Hiding the Sex of their Flesh
Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been many documents displaying stories of martyrs. The word ‘martyrdom’ is derived from the Greek martyrein, meaning ‘to bear witness’. In Christian understanding this has meant witnessing to Christ and to the Christian faith, even under pain of death at the hands of others. Most of these reports show martyrs as men, who demonstrate courage and honor in the face of those challenging their commitment to their faith. The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity expresses the account of two female Christian martyrs in 203 A.D. and their personal reflections in reaction to their oppression. Perpetua’s memoir reveals an insight unto her life and how these two model—in the mist of persecution—striving towards freedom against their family blood and male oppressors. Gender roles have played a huge role in society as far back as written history goes. Perpetua was not confined by how she was supposed to act as a woman and took a traditionally masculine role in several situations. Perpetua did not value her femininity as strength, rather she shed it and deliberately masculinized herself to be strong; upholding the false idea that the only way to be heroic is to be like a man. This story reflects about beliefs of the early church in correlation with the experience of a female martyr and provides insight into how the male-dominated culture of that time biasedly interpreted the actions of courageous Christian women merely as characteristic of men: Women can take on a masculine role for the sake of God to the point where they “become men” in the eyes of Christianity. The first presentation of Perpetua’s transcendence of gender roles was the complete lack of presence or influence from her husband. He was not even named in the text, and there was no indication of his existence other than a statement that Perpetua was “wedded honorably”1. Therefore, Perpetua was in an ideal situation where all restrictions fro a woman were lifted for her. She was respectably married and therefore not subservient to her birth family or looked down upon by society for being unattached, yet her husband had no authority over her and did not even have a presence. The reader never saw any indication Perpetua could love someone other than God. The construct of virginity is essential to Perpetua shedding her womanhood and transcending gender roles. The biggest asset a women holds is her appeal to her emotions and her motherhood, mainly regarding her family and own offspring. As David M. Scholer states, “…a women is basically a person of emotions, and that her prime role in life is to be devoted to her children”2. Both Perpetua and Felicity were wives and mothers. Perpetua shows overwhelming anxiety about caring or her baby in prison, “After a few days we were taken into prison, and I was mush afraid because I had never known such darkness…Lastly I was tormented there by the care for the child.”3 While, Felicity imprisoned eight months pregnant prays that she may delivers her child in time to before the execution, “Wherefore with joint and united groaning they poured out their prayer to the Lord, three days before the games.”4 Both women demonstrate that strong connection to kinship and appeal to their natural womanly behavior. Perpetua’s rejection of her motherhood was an essential turning point in her journey that allowed her to truly be a martyr. Perpetua’s baby and her lactating breasts were displayed as strong symbols of her femininity. She was nurturing and caretaking in the way a woman was expected to and devoting herself to another being other than God. But Perpetua separated herself entirely from her child in order to become a true martyr, thus opting out of both sexuality and femininity. Both her child and her own body reflect this, “And as God willed, no longer did he need to be suckled, nor did I take fever; that I might not be tormented by care for the child and by the...
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