saints, as Catholics do and as many Protestants denounce. The rationale is interesting, as it invokes a transitive understanding of communion: the holy martyrs are now in communion with Christ, so if we have communion with them, then this puts us in communion with Christ. Which, if you think that “communion” is a real thing and not just a pretty way of talking, makes perfect sense.
After Perpetua’s sentencing, while they were all praying, she suddenly remembers her brother Dinocrates, who had died of a horrible disease at the age of seven.
and I was amazed because he had never come into my mind save then; and I sorrowed, remembering his fate. And straightway I knew that I was worthy, and that I ought to ask for him. And I began to pray for him long, and to groan unto the Lord.
That night, she has a vision of Dinocrates “coming forth from a dark place, where were many others also,” hot, thirsty, miserable looking, and the only source of water one that was too high for him to reach.
And I awoke, and I knew that my brother was in travail. Yet I was confident I should ease his travail; and I prayed for him every day till we passed over into the camp prison. . . . And I prayed for him day and night with groans and tears, that he might be given me.
Several days later, the day when they were “in the stocks”, she had another vision:
I saw that place which I had before seen, and Dinocrates clean of body, finely clothed, in comfort; and the font I had seen before, the edge of it being drawn to the boy’s navel; and he drew water thence which flowed without ceasing. And on the edge was a golden cup full of water; and Dinocrates came up and began to drink therefrom; which cup failed not. And being satisfied he departed away from the water and began to play as children will, joyfully.
And I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from his pains.
Centuries before the scholastic theologians formalized the concept of Purgatory, here is a holy woman who fervently believes that her prayers can release her dead brother from a place of torment.
Years ago, when I was visiting France, I was delighted to come across a church dedicated to Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, so of course I went inside. Inside, I was also delighted to see a side altar dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory, to whom I was brought up with a special devotion. It wasn’t until I read this passage that I realised there was a connection!
Martyrdom and Mimesis
I was also struck by Perpetua’s interaction with the guard, after their sentencing:
While they were treated with more severity by the tribune, because, from the intimations of certain deceitful men, he feared lest thay should be withdrawn from the prison by some sort of magic incantations, Perpetua answered to his face, and said, “Why do you not at least permit us to be refreshed, being as we are objectionable to the most noble Caesar, and having to fight on his birthday? Or is it not your glory if we are brought forward fatter on that occasion?” The tribune shuddered and blushed, and commanded that they should be kept with more humanity, so that permission was given to their brethren and others to go in and be refreshed with them; even the keeper of the prison trusting them now himself.
This struck me as a case of “Be as wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” How cleverly she shamed him into treating them better!
Apparently the Romans also had the custom of offering prisoners a lavish “last meal,” which was given to the prisoners the day before the games. They made of this feast, not a “free feast”, but an agape, a eucharistic meal.
Now dawned the day of their victory, and they went forth from the prison into the amphitheatre as it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear. Perpetua followed behind, glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes. Felicity likewise, rejoicing that she had borne a child in safety, that she might fight with the beasts, came now from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism.
They were supposed to be dressed for the games as priestesses of Ceres, and the men as priests of Saturn. Perpetua refused for them all, and the tribune let them be.
Perpetua began to sing, as already treading on the Egyptian’s head. Revocatus and Saturninus and Saturus threatened the people as they gazed. Then when they came into Hilarian’s sight, they began to say to Hilarian, stretching forth their hands and nodding their heads: You judge us, they said, and God you.
The people were enraged, and demanded that they be scourged. The martyrs gave thanks, that they should suffer the same way that the Lord had.
They were thrown to the beasts, mauled, and survived. The men faced a leopard, a bear, and a boar; the women, a savage cow. Then, after the beasts had savaged them,
…the people besought that they should be brought forward, that when the sword pierced through their bodies their eyes might be joined thereto as witnesses to the slaughter
That phrase just leapt out at me as characteristic of a mimetic understanding of the death of the victim at the hands of the crowd. Although the people did not directly kill these women and men with their own hands, “their eyes were joined thereto.” Their spectating was not neutral: it was a means of participation in the death.
I don’t know whether any mimetic or Girardian scholars have taken up the stories of the early Christian martyrs, but it strikes me as a very fruitful direction.
On feast days of the saints, we remember them in a special way, and with a collect (short prayer) at Mass. The feast day of Perpetua and Felicity is March 7th.
God, your love gave the saints Perpetua and Felicity courage to suffer a cruel martyrdom. By their prayers, help us to grow in love of you. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.