For anyone interested in the subject, I'd also recommend the following more recent titles:
- Elizabeth Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (2004)
- Virgina Burrus, The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography (2007)
- Virginia Burrus, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects (2008)
- L. Stephanie Cobb, Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (2008)
By the way, my title makes reference to Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History. Speaking of the martyrs’ fortitude, he writes: “Sometimes they were killed with the axe,…sometimes their legs were broken….Sometimes they were hung up by the feet head down over a slow fire…; sometimes noses, ears, and hands were severed.” But such fortitude was only part of the story for him and his fellow Christians—these heroic acts also had to be remembered. Eusebius skillfully wrote to “rekindle the memory of the martyrs" (trans., G. A. Williamson , pp. 341-42).
Here's the pdf version of the below text.
Creeds and confessions notwithstanding, Christian speech is dependent upon the recurrence of certain ideal figures, one of which is the “martyr,” who became for subsequent generations of Christians a script or topos, a pattern for generating new speech on a particular theme or given case. The martyr is indicative of the power of Christian rhetoric to create, develop, and impose moral identities, serving as one answer to the constant problem of self-definition. Martyrs, and their corresponding hagiographies, became especially important sources for Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries uneasy about the “drift into a respectable Christianity.” As Averil Cameron has shown, such Christians made creative use of history through the composition of vitae, a flexible genre that allowed greater opportunity for integrating public and private in new ways. “Through Lives, Christian writers could present an image not only of the perfect Christian life but also of the life in imitation of Christ, the life that becomes an icon….The Life itself becomes an image; Christian lives of the present are interpreted in terms of their relation to sacred lives of the past.” Thus, such vitae served ideological functions as literary exemplars—texts to be read more as “verbal portraits” than historical reconstructions.
What strikes me most forcibly in the study of the martyrs is the way in which martyrdom is constantly associated with the community life of Christians. The work of Peter Brown has shown how martyrs became potent “invisible companions” who served many of the same functions as powerful patrons of the ancient world; they were conduits of both social and spiritual power. Shrines dedicated to martyrs, for example, often acted as defensive works, walls, or towers. That martyrdom is connected to community life might seem apparent to some, but in the study of cultural assumptions it is just such obvious points that require attention: “People only become martyrs because others make them so.” Attending to such concerns, I submit, means a shift in our historical orientations away from “the world behind the text,” and towards reflection on how communities continually ascribe meaning to particular events, acts, texts, and practices. So, in contrast to much historical thinking, which is empirical or positivistic in nature and focuses attention on questions of genesis, I see historical study, like cultural analysis, not as “an experimental science in search of a law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”
There is a near consensus view among historians that traces the meaning of “martyr” to an early Greek term for “witness.” It then proceeds to connect this witnessing language with traditions of “noble death,” ultimately producing a picture of martyrdom that many today easily recognize. In common religious parlance, the term “martyr” is used to name one who undergoes hardships to the point of suffering—but not intending—death for one’s religious convictions, and this stands in contradistinction to a “confessor,” or one who is of equal religious resolve but is not subjected to death. One plausible explanation for this sharp distinction in meaning is that martus enters Latin literature as a Greek loan word. A loan word initiates a process of displacement whereby the borrowed word enters its new linguistic community as a technical term. Thus, the original Greek meaning of “witness” began to slip away until, by c.150 C.E., it came to imply the specific aforementioned meaning. In fact, no less a magisterial figure than the eighteenth-century Edward Gibbon paused to exclaim: “A martyr! How strangely that word has been distorted from its original sense of a common witness.”
This view overlooks several important factors that, taken into consideration, may significantly enrich our understanding of how martyrial language was used by Christians—or that may at least complicate the picture. The most important of these factors has to do with the genetic fallacy of historical explanation, a form of which I have just illustrated. What this fails to take into account is how the language actually worked for the people who used it. To explain language, to analyze how metaphors function within a society or religious community, we must look to the wider context of that group. Some recent scholars are (re)writing martyrdom as historians become both more aware of their roles as “readers” of “texts” and appreciate how literary production makes culture. Scholars of late antiquity are currently carrying out the most critically informed historiography on the subject, and thus warrant serious attention.
“Late Ancient Studies” is a field of relatively recent invention, and is the direct result of significant changes in methods of analysis relating to the texts, characters, and life-world of ancient Christianity. These changes can be traced to the impact of “the cultural turn,” or that combination of approaches taken from cultural anthropology and literary theory. Dale Martin has recently detailed the impact of these changes: “When the ‘culture’ of the early church in its ‘cultural’ environment becomes the focus of attention, the object of study shifts to concentrate less on the intentions and conscious thinking of the ancient author. The goal of the historian becomes not the conscious or even unconscious intentions of the author, but the larger matrix of symbol systems provided by the author’s society from which he must have drawn whatever resources he used to ‘speak his mind.’” In what follows, I shall review two recent efforts that draw on and help contribute to this scholarly ferment.
The first account is the extremely provocative study by classicist Judith Perkins, The Suffering Self. Hers is a study concerned with representations qua representations. As Perkins recounts it, she came to the recognition that “what I had been accepting as simply realistic presentation in texts was, in fact, part of an extensive formulation in the culture of the second century that represented the human self as a body in pain, a sufferer.” To her eye, Christianity’s projecting of this particular portrait of the human self came into conflict with another, more prevailing and traditional Greco-Roman image of the self as a soul/mind in control of the body and its passions. Drawing on a wide range of ancient sources, both pagan and Christian, and informed by the theories of Foucault, Geertz, and others, Perkins aims to bring into cultural consciousness a discourse that Christianity so co-opted that it no longer appears strange to claim that the Christian is a suffering self. Her intention is “to try to locate the triumph of Christianity within the discursive struggle over these representations. It would be around one of these represented ‘subjects,’ the suffering self, that Christianity as a social and political unity would form and ultimately achieve its institutional power.” Further, the subjectivity that was under construction was not produced by Christianity alone, but also issued from other locations in late antiquity—e.g., medical treaties and the lives of holy people and philosophers. The social power of this ideological work can be seen in how the Christian community of late antiquity came to include, at least conceptually, the mute, poor, and paralytic. In short, these reordered beliefs about pain and death, “representing pain as empowering and death a victory, helped to construct a new understanding of human existence, a new ‘mental set’ toward the world that would have far-reaching consequences….To project a material body just like this material body is to suggest a social body just like this social body, only with a different hierarchy based on new rules of empowerment.” By placing on display the lacerated, torn, burnt cadaver of the martyr, early Christian communities enacted a powerful discourse of subversion, thus altering their abject status within the Roman hierarchy.
The Suffering Self quickly emerges as an important work for contemporary approaches to early Christian martyrdom. The important implication to draw is that early Christian self-representation as a community of sufferers did not so much describe “actual” situations as provide for the growth and construction of a new cultural subject, one that tended to subvert prevailing assumptions about selfhood and provided social capital for Christianity’s growth in power. “Narratives script reality for readers and Christian texts were inscribing one particular narrative pattern over and over for their readers and listeners. Christian narratives consistently offered a new literary happy ending for readers—death; in particular, the martyr’s death.” So, rather than marriage serving to give the sense of an ending, Christians denied this traditional social nexus and embraced a threatrics of death: “the martyrs were cultural performers acting out dramatically the community’s beliefs that to be a Christian was to suffer and die.” Central to Perkins’s way of thinking is an attention to representation as an ideological construct having historical effect: martyr texts help to socially construct early Christian memories and thought-worlds, thus also contributing to a politics of representation.
A second recent work on martyrdom comes from the pen of noted Talmudist Daniel Boyarin. Drawing on current models of identity formation, trends in cultural criticism, and with a focus on hybridity, Boyarin deconstructs the stable binaries of “Judaism” and “Christianity.” He argues that in this period there was no clear delineation between Jews and Christians as practitioners of separate religions; rather, this eventual “parting of the ways” was the product of the “long fourth century,” a project intimately associated with martyrdom. As he importantly observes:
Martyrdom, even more than tragedy, is Thanatoi en tōi phanarōi, “deaths that are seen,” murders in public spaces. Insofar as martyrdom is, then, by definition, a practice that takes place within the public and, therefore, shared space, martyria seem to be a particularly fertile site for the exploration of the permeability of the borders between so-called Judaism and so-called Christianity in late antiquity.Boyarin has produced a fascinating study that challenges some of the basic assumptions within late ancient studies. For our purposes, it is his fourth chapter that is most important. Rather than restrict the meaning of martyrdom to genetic questions, Boyarin prefers another route:
I propose that we think of martyrdom as a ‘discourse,’ as a practice of dying for God and of talking about it, a discourse that changes and develops over time and undergoes particularly interesting transformations among rabbinic Jews and other Jews, including Christians, between the second and the fourth centuries. For the “Romans,” it didn’t matter much whether the lions were eating a robber or a bishop, and it probably didn’t make much of a difference to the lions, but the robber’s friends and the bishop’s friends told different stories about those leonine meals. It is in these stories that martyrdom, as opposed to execution or dinner, can be found, not in "what happened".The appearance of “discourse” in this definition is crucial, and merits attention. Here “discourse” describes something greater than mere representation; discourse is never innocent, but connotes the rhetoricity of any attempt to convey (produce) truth about humans and their society. That is, discourse names that which in a society appears timeless, transparent, commonsensical. In short, its focus “is the organized and regulated, as well as the regulating and constituting, functions of language….its aim is to describe the surface linkages between power, knowledge, institutions, intellectuals, the control of populations, and the modern state at these intersect in the functions of systems of thought.” In this regard, discourse is closely allied with notions of practice and genealogy. Further, there is a material dimension to discourse, since “discourse” makes possible disciplines and institutions, which, in turn, sustain and distribute those discourses. Thus, the making of martyrdom is a result of its interpretation as martyrdom, which is a distinct process from simply recounting a narrative of casual relations. Acts of interpretation are intimately associated with the forging of identity, and this connection between social function and interpretation is termed discursive formation. Another way of arguing these points, contends Boyarin, is to spotlight the perfomative nature of these acts as well as the eroticism present in the texts. In fact, it was this very eroticizing element that Boyarin sees as so new, for both Jews and Christians, in late ancient martyrdom—namely, an ideology of death set as the necessary fulfillment of the love of God.
Thus far, we have had occasion to consider the work of both a classicist and a Talmudist in the hope of producing a way of thinking about martyrdom. A more thorough review, of course, would need to take into account studies of the body and gender as sites of discursive practice and power relations. But, passing over these issues and across several centuries, we shift our attention to another period of Christian history where martyrs figured prominently. From the 1520s onward, there is a stunning renaissance of Christian martyrdom across Western Europe, in which some five thousand men and women—Protestants, Anabaptists, and Catholics—were judicially tried and executed. Brad Gregory has persuasively argued that, though the occasions for martyrdom dwindled in the Middle Ages, the virtues it espoused did not disappear, but were sublimated into certain devotional practices. By the late medieval period, these appeared especially in the guises of the devotio moderna and the ars moriendi, as well as the continually evolving cult of the saints. Such affective devotions were also suffused with an awareness of Christ’s suffering and death. But Jody Enders has also shown how these impulses were not always directed toward pious ends, arguing that, if one reunites the histories of medieval stagecraft and of torture, one discovers their truly rhetorical function: “The medieval understanding of torture both enabled and encouraged the dramatic representation of violence as a means of coercing theater audiences into accepting the various ‘truths’ enacted didactically in mysteries, miracles, and even farces.” Taken together, these two traditions of late medieval piety and stagecraft had sensitized the populace (“spectators”) to certain types of behavior, thus enabling them to scrutinize the condemned. The eve of the sixteenth-century, then, was ripe for a rebirth of martyrdom.
Having sampled two recent efforts at understanding Christian martyrdom, how are we to proceed? Inspired by these proposals, and in keeping with my own methodological commitments, let me offer a working definition: martyrdom is a discursive act that creates a praxial space within which to envisage a particular subjectivity—the self as sufferer—and thus also to engage in a “politics of identity.” While not intending to neglect the gruesome and horrific nature of martyrdom, which was basically a public, humiliating, and cruel death, construing martyrdom in this manner allows for a particular reading of these historical texts that sheds light on otherwise neglected features. We can begin to see connections between Christian discourse and the forging of Christian identity. Martyr accounts are hardly transparent windows, but are framed, textured and tinted by their author’s desires: we cannot, then, rely on these writers for a detailed or “accurate” account of a Christian life under persecution. So, if one of the aims of historical study is to describe what people intend by what happens, then we can say that the discourses of martyrdom “do not just reflect, in some unproblematic way, reality and social institutions, but, rather, help to create and maintain them.” Through the ideal figure of the martyr and the public spectacle that the memory of such a torn and fragmented body conjured, Christians found particularly strong ways to perform their identity as a community of sufferers.