Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 7 March 2011

St Perpetua and St Felicity

Today is the feast of SS Perpetua and Felicity and their companions, who were martyred in 203 (?)

The following comments are adapted from the Medieval Church History discussion group post on Saints of the Day, posted by Terri Morgan. I think they are of interest for the points they make about this well known account of early martyrs:

Perpetua and Felicity, martyrs of Roman Africa, have an early dossier consisting of 1) a Passio that exists in Latin and in Greek versions (BHL 6633; BHG 1482) whose relation one to another is still a little controversial and 2) a separate set of Acta that exist in Latin only but in two versions of which the first has multiple forms: the A-Acta (form 1: BHL 6634; form 2: BHL 6635) and the B-Acta (BHL 6636). Neither the Passio nor the briefer Acta are precisely dated, though the Passio, at least, is of the third century.

Because the Passio is longer and, for a variety of reasons, more interesting than the Acta, scholars have tended to act as though it were for historical purposes the primary text, more reliable than the Acta in cases of disagreement but capable of supplementation from that source when it itself is silent. Thus modern summaries of the events in question follow the Passio in assigning the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity to the early third century, late in the reign of Septimius Severus, and sometimes do not even bother to mention that the Acta instead place these events under Valerian and Gallienus in the middle of that century.

On the other hand, they are perfectly willing to accept from the Acta the datum that the town - unnamed in the Passio - in which Perpetua, Felicity, and the others arrested with them was Thuburbo Minus (in the view of some, "Thuburbo" -both Maius and Minus - should really be spelled "Thuburdo").

Be that as it may, it would appear from these texts that Perpetua and Felicity and several male companions were executed in the amphitheatre of an unnamed city (presumed to be Carthage) where they were thrown to beasts and the survivors were finished off by the sword.

The Passio highlights Perpetua by including and by placing in a prominent position what would seem to be an authentic and fairly lengthy first-person narrative of her
travails and visions. From Perpetua's narrative it is clear that she is relatively well born (probably of the decurial class). Perpetua never mentions Felicity, who is both a slave and pregnant until just before her martyrdom, which latter in the Passio is recounted by the nameless "editor" who frames accounts by two of the victims within other matter of
his own composition.

These texts constitute perhaps the first instance of a martyr narration focusing on one or more victims who are women (Blandina of Lyon's martyrdom is earlier but the letter describing it preserved by Eusebius could be later than Perpetua and Felicity's Passio and Acta). Furthermore the first-person account by a woman victim is extraordinary.

By the 430s, relics said to be those of Perpetua and Felicity were venerated at Carthage's great Basilica Maiorum. We have commemorative sermons on them from St. Augustine, from an unnamed bishop of Carthage in the early fifth century, and from St. Quodvultdeus. Though their Passio survives in only a very few medieval copies, their Acta were extremely
popular. Jacopo da Varazze's [James of Voragine] account in the Legenda Aurea is based upon one of the Acta-texts. Hence in his version Perpetua and Felicity face not the mad cow of the Passio but, instead and separately, a lion (Perpetua) and a leopard (Felicity).

Here are the originally sixth-century portraits of Perpetua and Felicity in the soffit of the triumphal arch of the Basilica Eufrasiana at Pore (Parenzo) in Croatia; they were restored during the period 1890-1900:



Their companions were Satyrus, Saturninus, the slave Revocatus, and Secundinus (whose name is also given as Secundulus)

Satyrus, the group's cathechist, was the first to be arrested; his comforting vision of their reception in heaven is a noteworthy part of the Passio of Perpetua and Felicity. He, Saturninus, and Revocatus survived exposure to beasts and were decapitated. We are not informed as to Secundinus' end. It is usually inferred from this silence that he died in prison.

The account in the Passio is an impressive testimony to the faith of those involved and the horrors to which they were submitted.

Here is the extract from the Passio appointed for today's Office of Readings:

The day of the martyrs’ victory dawned. They marched from their cells into the amphitheatre, as if into heaven, with cheerful looks and graceful bearing. If they trembled it was for joy and not for fear.

Perpetua was the first to be thrown down, and she fell prostrate. She got up and, seeing that Felicity was prostrate, went over and reached out her hand to her and lifted her up. Both stood up together. The hostility of the crowd was appeased, and they were ordered to the gate called Sanavivaria.

There Perpetua was welcomed by a catechumen named Rusticus. Rousing herself as if from sleep (so deeply had she been in spiritual ecstasy), she began to look around. To everyone’s amazement she said: “When are we going to be led to the beast?” When she heard that it had already happened she did not at first believe it until she saw the marks of violence on her body and her clothing. Then she beckoned to her brother and the catechumen, and addressed them in these words: “Stand firm in faith, love one another and do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.”

Saturus, too, in another gate, encouraged the soldier Pudens, saying: “Here I am, and just as I thought and foretold I have not yet felt any wild beast. Now believe with your whole heart: I will go there and be killed by the leopard in one bite.” And right at the end of the games, when he was thrown to the leopard he was in fact covered with so much blood from one bite that the people cried out to him: “Washed and saved, washed and saved!” And so, giving evidence of a second baptism, he was clearly saved who had been washed in this manner.

Then Saturus said to the soldier Pudens: “Farewell, and remember your faith as well as me; do not let these things frighten you; let them rather strengthen you.” At the same time he asked for the little ring from Pudens’s finger. After soaking it in his wound he returned it to Pudens as a keepsake, leaving him a pledge and a remembrance of his blood. Half dead, he was thrown along with the others into the usual place of slaughter.

The people, however, had demanded that the martyrs be led to the middle of the amphitheatre. They wanted to see the sword thrust into the bodies of the victims, so that their eyes might share in the slaughter. Without being asked they went where the people wanted them to go; but first they kissed one another, to complete their witness with the customary kiss of peace.
The others stood motionless and received the deathblow in silence, especially Saturus, who had gone up first and was first to die; he was helping Perpetua.

But Perpetua, that she might experience the pain more deeply, rejoiced over her broken body and guided the shaking hand of the inexperienced gladiator to her throat. Such a woman – one before whom the unclean spirit trembled – could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed it.
Bravest and happiest martyrs! You were called and chosen for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

From the website of Universalis

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