Introduction to Chapter 3

Chapter 2 has attempted to give some idea of the early cruel years under the first Emperors, by considering incidents of martyrdom. Basically it was a type of religious persecution but with several strands. Cruelty to women was no less than that meted out to men – often it was more so as the sexual dimension was involved. It is now possible to move on in the next Chapter   to examine in more detail the position and role of women in that epoch, leading on to the position in the “Dark Ages” and medieval times, but always in relation to martyrdom, or at least to subservience. The idea of a “national “ religion, seen through pagan and  Christian eyes.  No such concept as equality between the sexes was entertained, of course. The inferiority of women in most spheres was taken for granted. Misogyny (especially among clergy) ruled for hundreds of years.



It seems opportune at the beginning of this chapter to quote a paragraph from John Foxe`s monumental work, ACTS AND MONUMENTS, popularly known as “Foxe`s Book of Martyrs”, (about which,  more in a later chapter) taken from volume one, where he begins to relate the “Tenth Persecution” (under Roman Emperors). (Published in Latin, 1554, translated 1563)

“No less admirable than wonderful was the constancy also of women and maidens who in the same persecution gave their bodies to the tormentors, and their lives for the testimony of Christ, with no less boldness of spirit than did the men themselves above specified to whom how much inferior they were of bodily strength , so much more worthy of praise they be for their constant standing. Of whom here we mind …the most notable….”

Foxe continues with accounts of female martyrdom.

One can readily see the secondary role that women played in the general estimation, even as martyrs, although the above paragraph reflects an almost begrudging acknowledgement of the bravery of women even in extremis. Throughout his book, though, Foxe does give equal prominence to his relations of female martyrdom down the centuries. To put all this in context however we must remember that society was, from Roman times, patriarchal in nature and that women were always regarded in every way as the weaker sex. In Christian times, women were blamed (especially by the clergy) as the fount of all ills, insofar as it was Eve in the garden of Eden who  succumbed to the wiles of Satan and was therefore the first to introduce sin into humanity. Recollecting Genesis, the first Book of the Bible, we get the indubitable impression that  woman was created almost as an afterthought, a “helper “ for Adam. So from the very beginning, women were regarded as inferior. But this was not the intention of the Bible writers (whoever they were!) Eve was intended to complement Adam as an equal not a subordinate. She is part of him. But after the Fall, this harmony was disrupted and the separation between Man and God reflected the separation of male and female. This was the result of sin, and woman did become subordinate to man. As God said to Eve, “Your inclination shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3;16). The Church adopted this view for about two millenia.

Despite this view, the most venerated (at least in the Catholic Church) person after Christ is St. Mary, his mother, who represents perfection among women. It is common to presume that women played an almost insignificant part in early Christendom, but this would be wrong as Luke`s, and John`s Gospels tell, and in the Acts we are told the women were present and received the Holy Spirit. Many women are mentioned in especially the letters of St. Paul, who are clearly co-workers with the Apostles, helping to spread the faith. As the author of “The Role of Women in the Christian  Church” (English Spirtual Articles) so neatly puts it, “Therefore what Eve lost through the Fall, Christian women  could regain through adoption of a holy life. In Christianity moral excellence is not judged by a person`s gender but by the quality of spiritual life.” In the Old Testament, there are many examples of saintly women, wise women and prophetesses. The acquisition of grace was not dependent on gender

In  fact, as we have said, women displayed as much fortitude as men in the face of adversity, and were equals in asceticism throughout the ages. We have seen brave women praised by the famous Fathers of the Church for their constancy in preserving virginity and displaying holiness. After the early religious persecution, women were able to be overt in their zeal for establishing convents, performing works of charity, founding monasteries, and generally being intellectual leaders of their community. Many of these women were of high rank who clearly sacrificed much along with their lives.   Sometimes their bravery so affected the executioners, that the latter themselves were converted to Christianity. One martyr who had this effect was Blandina, who despite all,  it seemed encouraged others who were with her to stand fast in their faith in Christ. Her story is salutary, epitomising the extreme cruelties inflicted on Christians in Roman times, particularly in the reign of  the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. (121-180) (Information drawn from Eusebius.)   Blandina had the customary tortures applied to her, “Her whole body was torn asunder and pierced” as Eusebius recounts, but the only statement the officials could get out of her was “I am a Christian, no wickedness is carried on by us.” As a consequence, the tortures were inflicted in subsequent days. She was exposed to wild beasts, then roasted, but all the time giving moral support to other victims. The actual words of Eusebius are as follows: “Blandina was bound and suspended on a stake to endure the assaults of wild beasts, all the while infusing much alacrity [clearly a word which has changed its meaning over time] into the potential martyrs. For as they saw her ….they contemplated Him that was crucified for them…suffering to enjoy communion with the living God. She was taken down from the stake , gaining victory in many conflicts, clothed with the mighty and invincible spirit that encouraged her brethren. Thus she overcame the enemy in many trials and gained immortality.”

Eusebius, as we  know, tells of many female martyrs, as do also the earlier mentioned “passions”: often it must be said, written at a later date from the actual event, but representing the earliest pieces of hagiography. Women were definitely under represented, and under recognised due in large part to the prevailing belief that in any case martyrdom was not really natural to the female sex; that basically it was against nature, but conversely those that suffered it demonstrated the truth of Christianity, exhibiting something higher than nature. Not only this, but of course women were excluded from the clergy [still are in the Roman Catholic Church) , a calling that is more conducive to religious persecution. Here we must reiterate one of the basic themes of this chapter – that of the almost universal prevalence of misogyny. Men it was believed throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance were more likely to exhibit the qualities needed to gain salvation. Consequently, many women were only belatedly recognised as saints. Attitudes did differ  in different eras: gender and the idea of sanctity itself changed and evolved  as time progressed, and the value of female martyrdom to the Christian cause was gradually recognised. Even so women martyrs were not celebrated to the same degree as male, as witness the current hagiographic compositions where attention was seemingly directed to males of a military or monastic order.

By the seventh century, for example, works which can be safely dated comprised many male saints but a mere handful of female. In these early Middle Ages, when Christianity was struggling to establish itself as a world religion,  women tended not to feature as (militant) Church leaders. However, in the barbarian world left after the fall of Rome, it does appear as if  females achieved some prominence due to their own brand of asceticism and the fact that many of them were from the upper echelons of society or were abbesses of convents. This was characteristic of female sanctity up  to about the beginning of the twelfth century. Few women however were included in liturgical calendars, as Thomas Head says in his article on “Women and Hagiography in Medieval Christianity” , “Female sanctity was a strictly controlled form of charisma in the earlier middle ages.” (published in “The Orb”, an on-line reference book for medieval studies.) Holy women were not given prominence to the degree holy men were, and we can only suppose that male prejudice had something to do with it.

The Middle Ages saw a remarkable growth in religious communities for women, differing from traditional cloisters, and offering women the opportunity to practise an ascetic life. Many of these communities were in essence  havens for mendicant holy women. By the thirteenth century female sanctity was beginning to be fully recognised, but actual canonisation was still some way off. The holy women of this time developed qualities distinctive of the female sex, such as particular modes of fasting, exhibiting charity to those in need, evangelising in a comparatively low key manner, and the promulgation of their religious “visions”. All this, it must be remembered,  in a society, social as well as religious, in which males were the superiors. Illustrative of this was the fact that only men (priests) were able to consecrate the Eucharist or to hear confessions.

The importance of women in earlier ages , their contribution to the conservation and spread of the faith was recognised in the growing number of hagiographic collections in medieval times. Some works were aimed specifically at a female readership, not only in (Old) English but in Romance languages.   Later still, lives of female saints featured, especially in (old) German and (old) Spanish collections of saintly lives, but even here saintly women were not given the prominence they merited. Female martyrs it seems were positively to be identified with virginity and the defence of chastity, so that even penitant ex-prostitutes were so much less venerated, as also were saintly wives and mothers. .Also,  mendicancy was almost a required virtue for (male) recognition. Clearly all this made historical veneration more difficult for wealthy or married women, but not impossible as witness the growth of women`s groups where emotionalism, visions, extreme devotion , and mortification of the flesh featured prominently. Many women claimed to have had ecstatic experiences in worshipping Christ. Whether their accounts are true or not, it is difficult not to think that some male (officials or clerics) were at least suspicious of these visions, (if not actually jealous) to the extent that some holy women were charged with heresy or the practice of witchcraft.

An ever growing body of literate lay people, not only in Britain,  slowly came to be acquainted with the female martyrs and saints of previous centuries. There were also religious artefacts, paintings and statues, illustrative of women, which became part of devotion. Until the “reforms” of the sixteenth century, when all “idols” were regarded as taboo, the Church i.e. the Roman Catholic, which to an extent had suppressed any venerable mention of females in earlier times, had had but grudgingly it may be supposed to recognise officially the inestimable contribution of women to its cause. Undoubtedly women were regarded as a weak vessel, easily led, and seduced – as witness Eve in the Garden of Eden. Even as early as the (probable)  third century when the book, Acts of the Apostles was written , early Christian women had to be/were persuaded by men to consecrate their lives to furthering the Christian faith, by displaying chastity and or sanctity, thus itself denoting the subordinate position of women.

Legends of heroic virgin martyrs continued to interest lay and clerical groups until the late Middle Ages. After this time interest appeared to shift towards accounts of saintly women who were not necessarily or usually virgins but more relevant in their general lifestyle to “ordinary” people, i.e. people who were married, parents, and so on who had the normal concerns of family life, work and recreation (such as it was). Accounts of docile female martyrs were often replaced by tales of comparatively strident and assertive (if not arrogant) holy women. Even so, stories of virgin martyrs were popular, sometimes for the sexual connection it must be admitted, but underneath illustrating the traditional role it was believed, female martyrs should play. Nevertheless, stories of aggressive female martyrs did achieve prominence and the most obvious explanation for this is as Karen Winstead says in her book  VIRGIN MARTYRS,  “that the clergymen who produced and popularised so many of these texts saw the saints as embodiments of clerical rather than of feminine authority”. (p. 101)

© A.B. Finlay Ph.D