SATURDAY READING: Perpetua — Memory And The Text, by Joyce E. Salisbury

From Perpetua’s Passion

The analysis of Perpetua’s and Saturus’s dream records show their sacrifices were not only for their own salvation but for the benefit of the faithful left on Earth.  This is why they recorded their visions and experiences.  The account of the martyr Pionius, who died in Carthage in 259, during the persecution that took Cyprian, addresses this directly: “We are to share in the remembrances of the saints, fully aware that to call to mind those who have passed their lives in the faith wisely with all their hearts gives strength to those who are striving to imitate the better things.”

Probably, the martyrs who were urging the recollection of their deeds imagined that the example they were setting was to encourage their companions to be strong in the face of expected persecution.  These examples strengthened martyrs from Justin to Perpetua to Cyprian and to many others.  In Tertullian’s famous phrase, the “blood of martyrs is seed,” (Apology), from which would grow more converts and more martyrs.   However, once the persecutions were over, the memory of the martyrdoms had to serve a different purpose.

After the fourth century, the memory of martyrdoms was a way of recalling the power that the martyrs had acquired by their confession and of using this power to benefit the living community of the faithful.  As Peter Brown has shown us in his classic work on the cult of saints in antiquity, martyrs became the powerful “invisible companions” who served many of the same functions as powerful patrons had during the ancient world. The power of Heaven was linked to the frailty on Earth through the intercession of the martyr in the same way that the confessors had used their power to forgive the lapsed in their congregations.

For the memory of martyrs (and other saints) most effectively to benefit the community, two things were needed: some physical remains and a text.  It was possible to preserve memory with one or the other of these, but the preservation of both offered the most efficacious result.

The preservation and veneration of the physical remains of martyrs – bones and other relics – strikes many modern readers as strange and even unsavory.  This was a Christian innovation that seemed disgusting even to the Roman pagan world.  To the Romans, dead bodies were polluting.  Traditionally, they cremated bodies and buried them outside the city walls to avoid the perceived contamination of the dead.  Celsus in the second century stated the strongly felt pagan position: “For what sort of human soul is it that has any use for a rotted corpse of a body?  Corpses should be disposed of like dung, for dung they are.” A third-century Christian text proudly articulates a different approach to corpses: “We Christians do not abominate a dead man because we know he will live again.  Assembling in cemeteries, we offer up on the graves themselves the Eucharist, which is not only Christ’s body but also the likeness of our bodies in Heaven.”

Although this text links respect for the dead body with a belief in resurrection, this is not a necessary association.  Ancient Jews could believe in resurrection while still recoiling from the pollution of corpses.  Carolyn Walker Bynum has shown that the third century marked a significant turning point in the belief of resurrection, not only of the soul but of the body itself.  Tertullian was instrumental in seeing resurrection as “reassemblage of bits,” and Bynum emphasizes Tertullian’s sense of justice in his articulation of a theology of resurrection.  The stern theologian believed that the whole person had to be rewarded or punished.  The body, too, must share in the benefits or punishments for its behavior on Earth.  The fourth-century “Acts of Phileas the Martyr” clearly continue this idea, when Phileas insists that both soul and body will receive the “recompense for the good deeds done for God.

Yet, there is more to this valuing of the bodies of the dead than the belief that these physical remains would share in the resurrection.  The experience of martyrdom and its recollection convinced people that it was not simply the strong faith or firm will of the confessor that gave him or her the strength to withstand the ordeal.  The body itself had received an infusion of power that permitted it to be strong during torture.  In the Passion of Perpetua, the martyr was in a state of ecstasy when she was in the arena, so her body did not suffer from the impact of the heifer.  This notion of spiritual power helping the body is repeated in most of the accounts of martyrdom.  Marian, who was tortured in Carthage in the third century, received grace, and the text says that “he was so tortured that the very pain gave him joy.  Marian, with his faith in God, grew great in body as well as soul.”  Before his ordeal, the martyr Montanus received a vision of the dead Cyprian, who reassured him, “The body does not feel this at all when the mind is entirely absorbed in God.”

Although the soul of the martyr went quickly to its reward, the faithful believed a spiritual power remained physically in the body after death.  According to the texts, this power was immediately visible to the faithful.  The account of Pionius’s martyrdom describes the awe observers felt when they saw that his body was undestroyed after Pionius had been burnt to death: “It was like that of an athlete in full array at the height of his powers.  His ears were not distorted; his hair lay in order on the surface of his head; and his beard was full as though with the first blossom of hair.  His face shone once again – wondrous grace!”  Whether or not we believe that the fire left his body untouched, indeed improved, the metaphoric meaning of this text is that the body itself had received spiritual power.

Martyrs’ bodies themselves had been transformed into vessels of holiness.  After Marian’s mother had watched her son be decapitated for his faith, she was happy at the strength of his flesh, and “again and again with religious devotion she pressed her lips to the wounds of his neck.”  The spiritual strength left in the bodies was perceived to benefit those it touched.  When Saturus gave the guard his ring dipped in his own blood, he was giving a gift that would have been seen as very powerful.  This belief led both to a strengthening of the theology of the resurrection of the body, and to the growth of the cult of the dead that manifested itself most visibly in the veneration of relics.

The living venerated the holy dead, and the veneration of their memory meant a reverence for the parts of the dead that were left behind.  In the late fourth century, Victricius wrote: “I touch remnants but I affirm that in these relics perfect grace and virtue are contained.  He who cures lives.  He who lives is present in his relics.”  The full theology of relics is present in Victricius’s words.  The grace that the martyr had while living persisted in his remains.  Further, the miraculous cures that took place in the presence of the relics testified to the martyr’s immortality, and if he were still alive, then he was alive in the bones that remained on this Earth.

This set of beliefs caused a dramatic change in the world of late antiquity.  Romans, who had avoided corpses as polluting, now treasured body parts.  For example, a wealthy Carthaginian woman, Lucilla, had purchased a bone of a martyr.  She took it to church with her and kissed it before she took the Eucharist.  Here is a public, indeed ostentatious, display of wealth and piety focused on a relic.

Peter Brown has noted that this change in mindset also changed the very topography of the ancient cities.  Cemeteries outside the walls that had been ignored by pious Romans became centers of the ecclesiastical life of pious Christians.  Martyrs’ bodies were buried with great ceremony to become centers of worship.  People vied to have the holy dead buried near their own burial chambers.  The living did pilgrimages to these burial places and focused people’s spiritual longings on the spirit-filled bones the martyrs had left behind.

Another pious Carthaginian noblewoman, Megetia, exemplified the passion people brought to these shrines.  The shrine of Saint Stephen (near Carthage) consisted of an iron grill protecting a cubicle that contained the relics, so people could see but not touch the precious bones.  When Megetia came, she was carried away with the “longings of her heart and her whole body.”  She beat herself against the grill until it collapsed and she “pushed her head inside and laid it on the holy relics resting there, drenching them with her tears.”  For Christians like Megetia, the relics served to bring divinity present, to Earth, thus satisfying the longing that so marked the earlier pagan Roman texts.

The shrines became the sites not only of private devotion but of public worship.  During the persecutions, Roman authorities recognized how important these burial sites were to the Christians and tried to prevent their use as centers of worship.  After some executions, the Romans tried to destroy the bodies, both to cast doubt on the resurrection of the flesh and to prevent Christians from venerating the relics.  After the martyrdoms in Lyon in 170, the authorities swept the ashes of the martyrs into the river.  After the martyrdom of Saint Vincent, the proconsul tried to feed his remains to wild animals and, when that failed, attempted to sink them in the sea.  Under the persecution of Valerian, Christians were forbidden to enter the burial areas of Christians.  Of course, when the persecutions were over, the veneration of martyrs centered at the location of their remains flourished.

The physical remains of martyrs helped keep their memory strong and brought their spiritual power to the service of the community, but the bones were not sufficient in themselves.  Remains offered somewhat fragile memories, and they were vulnerable to loss.  Braulio of Saragossa in the seventh century poignantly described the confused state of relics.  In response to a request for relics to be sent to another church, Braulio wrote that he had many precious relics, but “not a single martyr’s relics are so preserved that I can know whose they are.”  His predecessors had removed all the labels to make them less vulnerable to theft.  Although such action certainly would have made precious relics less interesting to thieves, it also made them less useful as trigger to memory.

The relics were strengthened in their veneration if they were accompanied by a text that preserved the memory of the deeds that had rendered the remains so powerful.  The narrator of Perpetua’s text knew the power of the written word, for he wrote of the importance of the “recollection of the past through the written word.”  He was not alone in this recognition.   Worshippers of Saint Patroclus of Troyes had trouble preserving his cult, as Gregory of Tours described: “The men of that place had paid little reverence to this martyr, because the story of his sufferings was not available.  It is the custom of the man in the street to give more attentive veneration to those saints of God whose combats are read aloud.”  The reading of the passion of the martyr brought the saint immediately to memory.  People felt the martyr’s power and presence and the sick were cured and the spiritually hungry were filled.

Saint Augustine knew the power of the recorded word in preserving the memory of the power of saints.  He said that there were as many miracles happening around the holy dead in North Africa in the fourth century as there had been in biblical times in Palestine.  The only difference was that these miracles did “not enjoy the blaze of publicity which would spread their fame.”  The memory of the martyrdom of Perpetua was preserved vividly at her shrine where the martyr’s bones were buried because her powerful text brought her experience alive each time it was read.

By the second century, it was customary to commemorate the anniversary of martyrs’ deaths at a celebration at their shrines.  The precedent was already set before Perpetua died.  After her death, she and her companions would have immediately been accorded the veneration they had earned.  By the reign of Constantine in 313, when Christianity was free to flourish, the anniversary of Perpetua’s martyrdom had already appeared in the official calendar of the church of Rome.  The martyrs were buried in the Basilica Maiorum on a high plateau to the south of the city visible to the faithful.  The place was marked by a burial inscription, so it fulfilled one of the requirements of a memorial to sanctity: the presence of physical remains.  This was the site of great annual festivals on the “birthday” of the martyrs, that is, the day of their martyrdom, when they were “born” into eternal life.

By the time of Augustine, then, the martyrdom of Perpetua was an established part of the annual cycle of celebrations in Carthage.  People heard the account of her passion and venerated the text almost as if it were scripture.  However, the besieged Christian communities of the third century for whom Perpetua preserved her dreams were different from the communities of the fourth century who were guided to salvation by their bishop.  Perpetua’s text was explained and modified by churchmen who wanted to shape the vision offered by the powerful and personal account of the martyr.

Subsequent commentators on the Passio continued to emphasize the strong morals of faith, salvation, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  However, two principal things seemed to have troubled the commentators from the fourth century.  One was the troubling hierarchy that placed martyrs and confessors equal or superior to priests and bishops.  This problem was most simply addressed by churchmen taking control of the text itself.  As we shall see, bishops surrounded the reading of the popular text with homiletic commentary.  Thus, instead of letting the text speak directly to the community of the faithful, they guided the understanding of the words, subtly changing the message of the independent young martyr and, perhaps more important, controlling its dissemination.  Just as Cyprian co-opted the power of confessors by making them into priests, Augustine co-opted the power of Perpetua’s text by turning it into a subject of sermons.

The second and more troubling problem implicit in the Passio was a gender problem.  Perpetua had overturned the social order of the Roman Empire by standing on her own, and indeed by assuming leadership of the small group (or at least sharing it with Saturus).  The stone on the burial shrine of the martyrs commemorated all the martyrs, beginning with the men, Saturus, Saturninus, Revocatus, and Secundulus, and ending with the two women, Felicity and Perpetua.  Yet, it was the women who captured popular imagination, and by the foruth century the festival day was in their honor.  The women had continued the reversal of the social order by taking leadership in the cult of the martyrs.  The fourth-century church was one that did not stand outside the social order but was part of it.  How would this socially conservative church of Augustine reconcile itself to the strong young women who were so venerated in Carthage?

The most obvious way to shape the message offered by the martyr was to rewrite the text, making it less direct and personal while preserving the memory of the martyrdom.  Many of the acts of the martyrs were rewritten to make them more consistent with prevailing church doctrine, or to put it another way, to bring them up-to-date and make them relevant to the experiences of Christians at any given time.  When a fourth-century redactor rewrote (and shortened) the account of the martyrdom of Perpetua, it is clear that gender was very much on his mind.  In his account of the trial, he separated the men from the women, so that during the questioning of the two women he could focus on their social roles.  He asked Felicity about her husband and created a husband for Perpetua, claiming he joined her family at her trial.  In this way, the redactor emphasized the women’s place in the family, and when Perpetua rejected her family, the writer removed all tension from the young martyr’s decision, thus reducing the sympathy that the audience would bring.  Perpetua was described as pushing away her infant and family, calling them evil.  The women remained martyrs, but the account made them less appealing as role models, and thus less threatening to the social order.

Rewritten versions of the accounts of some martyrs’ passions were popular and prevailed as the text to be read on the saint’s day.  However, by the fourth century, Perpetua’s original text was already too popular for people to accept a replacement.  Therefore, Augustine offered sermons to point to appropriate morals in the text and to explain the troublesome portions of the diary.  By trying to shape people’s understanding of the text, the bishop was taking control of the worship of the martyr.  We have several of Augustine’s sermons written for the festival day of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, and we have one sermon written a bit later in Carthage, possibly by Quodvultdeo, bishop of Carthage in the middle of the fifth century.

There were a number of lessons in the account of Perpetua’s passion that the bishops accepted and highlighted.  Augustine accepted the validity of Perpetua’s visions foretelling the martyrs’ victory.  He emphasized the martyrs’ overcoming of a fear of death and pain, and the gift of ecstasy that was given Perpetua so that she “felt not the battle against the maddened cow.”  He spoke certainly of their salvation, and of the martyrs’ ability to pray for other members of the community.  These lessons were the core of the cult of saints that said that the bodies of the martyrs received power that was then available to the community of the faithful.  It is extremely likely that the Passio of Perpetua was so popular in large part because these central lessons were so readily visible in the text.

As we have seen, however, the fourth century was different from the early third.  Augustine not only emphasized points in the text that were therer from the beginning but used the Passio to draw new morals relevant to the fourth-century church.  The age of the martyrs had brought about a theological interest in the resurrection of the flesh, and this promise was emphasized by Augustine.  He said the martyrs’ souls would receive “the same bodies wherein they suffered unworthy torments.”  Furthermore, this lesson applied to others as well.  “Every body shall be restored and the whole man shall receive that which he deserveth.”  Although there was nothing directly in Perpetua’s text that spoke to the resurrection of the flesh, the experience of martyrdom itself seemed to allow for this kind of moral lesson.

Augustine had to stretch further when he tried to apply the circumstances of Perpetua’s martyrdom to the overall condition of the fourth-century church.  Perpetua’s text was written by and to a church besieged, not a church victorious.  Augustine explained carefully that the age of martyrs was not only over but overturned.  He said that the children of the people in the arena who “raged against the martyrs’ flesh” now praised the martyrs’ glory.  Descendants of those who gathered in the arena now gathered in church.  As he summarized, “That was unholy then, and now is nothing.”  This church is not a threatened one.  For Augustine, this meant that there was space for compassion where once there was not.  Instead of challenging the tormentors and threatening them with retribution, as Saturus did in the arena, Augustine “pities” the tormentors’ blindness.  Ignorance, not evil, killed the martyrs, and this was a radical change that was necessary in an age that was more plagued by splits within the church than by threats from without.  These examples show that a powerful text can be and was made relevant to contemporary issues.

Lessons of resurrection and compassion were not necessarily explicit in the original text, nor were they contradicted.  Augustine and Quodvultdeo spent most of their time explaining and interpreting gender issues that emerged from the text.  This suggests that this tricky issue of gender roles gave the bishops the most trouble in the fourth century.

One troubling aspect of the portrayal of the women in the account of the martyrdom was their relationship to their families.  One of the central features of the Christian communities in the second century was their perception that Christians had to follow the biblical injunction to renounce one’s family to follow Christ.  So on the one hand, fourth-century commentators had to support this action that had so much historical and scriptural precedent.  Augustine praised Felicity’s ability to give up her husband in favor of Christ, and commended both women for giving up their children in exchange for the love of Christ.

On the other hand, the church in the fourth century was part of society, with all the necessary support for family ties that entailed.  As part of his pastoral duties, Augustine was called upon to sort out the tension between people’s (particularly women’s) calls to spirituality and their family obligations.  For example, he reprimanded Ecdicia, a fourth-century matron who followed a call to celibacy and refused to obey her husband, saying that her spiritual aspirations did not free her from her social duties to her family.  Perpetua’s narrative, with its lesson of complete renunciation of family ties, seems to have presented a problem to the bishop walking a fine line between spiritual independence and family obligations.

In his second sermon on her text, Augustine dealt with this issue by trying to shape the audience’s understanding of the events.  First, he addressed the question that has plagues commentators ever since the text was written: Where was the virtuous matron’s husband?  Augustine saw the absence of the husband as part of the unfolding of a divine plan that all martyrdoms in retrospect seemed to represent.  Perpetua’s trial was portrayed as a temptation by the devil, and in Augustine’s interpretation, the devil knew that Perpetua was strong enough to withstand the temptation of “fleshly love” that her husband represented.  Therefore, the devil did not even try to tempt her with the husband’s presence.  Instead, according to the bishop, the devil knew the strength of the daughter-father tie, so sent Perpetua’s father to tempt the young woman to renounce Christ.  By casting the events into a metaphysical level, Augustine reduced Perpetua to a virtuous, passive participant in a drama that was staged to offer moral lessons for future generations of believers.

Augustine further emphasized Perpetua’s role as dutiful daughter even within a setting that called for her to withstand the “assault of filial love.”  Although Perpetua stood firm during her test, Augustine stressed that she did not “transgress the commandment which biddeth honor be paid to parents.”  The bishop explained to the audience that the daughter had to disobey her father but had compassion for him, and she never rejected his “nature” nor “her own birth.”  None of these lessons were in the forefront of the text, but Augustine’s sermon stressed them, and this emphasis served to keep Perpetua portrayed as a dutiful daughter.  Christianity for Augustine was not inconsistent with family ties, indeed should not be so.  Therefore, the lessons drawn from the account of a martyrdom also should not contradict social obligations.  In reshaping Perpetua’s memory, the bishop had to forget her renunciation of family and the formation of her new fictive family.  Her memory was recast so it would be consistent with the fourth-century church.

Even more problematic for Augustine was the portrayal of the two women, and particularly Perpetua, as the central characters in the text.  This was inconsistent with Augustine’s strong belief in an appropriate hierarchy in which men led and women obeyed.  Anyone reading the text itself had to be struck by the strength of Perpetua and even her leadership in the events.  It was she who obtained better conditions for the prisoners and ensured that they would not have to dress in pagan costume for their martyrdom.  The greatest evidence for the respect accorded the women in the story is that the celebration day was named for the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity even though there were four men in their company.  In his sermons, Augustine reshaped the memory of this extraordinary woman to have her fit his perception of a more suitable matron.

One way that Augustine tamed the independence of the martyr was by repeatedly framing her accomplishments within a context of Eve’s fall.  According to the bishop, the serpent Perpetua stepped on in her vision was the same one who caused the first woman to fall.  The devil tempted the two martyrs in the same way he had successfully tempted Eve, and Felicity did not simply endure the pains of childbirth, she “suffered the pain of Eve.”  These constant juxtapositions of Perpetua with Eve (which were absent in the text itself) served to remind the audience that these virtuous women were anomalies in a world that fell due to the actions of a woman, the “sex that was more frail.”

Feminine frailty served as the link for Augustine to discuss Perpetua’s vision of being transformed into a man.  In the City of God, Augustine made clear that resurrected bodies of women would retain the appearance of women, including their genitalia.  Women would not be resurrected as male.  So, Perpetua’s vision was not a preview of the world to come.  Instead, Augustine saw the transformation of Perpetua as a divine demonstration showing that women were weak and thus only someone “manly” could withstand the kind of testing that had confronted the martyrs.  As he said, “even in them that are women in body the manliness of their soul hideth the sex of their flesh.”  And again, God “made these women to die in a manly and faithful fashion.”

Augustine returned to the transformation of Perpetua in his tract on the nature and origin of the soul.  He stressed that Perpetua’s transformation into a man was reflective of the complete transformation of the womanly interior into a male one.  He said that her mind had been as changed as her body.  There had to be no trace of the woman left in her, for in her dream her body did not “keep the shape of its vagina.  For in that female flesh no male genitalia were to be found.”  In this life, male and female were dramatically different, and they remained so in Augustine’s explanations.  In the bishop’s hands the accomplishment of the women and the dram of Perpetua served to illustrate a lesson of feminine frailty and imperfection that was wholly absent from the original text.

Finally, Augustine returned repeatedly to the question of why the day was named after the two women: Why were they, not Saturus, Saturninus, Revocatus, or Secundus, preserved most vividly in the memory of the martyrdom?  It seems that the obvious answer was that it was Perpetua who wrote the most dramatic portions of the text.  But such an explanation would give a great deal of credit and power to the woman, and Augustine did not do so.  Instead, he saw the naming of the day as part of God’s plan to give a lesson to subsequent generations.  Throughout the sermons, Augustine repeatedly made a pun on the names of the two women.  He said that all martyrs withstand the trials so “that they may rejoice in perpetual felicity.  And therefore although there was in that contest a goodly company, with the names of these two the eternity of all is signified.”  The day was named after the two women so that all would remember that martyrdom brought with it perpetual felicity and, further, that all Christians could receive that same reward.  Once again, Augustine removed much of the women’s credit for their achievement, making their fame a function of the moral lesson given by their names.  He said directly that the day was named for them “not because women were preferred before men” but to show that people can earn “perpetual felicity” through manly behavior.  This repeated emphasis on the pun was out of character for the eloquent orator, but it shows the lengths to which he went to make the day of these women martyrs consistent with a view of church and society that was inconsistent with the early third century in which they died.

Quodvultdeo, the bishop of Carthage in the mid-fifth century, continued the same themes that Augustine had established to explain the gender discrepancy.  Quodvultdeo, too, could not understand why the names of the women were placed above those of the male martyrs; for him, the “weaker” women could not have exceeded the men in bravery.  He solved the dilemma by explaining that the frail women were helped by divine grace (given them in the “milk” Perpetua received from the shepherd in her vision) to overcome their womanly nature.  Like Augustine, he was amazed that the weak women, heirs to Eve, could have overcome the “fevers of the flesh,” the rigors of childbirth, and the demands of maternity to accept martyrdom.  For him, the text was not about the strength of these women but, by contrast, highlighted what he saw as feminine frailty, and this is what he stressed to his congregations as he explained the text they had just heard.

For centuries the faithful of Carthage remembered the martyrdom of Perpetua.  The recollection was strengthened by the presence of her remains in the basilica that formed the sacred space of the memory.  Her deeds were annually recalled by the public reading of her diary, and constantly made relevant (whether we like the interpretation or not) by churchmen commenting on the text.  In the turmoil of the late empire, however, the special center of the cult was lost.  The Vandals took over the basilica for their own worship, and after the Arab conquest in the seventh century, the relics were lost.  Her memory was not lost, however.  A mosaic of Perpetua was made in Ravenna at the end of the fifth century as a recollection of her martyrdom.

In the nineteenth century, the French excavations in Carthage restored the physical space of the memory of the martyrs.  The stone that marked the graves of the martyrs was found and (heavily) restored.  More visible was the work done in the amphitheater by the White Fathers, who wanted to recapture the remains of Chrisitan North Africa.  The great structure of the Carthage amphitheater had fallen to rubble in the intervening centuries, and all that remained was the ground floor and the subterranean passages through which the martyrs had come into the amphitheater.  The churchmen built a small chapel dedicated to Perpetua in the passage to mark the place of the passion and to give physical space again to the memory of the small group.  The White Fathers were right; the ruins of the amphitheater offer a powerful physical reminder of the martyrdom that occurred here.  If Augustine was right that memory required physical remains as well as a text, then perhaps that was what the White Fathers were intending to restore.

The physical memorial to Perpetua’s passion may have disappeared for a while, but the diary in which she recorded her experiences, feelings, and dreams as she prepared for martyrdom did not lie forgotten.  Virtually from the moment of its writing it became public property, not only to be read but to be interpreted and explained, first by the eyewitness to her passion, then by churchmen giving sermons surrounding the text, and by writers (including me) through the ages analyzing the clear, direct words of the martyr.  Sometimes Perpetua’s words were refracted through a lens of gender that caused male writers like Augustine to add to the text meanings that had nothing to do with the intelligent, passionate young Roman matron.  As Brent Shaw sensitively notes, “From the very start the text was buried under an avalanche of male interpretations, rereadings, and distortions.”

The text was also refracted through a temporal lens.  Obviously, the world, the church, and people’s sensibilities have changed since the third century.  Augustine felt he had to explain and reinterpret the text to make it relevant to the fourth-century audience.  These reinterpretations did not end in the fourth century.  Modern Freudian scholars have seen psychoanalytic meaning in the text.  Some modern theologians see in the text evidence of women’s serving as priests during the early church.  As Margaret Miles notes, “The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas is an unusually vivid example of the appropriation of a woman’s writing as support for theological and ecclesiastical concerns that her text does not acknowledge as her own.”

This constant reinterpretation of the text is not necessarily a bad thing.  In this opinion, I depart from most who have commented on the history of Perpetua’s memory.  We talk of great literature as being “timeless,” and by this we do not really mean that it stand outside time.  Instead, we mean that it can speak to human experience through many times.  This is what the direct and powerful text of Perpetua does.  It is so human that it lends itself to human experience in many times and for both genders.  That is not to say that we should so transform her text that it no longer speaks with the voice of the young martyr.  That would be creativity, not memory.

In Perpetua’s diary, we can see the way she brought the memories of her Carthaginian and Roman past to serve the immediate experience of her martyrdom, to be relevant to her present.  What we do when we read the text is much the same.  We use the memory of her actions and her words to enhance the meaning of our own experience.  Throughout history that has been the definition of great people and great literature, and for this they are remembered.

References noted:
Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints
Celsus, On the True Doctrine
Bynum, Caroline Walker, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity


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