Monday, January 9, 2017


Petr Kitzler, From 'Passio Perpetuae' to 'Acta Perpetuae': Recontextualizing a Martyr Story in the Literature of the Early Church, Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte, 127. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. Pp. xiv, 159. ISBN 9783110419429. $149.95 (hb).

Reviewed by Jane McLarty, Wolfson College, Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site


Because ancient martyrdom accounts play a key role in the formation of early Christian identify, they have received increasing scholarly attention in recent decades. They are a treasure trove for those interested in questions of gender, narrative, and of course the representation and theology of suffering in the early church. Kitzler's work is a concise and engaging addition to the corpus, focussing on the early third century account of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity.

Kitzler's work is an updated and revised edition of a book published in Czech in 2012. Its aim is twofold: to describe the origins and reception history of the Passio Perpetuae in the first Christian centuries, and to examine how the understanding of sainthood evolved and was, as it were, 'managed' by the church authorities during this period.

The work is divided into three main sections, followed by a brief conclusion. The first section is a crisp survey of the earliest martyr texts. Kitzler broadly categorises them into two main groups (recognizing that this cannot entirely encompass the varied forms of martyr literature): the acta brief reports imitating official Roman documents, and passions or martyria, characterised by longer and more elaborate passages of narrative. He then summarizes the Passio Perpetuae and discusses its authorship, editing, dating, and the arguments for Montanist influence on the work (concurring with the scholarly consensus that it is not a Montanist document).

The second section reviews the revolutionary aspects of the text that have attracted so much scholarly interest over the past 30 or 40 years. He reads the text in the context of the gradual evolution of the early church to highlight the uncomfortable dissonances between the text's subversion of social and gender hierarchies and the increasingly hierarchical nature of ecclesiastical organisation. Kitzler draws particular attention to Perpetua's 'gradual divesting of all typical social roles associated with her womanhood' (p. 46) and her subsequent masculinisation within the text and the accompanying feminization of her father. This subversive aspect to the text, the popularity and authority it enjoyed, coupled with the spiritual power and authority of martyrs generally in the early church, meant that in later centuries the text had to be 'corrected'—socialised as it were—into the changed context of the increasingly domesticated church.

The final and longest section surveys this process of reinterpretation, beginning with the framing work of the Passio's editor who attempts to counterbalance Perpetua's masculinisation by, for instance, attributing the characteristics of a 'good woman' to her before her own first person account begins. Kitzler goes on to cite Tertullian's brief reference to the Passio, which demonstrates that this martyr act carried the same authority as the book of Revelation in supporting Tertullian's argument that it is only the souls of martyrs that pass straight to paradise after death. This authority is further demonstrated by the influence of the Passio on the themes and language of later third century martyr acts (Vita Cypriani, Passio Montani et Lucii, Passio Mariani et Iacobi. After tracing the dissemination of the cult of Perpetua through the third and fourth centuries, Kitzler then focuses on the growing difficulties with the cult of martyrdom in the Latin West. He argues that by the fifth century martyrdom is no longer the ideal for the Christian in the view of the church authorities, which attempt to neutralise the martyrdom narratives' subversive representation of gender, social, and church hierarchy by re-interpreting the texts. The works of Augustine 'account for the most extensive literary reflection of the Passio Perpetuae in the early Christian literature' (p. 80) and Kitzler sets out the ways in which Augustine not only tones down the masculinisation of Perpetua and Felicity (whatever manly spirit they had came to them through their husband, Christ) but also locates the sufferings of the martyrs firmly in an unattainable and idealised past. This approach became a model for others' homilies (mostly pseudonymous or anonymous) and Kitzler concludes that these works had the effect of muting the voice of the original text. Finally Kitzler turns to (the two recensions of) the Acta Perpetuae, a fifth century reworking of the original Passio, which by means of a careful discussion of these lesser-known texts he presents as the culmination of the work of sanitising the original martyrdom account for the consumption of a contemporary audience unsettled by the more countercultural aspects of the original.

Kitzler's aims are admirably realised in this slim volume: it would form an excellent introduction to the Passio Perpetuae for someone new to this text, and the extensive footnotes are a comprehensive guide to current scholarship and directions for further reading. For the scholar already familiar with the text, the valuable aspect of this work is the reading of its reception history and the demonstration of the ongoing power of its narrative by virtue of the repeated efforts to re-write it.

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