What makes Perpetua special? Journal and Visions

Perpetua and Felicity

I read the Passio Perpetuae (from c. 204) for the second time today; the first was for a course I was auditing, this time for a course I am TAing/tutoring. First let me tell you what does not make her special: specious, imagined similarities between her and suicide bombers, as I blogged last time I read this text. And now let me tell you what makes this early third-century Latin Christian text special: Perpetua’s journal and the visions it includes.

The eyewitness editor/composer of this document included in it Perpetua’s journal from when she was in prison before her martyrdom. Thus, we get a first-hand account of the life of martyrs before martyrdom. Of the visits and bribes of fellow believers, the pleas of pagan family members to renounce Christianity, the transfers of cells, the trial. This alone makes Perpetua’s journal special.

The first of the two main things that makes it special is that it is by a woman. Very often people say, ‘Well, if you’re going to talk patristics, talk matristics as well.’ Or something like that. Well, that would be nice — it would give us an insight into how women in early Christianity thought about things. But the field of matristics includes Perpetua, Egeria (who wrote a semi-pilgrimage travelogue), and a few bits of sayings from the Desert Mothers — oh, and (apparently) a Syriac nun’s life.

So, while I really don’t care if something is by a woman in and of itself (I care if it is interesting in other ways as well, generally), in a field where so few documents are by women, Perpetua stands out. She also stands out as a Roman, since the only other female Latin writers I know of are Sulpicia (an elegiac poet), Egeria, and female imperial correspondants in the realm of epistolography. So Perpetua is special simply by showing us something of the life and thoughtworld of women in the reign of Septimius Severus.

And what a thoughtworld it is! Perpetua is also special because of her visions. People generally assume this document and Perpetua are part of the New Prophecy that spread West to Carthage (where Perpetua died) from Asia Minor — eventually, this movement within mainstream, ‘catholic’, ‘proto-orthodox’ Christianity was condemned as the Phrygian heresy or — it’s more popular name — Montanism. The editor seems to be certainly favourable towards the ‘Montanist’ position, saying that just as the Lord gave words to men of old — prophets and apostles — so He can give a new word to people today.

Mind you, we must always be cautious of these appellations. If we read a quick snap of what ‘Montanism’ is from a dictionary of heresies, we may have completely mislabelled the variety we find in Perpetua’s passion. Furthermore, even if the editor is ‘Montanist’, Perpetua may not be. Having visions does not make one a Montanist; ask the patriarch Jacob or St Peter or St Paul or various Desert Fathers or St Hildegard or St Bernard or any number of modern charismatic Anglicans (of course, some of this latter group may basically be Montanists without knowing it).

The visions/dreams are themselves interesting, the whole Montanist question aside. I am especially fond of the first. It’s so good, I’m going to break a rule and quote it in full:

I see a bronze ladder of great size, reaching all the way to heaven, and so narrow that people could only climb up one at a time. And on the sides of the ladder were fixed all kinds of iron things. There were swords there and lances and hooks and cutlasses and javelins, so that if anybody climbed up carelessly or without looking up, he would be mangled and his flesh would get caught on the iron things. (4.4) And just below the ladder there was a huge snake, asleep. He was lying in wait for people climbing up, and he was terrifying them so they wouldn’t climb up. (4.5) But Saturus climbed up first – he had turned himself in voluntarily for our sake (because he is the one who had instructed us), and then, when we were picked up, he hadn’t been there.5 (4.6) And he reached the top of the ladder and turned around and said to me, ‘Perpetua, I’m waiting for you. But see that that snake doesn’t bite you.’ And I said, ‘It will not harm me – in the name of Jesus Christ.’ (4.7) And from beneath the ladder, it stuck its head out slowly, as if it was afraid of me. And I stepped on its head, as if I was stepping on the first rung, and I climbed up. (4.8) And I saw a vast expanse of garden, and in the middle of it sat a white-haired old man dressed like a shepherd – a big man – milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands in white robes. (4.9) And he raised his head and looked at me and said to me, ‘Welcome, child.’ And he called me and gave me as it were a morsel of the cheese which he was milking. And I took it with hands joined and I ate. And all those standing round said ‘Amen’.

Two things strike me most about this vision: the ladder and the cheese. I cannot read this ladder imagery without thinking first of Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis, where the patriarch saw the angels of God ascending and descending. As well, we have ascent imagery in later ascetic and mystical texts such as the Syriac Liber Graduum and St John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. When I think ladders, I am also reminded of Andrew Louth’s book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, wherein he discusses the Neo-Platonic images of ascent that were very influential in Origen and Evagrius, in particular.

The cheese seems eucharistic to me.

Perpetua’s other visions are interesting as well. They seem strikingly real, like the sort of weird dreams actual people have. And unlike St Hildegard, Perpetua does not give us a long, involved exegesis of her dreams. We are left to see in them what we will. This I like.

The Passion of Perpetua is interesting and short. I recommend you read it.

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