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Women Martyrs beyond the Feminine Ideal

By Juliana Marques Morais, Doctor in Social History, Universidade de São Paulo.

Rome, Piazza Navona. On the left, the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone. Photo: Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira.

Among the sumptuous buildings that make up the Roman historic centre, the Basilica of Sant’Agnese in Agone, located in Piazza Navona, stands out in the landscape for its magnitude. One of its main attractions is the small sanctuary installed inside, where the skull of St. Agnes is deposited. The young Roman citizen is one (perhaps the best known and celebrated) of the female figures that make up the illustrious group of Christian martyrs, victims of the persecutions carried out by the Roman authorities between the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The story of the martyrdom of St. Agnes was told and retold over the centuries. With each new composition, the narrative gained miraculous and extraordinary details, in a plot full of revenge, heroism and plot twist, which is second to none to modern fictions and fantasies. Agnes would have been between 12 and 13 years old when she turned down the marriage proposal of the prefect of Rome's son. With his pride wounded, he denounced her to the authorities for being a practitioner of Christianity – considered, at least since the second century, an illegal religion (religio ilicita). Apparently, the young woman was sentenced to death for refusing to pay honours and sacrifices to the gods, whose obligation was provided for in one of the edicts issued by the Emperor Diocletian between the years 303 and 304, a period that came to be known as the Great Persecution.

Before being executed, the martyr was sentenced to a series of public humiliations, including being exposed naked in a brothel.However, miraculous interventions such as a light that blinded the viewer or even the sudden growth of hair in order to cover her body, prevented her purity from being violated.

You may know stories like this one, which recount the actions of women and men who were arrested, tortured and/or executed in defence of their faith. Many of them came down to us through acta, passions and legends written for different purposes, among which to preserve the memory of the martyrs and create models of behaviour. In this last aspect, the narratives that have female martyrs, most of the time, have a common point: in addition to having the same attributes as the male martyrs, such as bravery and resilience, women were attributed virtues such as chastity, purity and modesty, which contributed to the establishment of an idealized model of female behaviour.

Even having a feminine ideal as a premise, these texts can help us understand aspects of these women's lives beyond the religious sphere. For this, it is necessary that our gaze is directed to the actions and possible intentions of these characters. In the case of Saint Agnes, for example, we can highlight the non-compliance with current social standards, through the refusal of an unwanted marriage.

In some rare cases, we are fortunate to come across texts in which these women have an active voice, giving meaning to their own experience. One of the most fascinating examples can be found in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, an early third-century text that chronicles the arrest, conviction, and last days of young catechumens who suffered martyrdom in the North African city of Carthage, in 203. The text is composed, almost in its entirety, by the diary of one of the martyrs, Vibia Perpetua, who wrote it in prison, while awaiting trial. Perpetua, who was in her early twenties when she suffered martyrdom, was condemned along with her companion in martyrdom, Felicity, to fight the wild beasts in the amphitheatre (ad bestias). The animal chosen was a cow, as a form of humiliation, considering that Perpetua was still lactating when she was arrested and Felicity had given birth in prison.

Perpetua, mosaic from the 5th century AD Ravenna, Archiepiscopal Chapel. Source: OMNIA - Europe's culture in one place

Unlike Felicity, who was a slave, Perpetua was of noble family, educated in the liberal arts, legitimately married and the mother of a small child (Passio Perp. II). Although the figure of the husband is omitted from the diary, the father's presence is constant in the account. The edict of Emperor Septimius Severus, issued in the year 202, prohibited conversion to Christianity and Judaism, under penalty of death. However, those who denied their Christian faith could be released. Based on this idea, Perpetua's father visits her several times in prison, with the goal of convincing her to give up what he calls “madness”. Among the arguments were Perpetua's abandonment of her duties as a wife and mother and the shame she brought to the family, not only for the criminal act, but for her disobedience to the father figure.

At the same time that she suffered social and family sanctions represented by the father figure, Perpetua gained power and prestige before the religious community, while remaining unyielding in her decision and advancing towards martyrdom. As the narrative progresses, her status changes. The soldiers who “[…] treated us brutally” (Passio Perp. III) began, with Prudentius, soldier and prison officer, to show great consideration for the group, “[…] for understanding that there was a great virtue in us” (Passio Perp. IX). From a young catechumen she is now treated as a Mistress (domina), first by her brother: “Mistress sister, she has reached a high dignity, so high that you can ask for a vision […]” (Passio Perp. IV). Later, even for her father: “So he spoke like a father, kissed my hands, and threw himself at my feet, and called me in tears, no longer his daughter, but his mistress” (Passio Perp. V).

Although the group of martyrs was composed of women from different social strata, when we think from a broader point of view, they were all inserted in certain subordinate relationships in the social sphere. Whether as slaves, daughters, or wives, women responded to the authority of the pater familias. Martyrdom was often a way of subverting these relationships.

Thus, more than examples of chastity and purity, what the martyrdom texts reveal to us is that women martyrs, in most cases, challenged both the State and the social conventions imposed by a patriarchal society. As a reward, they shared with their brothers in faith, “on equal footing”, the honours attributed to the martyrs, without distinction of gender or social class.

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