The Template of St. Perpetua

St. Perpetua, looking mighty white for a North African in this stained glass window.

My wife and I have been watching the excellent 11-year-old PBS series, From Jesus to Christ, online over the last couple weeks. This scholarly approach to the origins of Christianity is a great introduction to those looking into where all this tradition got started.

The last segment of the series focuses on the early Roman persecutions as well as the cult of the martyrs and the Christian subversion of pagan Roman rule through the use of social programs (like Hamas, only without the guns and bombs). One of the most striking details of the series, for me anyway, was the tale of Perpetua, whose diary of imprisonment and pregnancy in captivity the show credits with launching the martyrdom testimonial tradition that seems to have eventually led to the creation of the Martyrs Mirror.

Perpetua gets a mention in the Mirror. It’s a decent half-page entry with some good detail, but it does not tell the heroic postmortem death sequence tacked on to the original diary, which is why it did not initially grasp my attention. The Mirror’s account includes a quote from the patriarch Tertullian, presumably the main source here, and puts Perpetua’s death at 201 C.E. in Tuburbi, a city in Mauritania, a province in North Africa.

Perpetua, as the journal story goes, gave birth while in prison. In addition to having her newborn baby torn from her breast, Perpetua was killed, along with her friend Felicity, by wild beasts and gladiators as entertainment for the masses on the occasion of the Emperor’s birthday:

For the young women, however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.

First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.

Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side. But the cruelty of the mob was by now appeased, and so they were called back through the Gate of Life.

There Perpetua was held up by a man named Rusticus who was at the time a catechumen and kept close to her. She awoke from a kind of sleep (so absorbed had she been in ecstasy in the Spirit) and she began to look about her. Then to the amazement of all she said: “When are we going to be thrown to that heifer or whatever it is?”

Perpetua had apparently been knocked silly, but not killed. So, she was dragged back out into the arena to have her throat cut by a nervous gladiator.

She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.

Yeah, it’s pretty spectacular and hardcore, but so are a lot of stories in the Mirror. People are always rejoicing on their way to death, bravely and stoically resisting torture and bringing great awe and fear to the hearts of their tormentors. These martyr stories are a literary genre, not historical fact, and Perpetua’s tale is as good a template as you are going to find.

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One Response to “The Template of St. Perpetua”

  1. […] her sister-in-law, was burned at the stake in 1544 in Utrecht. The story contains all the usual martyr template plot points and then cuts off as the women are tied to the […]

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