Most people I talk to about my studies ask about May Magdalene. But did you know there are way more badass and influential women in the history of early Christianity? There are many historical sources for the period other than the Bible (which also has lots of apostles and prophetesses, if you pay attention to it).
Here’s the story of 5 women, from missionaries to travelers, from healers to writers, that made history in the first centuries of Christianity.
Where: Carthage, modern-day Tunisia
What: Martyr and first *known* female Christian writer
Did she exist? Yes!
In some ways, Perpetua has a typical, almost common story: she was a wealthy young woman who converted to Christianity in unclear circumstances and was condemned for refusing to pay tribute to the Roman gods. Then she was tortured and killed in a public arena, becoming an early martyr and saint.
Her story is like many others that circulate about elite young women in the first centuries of Christian history. Carthage was the center of a series of official persecutions and, as the land of Queen Dido, it had a tradition of stories of women who sacrificed for a cause.
But Perpetua uniquely made it into History because she wrote about her days in prison. She wrote a diary of dreams (or visions, as she’d considered them), of the trial, of her father’s visits — he simply begged her to pay tribute to the gods and go back home — and her last days with a nursing child. She also wrote about her servant Felicitas, who was also arrested and gave birth in prison.
Perpetua’s diary is widely considered the first document from a recognized female Christian author. The final episode of her life, the martyrdom in the arena, is narrated by an editor who had been commissioned by her to write the final pages. There’s controversy here about the identity of this editor and to what extent he would’ve preserved or modified her words. In my MA thesis, I analyzed rhetorically the text concluding that the portions attributed to her and the editor have different styles and, therefore, belong to different authors indeed.