Barbara K. Gold (Hamilton College)
Female martyrs in the early Christian era are subjected to a particular kind of violence to their gendered bodies. But enslaved female martyrs have a much greater violence inflicted upon them, violence that may be aimed at their class, their gender and their race or ethnicity. I focus on a particular enslaved woman, Felicitas, whose presence in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas has been often overlooked in favor of her noble female companion, Perpetua (Gold 2018; Charles 2020).
Slavery in Christianity has largely been explored through the metaphors of slavery used repeatedly in early Christian discourse (Kartzow 2018). The widely accepted use of the metaphor “slave of God” complicates any discussion of real-life experience of slavery. Little attention has been given to the enslaved people who were themselves Christians and even less to female enslaved Christians. A recent book is one of the first to mention two enslaved women who appear in early martyr texts, Felicitas and Blandina (Charles 2020). I take up the case of Felicitas but focus not on the author’s use of her as a rhetorical device and a figure who advances “particular theological conclusions” (Charles 2020: 183) but rather on Felicitas as an enslaved female Christian whom the text of the Passion violates, subordinating her to the main figure, Perpetua. Although “silencing” is certainly an effective and even violent device used to marginalize and cancel subaltern figures, I maintain that Felicitas does play a role in the Passion, a role that allows us to reclaim her not just as a slave of God but more importantly as an actual enslaved female person and perhaps a person of color.
Felicitas for the most part lives in the shadow of Perpetua, who is upper class (Passion 2), has agency, and commands the narrative. But Felicitas stands out in several passages and has one speaking part. In most manuscripts, her name is part of the title (Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis). We are told that she was eight months pregnant when arrested with her group and was anxious that her death might be postponed because of her pregnancy (Passion 15.2). She ends up birthing her child in an early, painful delivery and there speaks for the only time in a fierce exchange with her mocking jailer (Passion 15.6). Toward the end of the text, Perpetua and Felicitas march together into the arena and are both attacked by a wild heifer (Passion 20). Felicitas is helped up by Perpetua, and they stand together as equals in their suffering, for this one time (Solevåg 2008: 276).
These are the only moments in which we see Felicitas. Unlike Perpetua, she seems to have no family, no agency, and no commanding presence (Glancy 2020). But we hear of her again in the shorter Acta that follow the Passion and in the sermons of St. Augustine. She is an enslaved female with a name and one whose identity deserves a closer look for the violence done to her person, her body, her name and her memory.