Reflecting on St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas

*This was written in answer to the question: “Medieval saints legends were widely circulated, intended for use as devotional literature and in order to communicate key aspects of Christian living which the clergy thought important to show the laity embodied in examples. What is being promoted in the account of Perpetua and Felicitas?”

Click here for a selection of the account in translation.

These accounts of Perpetua and Felicitas and their martyrdom were very moving. It would be remiss of me as an aspiring Christian historian and theologian not to reflect upon the spiritual importance of their life and death. Embellished and exact or not, these accounts of persecution at the hands of Roman authorities are at least true insofar as things like this really happened, even if not really to an actual Perpetua and Felicitas–though their accounts are generally considered among the more reliable (certainly more so than Foxe’s later medieval accounts of Catholic persecution of Protestants). What I appreciate most of all is demonstration of the profound difference Christ makes in suffering. What must have driven the Romans crazy was that, despite their aptitude for torture and killing, they could not victimize Christians. Martyrdom is the nullification of victimization. Suffering is privilege, death is victory, and so on. For the Christian, who strives through a lifetime of weakness and temptation for “Christlikeness,” to die a martyr’s death is a gift–precisely because there is no more unifying common experience available for a Christian and her Lord.

By way of answering the question of what this account of the death of St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas might have been promoting, given their context as martyr saints legends in the early medieval period, I find it useful to point out the recurring themes. First, prayer and intercession are at the heart of the account. Perpetua’s intercession on behalf of others, especially for her deceased brother who was apparently suffering post-mortem[1], reveal what was retained as one of the most basic activities of the saints throughout the ages. I was also struck at Perpetua’s awareness of and sharing in the suffering of those she loved. She feels her father being beaten by Roman guards and her brother’s pain. Her awareness of their suffering compels her to further intercession on their behalf. Suffering is welcome for its unique way of uniting one with Christ, as Felicitas testified “I suffer by myself [regarding giving birth]. But then [referring to her martyrdom] another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him.”[2] Another key theme is that of visions. Perpetua’s brother suggests she pray to receive a vision, which comes in the form of her own triumph over a dragon and climbing up a ladder in pursuit of Saturus (a fellow prisoner and eventual martyr).[3] This was especially intriguing as the vision seems to go so well, they are victorious over the dragon and ascending the perilous ladder and receive a mouthful of fresh milk, but then Perpetua awakes and immediately understands and tells her brother this means “we will have to suffer.”[4] She has several other visions, the most memorable being her transformation into a man who gets oiled down before a brawl with an Egyptian.[5]

I find that Perpetua and Felicitas were both young mothers is an important detail or promotion. It is intriguing that these martyr legends have self-sacrificing motherly virtues as such a strong theme as compared to later medieval virgin martyr legends (Karen Winstead’s book). There is still of course the fascination with female breasts,–“mammary miracles.” Perpetua prays and is relieved of “any discomfort in [her] breasts” after a premature separation from her infant (who also miraculously “had no further desire for the breast” upon the separation).[6] The dynamic between Perpetua and her father is intriguing. Her father seems to be playing the role of what would later become unsavory pagan princes trying to lure young virgin Christian women away from their purity and devotion to Christ. Her father is not quite so malicious, but he pleads with her to offer the pagan sacrifice and recant of her exclusive devotion to the Christian faith. Her persistence in orthodoxy is exemplary, and undoubtedly a theme which readers are meant to note and emulate. Beyond these basic tenets of Christian spirituality being posited, prayer particularly, the end of the account may include a brief lapse in “sticking to the facts.” The contemporary author who has to include the details about Perpetua and Felicitas’ deaths includes that Perpetua “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.” This, at least on the surface, seems to be more an injection of early medieval pastoral advice to young women concerning modesty than a fitting detail from the actual events.

[1] St .Perpetua, Part 7 (page 60).

[2] St. Perpetua, Part 15 (page 62).

[3] St. Perpetua, Part 4 (page 59).

[4] St. Perpetua, Part 4 (page 59).

[5] St. Perpetua, Part 9 (page 61).

[6] St. Perpetua, Part 6 (page 60).