Email and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas and Companions

The death of Ray Tomlinson, the creator of email, probably made many of us pause for a moment. Email is both a blessing and a bane. It is immediate, cheap and a huge help in keeping in touch with multitudes of people, especially for those of us who have not yet adapted fully to the smartphone and social media. It is also a significant time-waster, a source of scamming and dangerous when one is rattled about something. As far as I know, no one has yet published, electronically or otherwise, a collection of the world’s greatest emails; and I have a hunch no one ever will. Email is essentially transient, read this moment, forgotten the next.

What a good thing, therefore, that email didn’t exist when Perpetua wrote her account of the circumstances leading up to her martyrdom and that of Felicitas. It is a kind of prison diary, written in the first person and full of the sort of detail that gives the story an amazing vigour. There are two versions of the Passio, in Latin and Greek, with a little working over by our old friend Tertullian, which you can read here, and a modernized version of Walter Shewring’s translation into English here. It is one of the earliest texts, if not the earliest, written by a Christian woman to have survived. We are at once under the Carthaginian skies of 7 March, A.D. 203 and can feel the heat, hear the brutal cries and smell the sweat and blood of the arena where an extraordinary display of courage is taking place. There is pathos, too, for Perpetua, the nobly-born, is a nursing mother and Felicitas, a slave, is in an advanced state of pregnancy. As we read the text, we begin to realise that this account is not merely historical, something from nearly two thousand years ago that belongs to a vanished world. It is appallingly, violently contemporary; and the dreams and the arguments Perpetua records as leading inexorably to her death still have the power to shock because they have their dreadful equivalents today.

Let us pray for persecuted Christians in Africa and the Middle East, especially those who are subject to the brutality of IS and its imitators; and let us not lose hope. SS Perpetua and Felicitas remind us that death is not the end but the entrance into life, and that those who kill the body cannot kill the soul.

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5 thoughts on “Email and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas and Companions”

  1. What a moving account! The detail of Perpetua pinning up her dishevelled hair “because a martyr should not suffer with dishevelled hair” almost brought me to tears. Thank you for this, I wouldn’t have known about this account otherwise.

  2. I use this text in teaching, and it often affects students strongly.
    I explain the point about pinning her hair up again — dishevelled hair was a sign of distress or mourning in her society. It’s a poignant detail; one wonders who it was who finished the account, and included it.

    Sometimes I’ve wondered out loud to students, what must it have been like to be Perpetua’s son, or Felicity’s daughter, to grow up in the Christian community of Carthage, with that community’s memories of their mothers?

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