2. Ambrose, Augustine, Perpetua:
Defining Gender across the Mediterranean

Margaret Cotter-Lynch

[print edition page number: 25]

In the fourth century, St. Ambrose wrote, “One who does not believe is a woman and should be designated in the name of that sex, whereas one who believes progresses to perfect manhood.”[1] A few years later, St. Jerome echoed the sentiment when he wrote, “As long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul. But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman, and will be called man.”[2] The trope of particularly virtuous religious women “becoming male” is well established and well studied in medieval feminist circles. As Christianity developed within a deeply patriarchal structure, biblical dictates for the inclusion or even equality of women before the Lord were easily interpreted to imply that virtuous Christian women, by becoming “as good as men,” were, in fact, “becoming men.” Much scholarship in the past thirty years has examined the phenomenon of early Christian, late antique, and medieval religious women discussed in male terms, their virtue (pun intended) figured as transcendence of their flawed female status in order to achieve the superior spiritual status of a male.[3]

However, while such rhetoric and attitudes did certainly exist (and persist) and arguably became dominant from the late fourth century onward, I would like to suggest that the extant literature from the first four centuries of Christianity offers a much more complex variety of thinking about gender difference than many scholars acknowledge. I argue that many of our contemporary readings of early texts, specifically early texts about women, are overly influenced[26] by later ideological accruals in which gender binaries are in fact re-established through the trope of virtuous women “becoming male.” Such descriptions of medieval religious women reify a clearly hierachized gender binary, in which, paradoxically, sexual difference is absolute, and overcoming or transcending this difference is cause for celebration. An individual is, in the formulations of Ambrose and Jerome, always either male or female. One may, in extraordinary circumstances, transform from one to the other, but these patristic writers do not consider the option of escaping gender categorization entirely, or fully inhabiting both genders at once. In contrast, I suggest that in the Mediterranean of the first four centuries of the Common Era, just such options were considered, if ultimately rejected. Turning our scholarly attention to the representation of gender in early Christian texts such as the Passio Perpetuae reveals a wider range of possible formulations of gender identity. By re-examining this range of ways of talking about gender in the late ancient Mediterranean, I hope that we can recuperate the origins of later gender formulations and their implications. In order to do this, I propose to trace the first 200 years of the life of the story of St. Perpetua, starting with her prison diary, the earliest known autobiographical text composed by a woman.

St. Perpetua, a twenty-two-year-old nursing mother, was executed in the arena at Carthage on 7 March 203 ce on charges of being a Christian. We have extant an early composite text, which scholarly consensus has generally accepted as containing her autobiographical account of her time in prison, including four visions that she understood to be divinely inspired; a section written by her fellow-martyr Saturus, recounting a divinely inspired vision that he experienced; and a framing narrative by an anonymous redactor and apparent eye witness to her death in the arena. The story of Perpetua has enjoyed enormous popularity and attention, in the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds; it has been subjected to numerous retellings and commentaries, by both ancient authors and modern scholars.[4] The early dissemination of Perpetua’s story demonstrates the religious and cultural networks that connected the early third-century Mediterranean, as Perpetua, a North African woman heavily influenced by the New Prophecy movement from Anatolia, had her story reframed through the theology of St. Ambrose in Italy, Augustine in North Africa, and Jerome in the Holy Land, as it spread throughout the Mediterranean world.[5]

Perpetua’s third-century prison diary demonstrates that her status as a Christian is clear and important, while her gender, perhaps, is neither. Or, more[27] precisely, her gender is not an impediment, or even a clear boundary. In recounting the story of her imprisonment on charges of being a Christian, Perpetua relates her concern for the well-being of her infant son, her complex but clearly affectionate relationship with her parents and brothers, and her role as vocal leader of a group of imprisoned Christians. Her prophetic dreams figure her as a new Jacob and a gladiator fighting Satan in the arena. The same person can both nurse a baby and fight in combat; gender markers can and do mix, and the biblical injunction that there is “neither male nor female for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) is logically extended to imply that one can be both male and female at once. For later Christians, especially St. Augustine, this formulation causes problems. In this paper I trace the first 200 years of the story of St. Perpetua’s story, from her self-authored Passio, composed in 203 ce, through the anonymous fourth-century Acta, in which her story is simplified and rewritten in two different forms, to the three sermons about Perpetua composed by St. Augustine in the early fifth century. I argue that in this progression of stories we see an increasing emphasis on gender dichotomy and hierarchy, until Augustine’s sermons overwrite Perpetua’s story with St. Ambrose’s paradigm that, “[o]ne who does not believe is a woman and should be designated in the name of that sex, whereas one who believes progresses to perfect manhood.” This version of Perpetua, who overcomes her femininity to “become male,” then dominates the medieval tradition and becomes a model for later Christian women. Augustine thus codifies an understanding of gender that, paradoxically, by allowing for the possibility of holy women “becoming male,” simultaneously asserts the inherent hierarchy of male over female and indelibly yokes gender definitions to sexuality for the next 1600 years.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians (3:28), famously states “there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[6] As Barbara Newman explains in From Virile Woman to WomanChrist, this exhortation to the transcendence of sex was often understood, as evidenced in the quotes cited above, to mean leaving behind one’s female sex in order to become male, as women were seen as defined by their sex in a way that men were not. Dyan Elliott cites the Passio Perptuae as an example of this idea of “becoming male”; however, she also describes another possibility suggested by Luke 20:35:

But they that shall be accounted worthy of that world, and of the resurrection from the dead, shall neither be married, nor take wives. Neither can they die any more: for they are equal to the angels, and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.[28]

This passage, in combination with Galatians, led some early Christians to suggest that chastity be understood as leading to the “vita angelica,” or a sex/genderless identity equivalent to that of the angels. Tertullian of Carthage, a contemporary of Perpetua’s, was one of the early promoters of this interpretation, although he turned away from it in his later writings out of concern for maintaining the clear differentiation between humans and angels.[7] Peter Brown has identified the idea of the eradication of sexual difference through asceticism as especially prominent in late antique Syria, of which he writes, “Of all the restricting boundaries that defined settled society, that between the sexes was the most blatant. Hence, it also could be shown to vanish in a life lived in imitation of the angels.”[8] However, as the examples cited by both Elliott and Brown show, in practice, for many male writers and theologians, androgyny ended up looking distinctively male.[9]

However, taken at face value, Paul seems to indicate an eradication of gender classification, not the hierarchical privilege of one gender over another. I offer the proposition that returning to the biblical phrase, rather than the patristic reading of it, can be instructive for understanding the Passion of St. Perpetua. Perpetua, I claim, presents herself as “neither male nor female” specifically by presenting herself as at once male and female, thus undermining the very idea of gender categories and their relevance in the face of Christianity. Perpetua’s Passio presents one of the very few extant early Christian documents composed by a woman; as such, it offers us an opportunity to see a possibility for an ancient understanding of Christianity as expressed by a female, rather than male, author.

Most discussions of gender in the Passio depend upon readings of the fourth dream Perpetua reports experiencing while in prison awaiting her execution. To briefly summarize the contents of this divinely inspired vision, Perpetua is escorted from prison by the deacon Pomponius, who leads her to the amphitheater where she knows she is to be martyred. Once there, Pomponius reassures her and departs, leaving her in the middle of the arena, watched by the crowd. Then, she tells us, according to Heffernan’s translation (emphasis mine):

And I was stripped naked, and I became a man. And my supporters began to rub me with oil, as they are accustomed to do for a match. And I saw that Egyptian on the other side rolling in the dust. Next there came out a man of such great size that he exceeded the height of the amphitheater. He was wearing an unbelted robe, a purple garment with two stripes running down the middle of his chest, and decorated shoes made of gold and silver, and carrying a rod or wand as if a gladiator trainer, and a green branch on[29] which there were golden apples. And he asked for silence and said: “This Egyptian, if he defeats this woman, will kill her with the sword, but if she defeats him, she shall receive this branch.” And he departed. And we drew near to each other and began to throw punches at each other. He kept trying to grab hold of my feet while I kept kicking him in his face with my heels. And I was raised up into the air, and I began to strike him stepping on his face, as though I were unable to step on the ground. But when I saw that there was a hesitation, I joined my hands so that my fingers were knit together and I grabbed a hold of his head. And he fell on his face and I stepped on his head. And the crowd began to shout and my supporters began to sing hymns. And I went to the gladiator trainer, and I took the branch. And he kissed me and he said to me: “Daughter, peace be with you.” And I began to walk in triumph to the Gate of Life. And then I woke up. And I knew that I was going to fight with the devil and not with the beasts; but I knew that victory was to be mine.

(Et expoliata sum, et facta sum masculus, et coeperunt me favisores mei oleo defricare, quomodo solent in agone; et illum contra Egyptium video in afa volutantem. Et exivit vir quidam mirae magnitudinis, ut etiam excederet fastigium amphit[h]eatri, discinctatus, purpuram inter duos clavos per medium pectus habens, et galliculas multiformes ex auro et argento factas, et ferens virgam quasi lanista, et ramum viridem in quo erant mala aurea. Et petiit silentium et dixit: “Hic Aegyptius, si hanc vicerit, occidet illam gladio; haec, si hunc vicerit, accipiet ramum istum. Et recessit. Et accessimus ad invicem et coepimus mittere pugnos; ille mihi pedes apprehendere volebat, ego autem illi calcibus faciem caedebam. Et sublata sum in aere, et coepi eum sic caedere quasi terram non calcans. At ubi vidi moram fieri, iunxi manus, ut digitos in digitos mitterem, et apprehendi illi caput, et cedidit in faciem, et calcavi illi caput. Et coepit populus clamare et fautores mei psallere. Et accessi ad lanistam et accepi. Et osculatus est me et dixit mihi: “Filia, pax tecum.” Et coepi ire cum gloria ad portam Sanavivariam. Et experta sum. Et intellexi me non ad bestias sed contra diabolum esse pugnaturam; sed sciebam mihi esse victoria[m].)[10]

Upon waking, Perpetua explains that she understood the dream to mean that she and her fellow imprisoned Christians were to be martyred, and that by their deaths they would in fact be defeating Satan. There are, obviously, a number of salient points for discussing the allegorical nature of Perpetua’s reported dream, but for the purpose of the present argument, we will concentrate on the representation of her gender and whether or how it is transformed both within the dream and through its narration.[30]

The scholarly literature on gender in the Passio is enormous and has been variously approached with particular attention to questions of literary genre and tradition, the construction of authority, Roman versus Christian family structures, theology, and psychoanalysis, to name but the most prominent approaches.[11] All such readings of gender in the Passio must somehow account for the contents of the gladiatorial dream. In the standard modern account of this dream, in order to engage in this contest, the young woman Perpetua is miraculously transformed into a man. Peter Dronke, in the first chapter of his seminal Women Writers of the Middle Ages, writes, “She is stripped of her womanly clothes, and becomes masculine [. . .] Perpetua wants to strip herself of all that is weak, or womanish, in her nature.”[12] Joyce Salisbury, in Perpetua’s Passion, the Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman, writes:

Certainly there is no more vivid image of personal change than Perpetua’s dream image in which she is transformed into a man [. . .] If one is looking for a metaphor of personal change, one cannot do better than a transformation of one’s gender, which is at the heart of one’s self-identity. In her dream, Perpetua was changed into a man. Led by the deacon of her new community, she was fully transformed from her old self into a new empowered individual who could stand in the arena and fight for what she believed.[13]

Most readings of Perpetua’s fourth dream seek to show Perpetua as a young woman empowered by her faith and her impending martyrdom, and they claim that this empowerment is oneirically expressed in essentialized gendered terms — men are more powerful than women, thus becoming powerful means becoming a man. Salisbury even takes for granted that “gender . . . is at the heart of one’s self-identity.” While certainly Dronke and Salisbury would argue that such gender binaries are cultural constructs, they never seem to question whether this particular construct was essential to Perpetua’s view of herself and her world — or, as we can more easily see from a distance of nearly 2000 years, whether such gender binaries are integral to her self-presentation in this autobiographical text.

Thomas Heffernan also discusses this episode in terms of “gender transformation.” He writes of the moment when Perpetua’s garments are stripped from her:

She must be naked to wrestle, but more importantly, she must be naked so that her gender transformation stands revealed. Her clothing hides her[31] femininity, but her nakedness reveals her masculine identity. As soon as she is stripped naked, she is revealed as a man. For the contest to be credible, for her to emerge as the champion of Christ, his miles Christi, she must divest herself of her femininity and take on a male persona [. . .]this gender transformation is a projection of her own unconscious desire to seek martyrdom, and as such it exhibits her social understanding that the role of the martyr requires a transformation from the traditional depiction of females as nonagressive and domestic to one of male combativeness. (see Augustine, Sermons 280 and 281)[14]

Heffernan here follows centuries of previous scholars in reading Perpetua’s “transformation” as not only metaphorical but also physical (within the dream), implying that she visibly acquires male anatomy (presumably a phallus) within her dream. In his reading of the Passio, Heffernan even cites directly, as source of his interpretation, Augustine’s explanation of Perpetua’s “becoming male.” As we will see, it is clear that Augustine interprets Perpetua’s dream this way, but such an interpretation is not self-evident in the early text itself. Rather, I propose that Perpetua’s account of her dream expressly denies that she becomes physically and essentially male, instead suggesting that martyrs such as herself simultaneously inhabit both genders, perhaps even eradicating the relevance of gender as a category in the face of Christian eschatology.

I argue that reading this vision as the one in which Perpetua “becomes male” misreads the inherent ambiguity of the Latin. In modern English translation, part of this misreading is linguistic — English does not attach gender to adjectives and participles, as Latin does, and so the initial phrase signaling Perpetua’s transformation — “facta sum masculus” — loses its gendered difficulty. As Maud Burnett McInerney has explained, this phrase is inherently and necessarily problematic in Latin, since the subject of the sentence is marked as female, and the adjective is marked as male.[15] The sentence thus effectively says, “I, as a woman, was made male.” McInerney reads this sentence as a vector: Perpetua begins the sentence as a female (indicated by the feminine participle facta) and undergoes a transformation in order to end the sentence as a male (indicated by the masculine adjective masculus). I, however, read this sentence differently. Grammatically, in Latin as well as English, the verb to be or esse/sum functions as an equal sign. In Latin, the nouns or adjectives on each side of this verb are to agree in gender, number, and case; thus, masculus is in the nominative case, equal to the (unstated) subject of the sentence. Therefore, instead of reading this sentence as a vector in which Perpetua becomes male, I read this sentence as an equation, in which she is at once male and female. Thus I argue that the sentence effectively dismantles conventional gender dichotomies, to mark Perpetua as simultaneously[32] male and female. While I agree that Perpetua undergoes an oneiric transformation that allows her to fight as a gladiator in the arena, in my view, she does not become male. Rather, she transcends the binary gender categories that dictate that women cannot be gladiators by redefining the categories themselves: as a woman, she becomes male, inhabiting both genders at once. This reading is further supported by the sentence’s diction: masculus is translated by Heffernan (and most other English translators of the Passio) as a substantive, an adjective that grammatically functions as a noun within the sentence. The effect here is to say “I, as a woman, was made a thing which is male.” This word choice is important because the substantive maintains some of its adjectival quality; the sentence does not say, for instance, “facta sum vir,” or even “factus sum vir,” which would most directly and unambiguously portray a transformation into a man. Instead, this sentence, in both its grammar and diction, indicates the simultaneity of two genders within the oneiric Perpetua.

My reading of this sentence is supported by the gender markers attached to Perpetua through the rest of her vision: Perpetua, while engaging in gladiatorial combat, is repeatedly addressed by the trainer using feminine pronouns. When referring to her own actions in the oneiric combat, Perpetua uses the feminine form of the past participle (sublata sum). At the conclusion of the fight, the trainer addresses the victorious Perpetua as “filia”/“daughter.” When Perpetua awakes, she again uses a feminine participle in the phrase “experta sum,” signaling a gender continuity between the oneiric Perpetua who fought in gladiatorial combat and the Perpetua who awakens in the prison cell. Finally, in her interpretation of the dream’s significance, Perpetua again uses the feminine participle in the phrase “esse pugnaturam.” We thus see a continuity in gender markers attached to the dream-character Perpetua, the Perpetua who experiences the dream in the prison cell, and the Perpetua who will die in the arena. In fact, the only marker of her male gender in the narration of the dream is the single word masculus–unless we assume, as so many interpreters have, that women cannot fight. But such an argument from Perpetua’s oneiric actions is a clear reification of traditional gender expectations based upon cultural assumptions, rather than Perpetua’s text itself. What Perpetua’s text actually tells us is that, as a woman, she also became male, and as a woman (thus the feminine pronouns) with this acquired masculinity, she (and the pronoun is significant here) fought as a gladiator (within the dream) and against the devil (in the prophetic fulfillment of the allegory of the dream). In view of all of this, I argue that Perpetua clearly and explicitly does not become male but, rather, is at once male and female, figuring Paul’s exhortation to be “neither male nor female” in an entirely different light than Augustine. She does not cross gender boundaries; she eradicates them.

The ambiguity of Perpetua’s gender identification in this fourth dream has been recently discussed by both Barbara Gold and Craig Williams. While Gold follows many previous readers in understanding “facta sum masculus” as indicating a physical change within the dream, she describes a pervasive destabilization[33] of gender categories throughout the narrative that allows her to identify gender as an inherently ambiguous category in the Passio. In reference to the juxtaposition of facta and masculus, Gold writes, “Thus in this moment she was both male and female.”[16] She reads the use of the word masculus, as opposed to vir or mas, within the context of classical examples in which the word masculus is used in combination with the word femina to describe intersex individuals. She concludes, “The word masculus seems to signal, then, both by its form and its semantic connotation and associations, a sexual ambiguity in Perpetua’s transformation into a male body.”[17] Gold summarizes two dominant strains in the reading of Perpetua’s gender. The first, which I associated with McInerny above and which she identifies with Mieke Bal, views Perpetua as undergoing a substantive and permanent gender transformation.[18] The other interpretive possibility, with which Gold identifies, “calls Perpetua’s fixed gender identity into question, revealing a woman who often behaves in a determinedly masculine way and yet firmly identifies with her corporeality, her female relationships, and her sexuality throughout the story.”[19]

Craig Williams, meanwhile, elegantly reads both the grammar and the rhetoric of Perpetua’s fourth dream to demonstrate that the word masculus represents neither a permanent physical change in the Perpetua within the dream nor a fundamental transformation of Perpetua the dreamer’s gender identity. He identifies ample classical precedent for the rhetorical ambiguity of Perpetua’s gender, thus offering this oneiric moment as the deployment of a well-established trope of the exceptional-but-not-unique woman.[20] In his discussion of the grammar used to describe Perpetua’s dream, he points out not only the feminine pronouns and participles noted above but also a grammatical balancing of male and female identifications and images throughout the dream narrative. He objects to readings that identify the word masculus as designating a physical change in Perpetua, noting “I find neither surprise nor a hint at genital transformation in Perpetua’s narration of her dream.”[21] While Williams identifies the gender ambiguity as a narratological and oneiric effect, rather than a statement of destabilized gender categories, his careful dissection of the Latin grammar amply demonstrates the insufficiency of readings that identify in the Passio a clear change of Perpetua’s gender from entirely female to entirely male.[34]

The refusal of clear binaries and obvious contrasts that I see in her fourth dream is also characteristic of Perpetua’s narrative as a whole. The mixing of male and female in the oneiric representation of Perpetua’s martyrdom shows that this dream is not about a simple change of gender in order for this Christian woman to fit into a male ideal of sanctity. Rather, Perpetua seems to adopt the Pauline verse in earnest, questioning the very relevance of categorization based upon gender amongst Christians. As J. Louis Martyn explains in his analysis of Galatians 3:28 within its original context, “Religious, social, and sexual pairs of opposites are not replaced by equality, but rather by a newly created unity.”[22] Perpetua’s fourth dream thus offers an instantiation of this unity of genders, as the oneiric Perpetua unifies male and female within herself.

Perpetua’s rhetorical formulation of her gender identity caused discomfort almost immediately. As Barbara Gold has noted, the gender ambiguity of the autobiographical portion of the Passio stands in stark contrast to the efforts of the anonymous redactor to clearly feminize Perpetua both in the introduction to the text and the eyewitness account of her martyrdom. Taking the redactor’s text alone, we get a picture of an honorable Roman matron maintaining the traditional feminine virtues of modesty and decorum.[23] The immediate reception, insofar as we can reconstruct it, reveals a similar discomfort with the gendered implications of Perpetua’s story as she tells it.

The next important text in the diffusion of Perpetua’s story is the Acta, extant in two versions, both shorter versions of the story likely meant for liturgical use. The Acta were long thought to date from the fifth century,[24] but the discovery in 2007 of a longer version of Augustine’s sermon 282, previously known only in summary, implies that the Acta were known to Augustine and therefore may date to the fourth century.[25] While the Acta can in general be characterized[35] as a summary of the Passio, several additions, as well as strategic subtractions, are significant in how we read gender in the story.

The Acta are extant in two distinct forms, designated as I and II by Jacqueline Amat in her 1996 edition.[26] The differences between these two versions, as well as the ways in which they are distinct from the Passio, have been catalogued by J. W. Halporn,[27] and I agree with him that these three texts — the Passio, Acta I, and Acta II — should be considered as distinct works intended for distinct audiences, each with a distinct “horizon of expectation.”[28] As Halporn has noted, both versions of the Acta concentrate more on the group of martyrs as a whole and less on Perpetua as an individual; this alone makes the texts less about a woman and more about martyrdom as a category. Acta I is recounted in the first person, Acta II in the third; in Acta I, the story is told in the perfect tense, while Acta II uses the imperfect.[29] While both texts are shorter than the Passio (and II is still shorter than I), both versions add, to differing degrees, a detailed account of the interrogation of Perpetua and her companions, indicating that the author(s) of the texts was(were) either working from legal transcripts no longer extant or interpolated and adapted the interrogation scene from the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, to which the scenes in the Acta bear a notable resemblance. In any case, the other Christians martyred with Perpetua, including Felicity, get much more attention in the Acta than in the Passio. As Aviad Kleinberg has noted, in general the Acta flatten and simplify Perpetua’s story, eliminating psychological depth and conflict.[30]

Both versions of the Acta give considerably less attention to Perpetua’s fourth dream than does the Passio, and both completely elide Perpetua’s purported gender transformation. Acta I, for example, summarizes the entire dream as follows:

And when they were in prison, once more Perpetua saw a dream: an Egyptian utterly hideous and black, thrown down and rolling under their feet, and she recounted this to her holy brothers and fellow martyrs.

(Et cum essent in carcere, iterum uidit uisionem Perpetua: Aegyptium quendam horridum et nigrum, iacentem et uolatantem se sub pedibus eorum, retulitque sanctis fratribus et conmartyribus suis.)[31][36] 

Acta II reads:

Once more Perpetua was inspired by visions. She saw an Egyptian, dreadfully and blackly foul, rolling under their feet.

(Iterum Perpetua uisionibus animatur. Vidit Aegyptium horrore et nigredine taetrum, sub eorum pedibus uolutantem.)[32]

These summaries of the dream completely elide the gladiatorial aspect and Perpetua’s purported gender transformation. In addition, both versions, while maintaining the image of the Egyptian being kicked or stepped on, change the actors; instead of Perpetua as an individual stepping on the symbolic devil, in both versions of the Acta, the martyrs as a group trample the Egyptian under their feet — “eorum pedibus.”[33] I suggest that the gender-bending recounted in the Passio was omitted because it was uncomfortable to the author and/or audience of the Acta. While the Passio is characterized by gender ambiguity on a variety of levels (structural, narrative, metaphorical, grammatical), both versions of the Acta “rectify” these slippages. Most noticeable to the casual reader is the addition of a husband for Perpetua. While the introduction to the Passio tells us that Perpetua was “matronaliter nupta,” this single mention only underlines the glaring absence of her husband from the rest of the text. In the Passio he does not figure in the court proceedings, as her father does, and we are explicitly told that her parents care for her infant son in her absence, a situation that would have been surprising in a Roman legal system that normally viewed children as belonging to the father’s family.[34] In both versions of the Acta, in contrast, Perpetua’s husband accompanies her parents and infant son to visit her in prison.

At this moment, we get a striking scene that departs dramatically from both the content and mood of the Passio. The Passio devotes considerable attention to the clearly affectionate but nonetheless complex relationship between Perpetua, her father, and her family as a whole. The familial love is evident, as are the internal ruptures within the family unit caused by the religious difference between her father, on the one hand, and her (apparently Christian) mother and[37] brother, on the other. In addition, Perpetua dwells repeatedly on the conflicting emotions caused by her simultaneous love and concern for her still-nursing infant son and her desire for martyrdom. In the Acta, however, these complexities are simplified into a clear conflict between pagan family obligations, which must be rejected, and love of Christ, which must be embraced. Implicitly, this conflict between paganism and Christianity is also a conflict between the traditional role of a woman (mother, daughter, and wife), which must be rejected, and a “new” Christian identity, which, while not yet explicitly male, is explicitly not female. In response to the pleas of her father, mother, and husband to recant her faith and the attempt by her father to place her infant son in her arms, Perpetua responds:

The truly blessed Perpetua threw off the infant, and repulsed her family saying: “Depart from me workers of iniquity, for I know you not. Not without reason I consider strangers those whom I see separated from the redemption of Christ.”

(Beata vero Perpetua proiciens infantem, ac parentes repellens dixit: “Discedite a me operarii iniquitatis, quia non noui vos. Ego non inmerito alienos aestimo quos a redemptione Christi uideo separatos.”)[35]

Both versions of the Acta thus demonstrate at least three major differences from the Passio that have direct implications for how we read gender in Perpetua’s story. First, by radically abbreviating the gladiatorial dream, they erase the part of the story that most directly undermines the gender binary. Second, by shifting the focus from Perpetua as an individual to the martyrs as a group, both Acta subsume gendered elements of the story under the broader umbrella of all martyrs. And third, the Acta elide the complexity and subtlety inherent in Perpetua’s familial relationships, re-writing the story of Perpetua and her family into a clear and unambiguous demonstration of the biblical injunction “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). This transformation of the story from one about the complexity of competing categories and concepts (in the Passio) into one about clear binaries has the effect of reifying a binary gender system — in which one can be male or female but not both — and opens up the way for Augustine’s interpretation of the story.

As Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine could not help but be acquainted with Perpetua, who was, in the fourth century, the focus of a vibrant cult in North Africa. We have three extant sermons from Augustine about St. Perpetua and her companion, St. Felicitas — sermons 280, 281, and 282, this last one of the “new” Augustine sermons discovered in 2007. I locate the genesis of the tradition[38] of viewing Perpetua as a saint who “becomes male” to the first of these sermons, in which Augustine applies the Pauline verse to the two female saints. As John Kitchen has persuasively shown in his analysis of the relationship between the rhetoric of Augustine’s sermons on Perpetua and the spatial relationships of the amphitheater at Carthage, all three of these sermons are constructed around a system of contrasts and dichotomies.[36] For Augustine, the primary and recurring dichotomy in Perpetua and Felicitas’s story (for he consistently refers to the two together) is a dichotomy of gender. In Augustine’s retelling, the miracle of Perpetua is her gender transformation. The martyrdom story serves as an example of God’s continuing agency in the world specifically because two young women became manly. As Augustine says in sermon 280:

What indeed is more glorious than these women, who are more easily admired by men than imitated? But this is glory to Him most powerful, in Whom they that believe, and in Whose name the faithful assemble with zeal, are found to be according to the inward man neither male nor female;[37] so that even in those that are female in body the virtue/strength/manliness of their soul hides the sex of their flesh, and one is hard pressed to discern in their bodies what does not appear in their actions.[38]

(Quid enim gloriosius his feminis, quas viri mirantur facilius, quam imitantur? Sed hoc illius potissimum laus est, in quem credentes, et in cujus nomine fideli studio concurrentes, secundum interiorem hominem, nec masculus, nec femina inveniuntur; ut etiam in his quae sunt feminae corpore, virtus mentis sexum carnis abscondat, et in membris pigeat cogitare, quod in factis non potuit apparere.)[39]

Or similarly, in Sermon 281:

Outshining and excelling among the companion martyrs are the merits and names of Perpetua and Felicity, holy handmaids of God. For there is the crown more glorious, where the sex is weaker. Because indeed in these women a manly soul did a greater thing, when under such a weight of feminine frailty it was not defeated. Well that they clung to one Husband, to[39] Whom the unparelled chaste virgin Church is presented.[40] Well, indeed, that they clung to that Husband from Whom they drew virtue/strength/manliness to resist the devil; so that women should fell that enemy who by a woman did make man fall.

(Refulget et praeeminet inter comites martyres et meritum et nomen Perpetuae et Felicitatis, sanctarum Dei famularum. Nam ibi est corona gloriosior, ubi sexus infirmior. Quia profecto virilis animus in feminas majus aliquid fecit, quando sub tanto pondere fragilitas feminea non defecit. Bene inhaeserant uni viro, cui virgo casta unica exhibetur Ecclesia. Bene, inquam, inhaeserant illi viro, a quo virtutem traxerant, qua resisterent diabolo: ut feminae prosternerent inimicum, qui per feminam prostraverat virum.)[41]

In both of these examples, the praise of the two female saints is amplified on the basis of their gender; the miraculous nature of the narrative, according to Augustine, rests upon the profound contrast between the saints’ status as women and their courage and strength in martyrdom, explicitly figured as manly through the repeated use of the adjective virtus. This contrast between womanly frailty and manly strength is consistently emphasized throughout the sermons as the very basis of Perpetua’s sanctity. Augustine cites as an example Perpetua’s final vision, in which he claims “she was made a man (“virum se factam”) and strove with the devil.”[42] He glosses Perpetua’s first vision, in which she steps on a dragon’s head to access the ladder to heaven, through comparison to Eve, claiming that Perpetua crushed the head of the serpent by which Eve was tempted. For Augustine, Perpetua’s (and Felicitas’s) sanctity is predicated upon clear sexual difference; only through the manifest power of God could such profound difference be overcome in the ways he claims for the two female martyrs.

Sermon 282 repeats many of these themes of the “manly woman,” this time directly discussing Perpetua’s fourth dream:

In this contest Perpetua, just as was revealed to her in a vision, changed into a man, defeated the devil, having stripped off the world and put on Christ, in the unity of faith and knowledge of the son of God running to meet Him in perfect strength and made in the particular member of His body, in which of the whole body, not one member had been cast aside.

(In hoc agone Perpetua, sicut ei per visionem revelatum fuerat, in virum conversa diabolum vicit, exspoliata saeculo et induta Christo, in unitatem fidei et agnitionem filii dei occurrens in virum perfectum et in eius corpore[40] membrum facta praecipuum, pro quo totum corpus, non unum abiecerat membrum.)[43]

The explicit corporeality of this explication of Perpetua’s fourth vision exemplifies the reading of Augustine’s sermons presented by Gertrude Gillette, who argues that the martyr here is not just “putting on” Christ but is putting on a particularly and explicitly male Christ — thus, in becoming Christ-like, the martyr becomes male.[44] It is Augustine, I therefore argue, who inaugurates the idea that Perpetua unambiguously “becomes male.” In contrast to the Passio’s “facta sum masculus,” Augustine repeatedly uses the word vir (“in virum conversa”) to describe Perpetua’s oneiric transformation: whereas the Passio says she becomes male, Augustine says she becomes a man. We also see, through the double-entendre of membrum, the birth of the implication that, at the moment when her clothes are stripped off in the dream, Perpetua looks down to see a phallus — a reading, as we have seen, not supported by the Passio itself but widely assumed by numerous readers. I thus assert that, for the past 1600 years, most readers and scholars have been understanding the story of St. Perpetua as told by St. Augustine, not as told by the martyr herself.

It has become axiomatic that, with the legalization of Christianity in the early fourth century, what was once a diffuse faith with diverse practices became codified and institutionalized; in the process it also established as Church doctrine many of the patriarchal assumptions of the Roman culture it inherited. As a result, many of our assumptions about how gender was understood in the earliest Christian centuries have, I argue, been unduly influenced by the arguments that eventually won in the fourth and fifth centuries. For example, recent work on the misnaming of Montanism, due to late antique sexist assumptions about the relative importance of Priscilla, Maximilla, and Montanus in this early Christian religious movement, also shows that later theological assumptions about the binary and hierarchical nature of gender are not always accurate representations of the gender assumptions held by early Christians themselves.[45] Perpetua’s own text and the later rewritings of her story demonstrate the heterogeneity of conceptions of gender circulating in the ancient and late antique Mediterranean — including the privileging of women’s prophesy in Montanism from Anatolia, the ideas of angelic androgyny in Syria, the Gnostic conceptions of primordial androgyny current in the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt, and Paul’s and Mark’s suggestions of an apocalyptic eradication of gender. In addition,[41] the dissemination of the multiple versions of Perpetua’s story across the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle Ages shows the continued circulation of ideas about gender during this period.[46] While it is certainly true that the classical cultures within which Christianity first appeared were often themselves deeply patriarchal and misogynist, Christians in the first centuries often defined themselves precisely by their difference from and rejection of the surrounding cultures; we should not, therefore, necessarily assume the rejection of patriarchal norms and gender categories was immediately more improbable than, for instance, the rejection of a polytheistic world view.

Rather, the incorporation of the ideals of a patriarchal, hierarchized binary gender system in the Christian Mediterranean was, I argue, the result of several centuries of development and debate amongst the men (and they were men) who would ultimately come to be seen as “The Fathers of the Church.” At the time, however, they were prominent but not unique men, exerting considerable effort to swim upstream against several currents of early Christian thought that offered other possibilities for configuring the sex/gender system.

Bibliography

Amat, Jacqueline, ed. Passion de Perpétue et de Félicité suivi des Actes. Sources Chrétiennes 417. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1996.

Ambrose, St. Expositionis in evangelius secundum Lucum libri, in Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Latina, ed. J.-P. Migne. 221 vols. Paris, 1841–1885. 15:1844.

Bal, Mieke. “Perpetual Contest.” In On Story-Telling: Essays in Narratology, ed. Mieke Bal and David Jobling, 227–41. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1991.

———. “Perpetual Contest.” In Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis, ed. Jan Bremmer and Marco Formisano, 134–49. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Bremmer, Jan N., and Marco Formisano, eds. Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

———. “Perpetua’s Passions: A Brief Introduction.” In Perpetua’s Passions: Pluridisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis, ed. Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano, 1–13. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Lectures on the History of Religions 13. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Cobb, L. Stephanie. Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Conant, Jonathan P. “Europe and the African Cult of Saints, circa 350–900: An Essay in Mediterranean Communications.” Speculum 85, no. 1 (2010): 1–46.

Cooper, Kate. “A Father, a Daughter and a Procurator: Authority and Resistance in the Prison Memoir of Perpetua of Carthage.” Gender & History 23, no. 3 (2011): 685–702.

Cotter-Lynch, Margaret. St. Perpetua across the Middle Ages: Mother, Gladiator, Saint. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.

Dronke, Peter. Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Elliott, Dyan. The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200–1500. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Gillette, Gertrude. “Augustine and the Significance of Perpetua’s Words: And I Was a Man.” Augustinian Studies 32, no. 1 (2001): 115–25.

Gold, Barbara. “Gender Fluidity and Closure in Perpetua’s Prison Diary.” EuGeStA 1 (2011): 237–51.

Halporn, J. W. “Literary History and Generic Expectations in the Passio and Acta Perpetuae.” Vigiliae Christianae Vigiliae Christianae 45, no. 3 (1991): 223–41.

Heffernan, Thomas J. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Jerome, St., Commentarius in Epistolam ad Ephesios, in Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Latina, ed. J-P. Migne. 221 vols. Paris, 1841–1885. 26:567a.

Kitchen, John. “Going to the Gate of Life: The Archaeology of the Carthage Ampitheatre and Augustine’s Sermons on Saints Perpetua and Felicitas.” In Speculum Sermonis: Interdisciplinary Reflections on the Medieval Sermon, ed. Georgiana Donavin, Cary J. Nederman, and Richard Utz, 29–54. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004.

Kleinberg, Aviad. Flesh Made Word: Saints’ Stories and the Western Imagination. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.

Martin, Dale B. The Corinthian Body. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Martyn, James Louis. The Anchor Bible 33a. Edited by William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

McInerney, Maud Burnett. Eloquent Virgins from Thecla to Joan of Arc. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

Newman, Barbara. From Virile Woman to Womanchrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Salisbury, Joyce E. Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Schiller, Isabella, Dorothea Weber, and Clemens Weidmann. “Sechs Neue Augustinuspredigten Teil 1 Mit Edition Dreier Sermones.” Weiner Studien 121 (2008): 227–84.

Trevett, Christine. Montanism: Gender, Authority, and the New Prophecy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

van Beek, Cornelius Johannes Maria Joseph. Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis. Nijmegen: Dekker & Van de Vegt, 1936.

Williams, Craig. “Perpetua’s Gender. A Latinist Reads the Passio Perpetuae Et Felicitatis.” In Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis, ed. Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano, 54–77. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.


  1. St. Ambrose, Expositionis in evangelius secundum Lucum libri X.161, in PL 15:1844. 
  2. St. Jerome, Commentarius in Epistolam ad Ephesios III.5 in PL 26:567a. 
  3. The scholarly literature on this topic is enormous; see, for example, Brown, The Body and Society; Newman, From Virile Woman to Womanchrist; and Cobb, Dying to Be Men
  4. Cotter-Lynch, St. Perpetua across the Middle Ages, traces the variety of versions and uses of Perpetua’s story through approximately 1500 ce. 
  5. Jonathan Conant has documented the early dissemination of Perpetua’s cult in his “Europe and the African Cult of Saints, circa 350–900.” He demonstrates a strong, early, and enduring cult for Perpetua in Spain and Italy, with lesser but still noticeable dissemination of her story in Byzantium, Gaul, and England. 
  6. This and all English Bible citations are from the Douay-Rheims translation; Latin translations, unless otherwise noted, are from the Vulgate, with the recognition that Perpetua herself would have known the Vetus Latina. 
  7. Elliott, The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell. Perpetua’s text is cited on pages 11–12; much of the remainder of the chapter explores Tertullian’s changing thoughts on the matter. 
  8. Brown, The Body and Society, 332. 
  9. The implicit masculinity of ancient androgyny is explored in more detail by Martin, The Corinthian Body
  10. Passio Perpetuae X:7–14. All citations and translations of the Passio are from Heffernan, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity
  11. For a compendium of recent work, see Bremmer and Formisano, Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis
  12. Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages, 14. 
  13. Salisbury, Perpetua’s Passion, 108–9. 
  14. Heffernan, Passion of Perpetua, 251–52. 
  15. McInerney, Eloquent Virgins from Thecla to Joan of Arc, 26. 
  16. Gold, “Gender Fluidity,” 245. 
  17. Gold, “Gender Fluidity,” 246. 
  18. Gold cites Bal, “Perpetual Contest.” An “updated and corrected” version appears as “Perpetual Contest,” in Bremmer and Formisano, Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches
  19. Gold, “Gender Fluidity,” 249. 
  20. Williams, “Perpetua’s Gender.” 
  21. Williams, “Perpetua’s Gender,” 65. 
  22. Martyn, The Anchor Bible 33a, 377. Martyn continues on to offer three different possibilities for understanding Paul’s collapsing of dichotomies in this verse, with a view to the ancient baptismal formula on which the passage is based: “There are three major possibilities as regards the conceptual background of the baptismal formula: (1) It can be seen as a development of a Stoic and Neoplatonic tradition that speaks of a spiritual and mental freedom from distinctions, and that even looks forward, in a sort of liberal state of mind, to the possibility that the marks of ethnic differentiation will one day disappear. (2) It might have been built on the basis of the proto-gnostic thought that humanity was originally androgynous, thus declaring that baptism returns one to that lost state of undifferentiation. (3) Finally, it might have been drawn from apocalyptic conceptions in which sexual differentiation is expected to be terminated at the resurrection,” 379. 
  23. Gold, “Gender Fluidity,” 247. 
  24. Amat, Passion de Perpétue et de Félicité Suivi des Actes
  25. Bremmer and Formisano, “Perpetua’s Passions: A Brief Introduction,” 5. There remain many questions about the date, place, and conditions of production of these texts, about which very little is known. For a more detailed discussion of possible dating of the Acta, see Cotter-Lynch, St. Perpetua across the Middle Ages, 45–46. Despite the enormous interest in the Passio, the Acta have received scant scholarly attention. 
  26. Amat, Passion de Perpétue et de Félicité Suivi des Actes. I and II correspond to A and B in Van Beek’s 1936 edition; Halporn uses Van Beek’s designations. Van Beek, Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis
  27. Halporn, “Literary History and Generic Expectations.” 
  28. Halporn, “Literary History and Generic Expectations,” 235. 
  29. Halporn, “Literary History and Generic Expectations,” 227. 
  30. Kleinberg, Flesh Made Word, 78–80. 
  31. Acta I 7:2. 
  32. Acta II 7:2. 
  33. In addition, we see here an elaboration of the symbolism of the Egyptian within the narration of the dream; in both cases, Perpetua’s adversary is described as particularly ugly and odious, associated with blackness or darkness. This seems a further example of the ways in which both versions of the Acta emphasize clear binary categories, such as white versus black, good versus evil, and male versus female. For a thorough reading of both versions of the Acta, see Cotter-Lynch, St. Perpetua across the Middle Ages, chap. 2. 
  34. Heffernan discusses the implications of Perpetua’s marriage and the absence of the husband on pages 147–48; alternately, Kate Cooper suggests that Perpetua may have been a concubine, a status that the redactor would have tried to obfuscate. Cooper, “A Father, a Daughter and a Procurator.” 
  35. Acta II VI:6; cf. Acta I VI:6. Both versions recall Matthew 7:23, Luke 13:27, and Psalm 6:9. 
  36. Kitchen, “Going to the Gate of Life.” Writing in 2004, Kitchen is working from the summary version of sermon 282, but his conclusions are only strengthened by consideration of the full text. 
  37. Cf. Gal. 3:28 and Eph. 3:16. 
  38. Translations of Augustine are my own. 
  39. St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 280, chap. 1. The full Latin text of Sermons 280 and 281, as well as the abbreviated version of 282 known prior to 2007, can be found in PL vol. 38, cols. 1280–1286. 
  40. Augustine here echoes 2 Cor. 11:2, “Despondi enim vos uni viro virginem castam exhibere Christo.” The “husband” is thus Christ. 
  41. Augustine, Sermon 281, chap. 1. 
  42. Augustine, Sermon 281, chap. 2. 
  43. Augustine, Sermon 282, chap. 4: Schiller, Weber, and Weidmann, “Sechs Neue Augustinuspredigten.” 
  44. Gillette, “Augustine and the Significance of Perpetua’s Words.” It is worth keeping in mind that Gillette, writing in 2001, did not have access to this particular portion of Sermon 282, as only an abridged version was known before 2007. 
  45. Trevett, Montanism
  46. The Passio comes to us in nine extant Latin manuscripts and one Greek, with provenances ranging from Jerusalem to England; see Heffernan, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, 370 and following. The Acta were apparently far more popular in the Middle Ages and survive in forty-one manuscripts (Heffernan, 442). Augustine’s sermons, of course, would have circulated widely. In addition, there were numerous other later retellings and adaptations of Perpetua’s story, which I survey in Cotter-Lynch, St. Perpetua across the Middle Ages

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Gender in the Premodern Mediterranean Copyright © 2023 by Margaret Cotter-Lynch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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