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On Re/Thinking Martyrdom Historiographically: Engaging Perkins and Boyarin

Nunzio N. D'Alessio

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.1 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.2 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.”3 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.4 “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

1
See Mark D. Jordan, The Ethics of Sex (New York: Blackwell, 2002).
2
Cf. R. A. Markus, “The Problem of Self-Definition: From Sect to Church” in his From Augustine to
Gregory the Great (London: Variorum, 1983; original, 1980). This concern seems well attested in the
ancient sources. In addition to certain Pauline texts, other examples of this struggle include Did. 1.1-6.2,
Diogn. 5.1-6.10, and the Ep. Barnbas. A common metaphor in such texts is the Christian as “alien citizen,”
a theme Augustine will take up with great rhetorical force. This marvelous paradox of Christians as alien
citizens finds roots in the New Testament: see, e.g., John 17:11-19, Rom 13:1-8, 1 Cor 5:9-13, Gal 4:26,
Phil 3:20, Hebr 12:22-24. And 1 Peter 2:11-17. For more on this complex of themes, see Rowan Greer,
Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church (University Park: The
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986), 141-161; Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 52-65.
3
The phrase is Peter Brown’s: see his pioneering study “Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman
Aristocracy,” Journal of Roman Studies 51 (1961): 1-11; repr. in his Religion and Society in the Age of
Augustine (London: Farber and Farber, 1972), 161-82.
4
Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse
(Berkley: University of California Press, 1991), 141-152. Of course, the genre was not unique to
Christians, as the example of the moralist Plutarch illustrates. “But, as Cameron tells us, “the writing of
Lives was inherent to Christian literature in way that it was not to pagan. We have seen it from the earliest
phase—in the Gospels, in the apocryphal Acts, in martyr literature” (145).

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 1
lives of the past.”5 Thus, such vitae served ideological functions as literary exemplars—texts to

be read more as “verbal portraits” than historical reconstructions.6

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.7 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.8 Shrines dedicated to martyrs, for example, often acted as defensive works, walls, or

towers.9 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

5
Ibid., 143 and 145-46, emphasis original.
6
In his Life of Constantine, completed soon after the Emperor’s death in 337, Eusebius describes his task
as giving a “verbal portrait.” As Patricia Cox Miller comments, like other biographers, “his aim was to
create a convincing portrait of a magnificent man by capturing in prose the ideals which that man
represented” (Biography in Late Antiquity [Berkley: University of California Press, 1983], 101). For more
on Christian writings as verbal icons, see V. E. F. Harrison, “Word as Icon in Greek Patristic Theology,”
Sobornost 10 (1988): 38-49. By emphasizing their “iconic status, Cameron and others point to an focus on
spectacularization that was present in late anitue culture: see Georgia Frank, The Memory of the Eyes:
Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), esp.
16-29 and 114-33.
7
Peter Brown has eloquently described the development of Christian attitudes toward holy things, places,
and people in his The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1981). One particularly illuminating example of communal associations is the concern
wealthy Christians would lay upon the bodies of the holy dead. Bones became an avenue to power in late
antiquity, and through this the entire system of patronage was restyled as the royal, priestly, or monastic
controllers of bones became the intermediaries through whom the saints’ generosities were bestowed to
sinful humans. But cooperation was not always the dominant spirit in the dispensing of gratia: relics could
also provide new opportunities for competition in a contest for exaltation through association with the
church’s honored dead. See Brown, Cult of the Saints, 33, 38. Cf. also, Rowan Greer, The Fear of
Freedom: A Study of Miracles in the Roman Imperial Church (University Park: Pennsylvania State
University Press, 1989), 97-100.
8
Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints, 62-68. Cf. his seminal study, “The Rise and Function of the Holy
Man in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80-101; reprinted (with updated notes) in his,
Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 103-52. More
recently, Brown has recognized that the civic role(s) of such holy persons was a function of their
representation in hagiographical literature: see his “Arbiters of the Holy: The Christian Holy Man in Late
Antiquity,” in Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman World (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1995), 55-78 and 85-87. Connections between martyrdom and the emergence
of holy places have been more explicitly considered in R. A. Markus, “How on Earth Could Places Become
Holy? Origins of the Christian Idea of Holy Places” JECS 2:3 (1994): 257-71.
9
This role of delimiting sacred space finds eloquent expression in the fifth-century Liber Peristephanon of
Prudentius, where the city of Saragosa is protected by its eighteen martyrs: “At every gate the holy blood,
shed in sacrifice, has shut out the tribe of envious demons and driven black darkness from the sanctified
city. No dread of shadows lurks within, for their curse is routed and shuns the inhabitants; Christ dwells in
every street, Christ is everywhere” (4.65-72).

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 2
become martyrs because others make them so.”10 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.”11

* * *

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.12 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.13 In fact, no less a magisterial figure than

10
Jan Willem van Henten and Fredrich Avemarie, Martyrdom and Noble Death (New York: Routeledge,
2002), 7, emphasis mine.
11
Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973),
5.
12
For approaches that follow this general trajectory, see: van Henten and Avemarie, 1-8; Adella Yarbro
Collins, “From Noble Death to Crucified Messiah,” NTS 40 (1994): 481-503, esp. 482-86; G. W.
Bowerstock, Martyrdom and Rome (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 1-21; James D. Tabor,
“Martyr, Martyrdom” in David Noel Freedman, ed. Anchor Bible Dictionary 4 (New York: Doubleday,
1992), 574-579; Everett Ferguson, “Martyr, Martyrdom,” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, ed. Everett
Ferguson, Michale McHugh, and Frederick Norris ( New York: Garland, 1997), 575-79; and R. Strathman,
“Martus” in TDNT 4:474-515. For the distinction between martyr and confessor, see, e.g., the entries
“martyr” and “confessor” in The Oxford History of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A.
Livingstone, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1046 and 395, respectively.
13
Bowerstock, 5-6.

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 3
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.”14

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

14
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J. B. Bury (London: Methuen, 1909), 4:
121.

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 4
resources he used to ‘speak his mind.’”15 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.”16 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.17 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.”18 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-

15
Dale Martin, “Introduction,” The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and
Historiography (Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming). I thank Prof. Martin for sharing this article
prior to publication.
16
Judith Perkins, The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era (New
York: Routledge, 1995), 2.
17
Ibid., 3.
18
Ibid.

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 5
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.”19 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.20

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.”21 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.”22 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.23 Drawing on current models of identity formation, trends in cultural criticism, and with

19
Ibid., 122-23.
20
Ibid., 104-23, where Perkins reads in the Martyrdom of Perpetua a “potentiality that Christian
empowerment offered for turning the social and political body of the Roman empire upside down” (113).
21
Ibid., 24.
22
Ibid., 25. Cf., Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality, 170-71 and 174-188 on Christian kinship
language.
23
Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1999).

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 6
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.24 As he importantly

observes:25

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: 26

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.

24
Ibid., 16-17. Cf. Robert Markus, “The image of a society neatly divided into ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ is
the creation of late fourth-century Christians, and has been too readily taken at face value by modern
historians” (idem, The End of Ancient Christianity [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990]).
Likewise, Averil Cameron has written: “One even gets into problematic areas with the application of the
very terms ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan,’ as though there were always firm and easily detectable boundaries
between them instead of a murky overlapping area” (122).
25
Boyarin, 21; Cf. also 117: “The ‘invention’ of martyrdom, far from being evidence for Christian
influence on Judaism or the opposite, is most plausibly read as evidence for the close contact and the
impossibility of drawing sharp and absolute distinctions between these communities or their discourses
throughout this period.” See also Bowerstock, 41-57, esp. 50-57, on the civic roles of martyrs.
26
Ibid., 94, emphasis mine. A similar formulation is given by Tessa Rajak, “Dying for the Law: The
Martyr’s Portrait in Jewish-Greek Literature,” in Portraits: Biographical Representation in the Greek and
Latin Literature of the Roman Empire, eds., M. J. Edwards and Simon Swain (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1997), 39-67. To quote the most relevant aspects of Rajak’s definition, “Martyrology is idealized
representation and the characterization of martyrs is portraiture, to a lesser or greater extent stereotyped. It
is as well to recognize from the outset that martyrdoms, while presented as fact, are not mere historical
events—that is, if they are history at all….Martyrdom is description, since in its very nature it demands a
public, a response and a record….The event is then shaped for the future in the telling, to serve, in due
course, as a model for others” (qtd. in Boyarin, 203n.98).

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 7
The appearance of “discourse” in this definition is crucial, and merits attention.27 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.”28 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.29 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

27
An excellent and brief survey of the term discourse is Paul A. Bové, “Discourse,” in Critical Terms for
Literary Study, 2nd ed., Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1995), 50-65. Bové contrasts the Foucauldian conception of discourse with the older form used by
the New Critics at mid-century. See also a small introductory volume: Sarah Mills, Discourse (New York:
Routledge, 1997). An early, if not unproblematical, attempt at utilizing discourse as a way of approaching
early Christianity is Elizabeth Castelli, Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power (Louisville:
Westminster/John Knox, 1991), esp. chap. 2.
28
Bové, 54-55
29
Boyarin, Dying for God, 95-96.

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 8
power relations.30 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.31 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.32 Such affective devotions were also suffused with an awareness of

30
See., e.g., Boyarin, Dying for God, 67-92; Peter Brown, The Body and Society, 65-82; Gillian Clark,
“Bodies and Blood: Late Antique Debate on Martyrdom, Virginity, and Resurrection,” in Changing Bodies,
Changing Minds, ed. Dominic Monsterrat (New York: Routledge, 1998; Brent D. Shaw,
“Body/Power/Identity: Passions of the Martyrs,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 4:3 (1996): 269-312,
esp. 300-07; and Maureen Tilley, “The Ascetic Body and the (Un)Making of the World of the Martyr,”
JAAR 59:3, 467-79. Also, Teresa Shaw, The Burden of the Flesh (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).
31
Brad Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1999). Cf., 31: “Just as the Reformation did not emerge ex nihilo with Luther, the
sixteenth-century Renaissance of Christian martyrdom did not come from nowhere.” With such sentiments
Gregory clearly reveals himself to be a sometime student of the late Heiko Oberman, who consistently
emphasized the connections between Reformation religiosity and late medieval Christianity. A synopsis of
these points can also be obtained in Brad Gregory, “Late Medieval Religiosity and the Renaissance of
Christian Martyrdom in the Reformation Era,” in Continuity and Change: The Harvest of Late Medieval
and Reformation History, Essays presented to Heiko A. Oberman on his 70th Birthday, eds. Robert J. Best
and Andrew C. Grow (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 379-99.
Though I choose here not to engage Gregory in-depth, this is in no way a judgement against this most
important study. So, a few words are still in order. His position can be summarized thusly: Gregory wants
nothing to do with explaining martyrial intention, and views the accounts transparently (for more depth, see
1-29). By the first claim, Gregory is against discerning some deep-seated pathology for their willingness to
die rather than accept the character of their actions on the basis of their own religiosity. Of course, this
“internalist” position clearly assumes that the modern historian can actually get into the minds of the
believers under study—getting to the world behind the text. By the second claim, Gregory argues that the
martyrological accounts are neither literary inventions nor even conventions, but documents reporting
historical events with certain uncontestable facts. While I have much sympathy for this project, I
ultimately remain unconvinced, since I think these texts are neither transparent accounts of some “true”
event nor items we can “get around” in our historical study. Gregory provides a first-rate analysis and a
wealth of primary source information, but his methodological positions ultimately make his study not very
helpful for my project. This paper is more concerned, to use Gregory’s terminology, with the networks of
support and an interrogation of the category of belief in relation to martyrdom.
32
The devotio moderna, founded by Geert Grote (1340-1384), was a movement that blossomed in the Low
Countries and the Rhinland in the late fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries. One of its most celebrated and
influential texts is The Imitation of Christ, probably written by Thomas à Kempis (c. 1379-1471), which,
among other things, extols patient perseverance of affliction and addresses preparation for death. The Ars
Moriendi was a genre of practical, devotional literature aimed at the laity that first began to appear in the

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 9
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.”33 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

early fifteenth-century, and shares much with the devotio moderna. But the tenor of much of Ars Moriendi
literature is one of comfort. The aim was to not only address the immediate issue of deathbed discomfort,
but to allow that singular moment to be a sign that one had lived a good Christian life. Thus, the “art of
dying” was transformed into an “art of living” and the manuals were encouraged to be read not only at the
moment of death but throughout one’s life so as to aid in proper Christian comportment. For more on
these two traditions generally, see Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 30-73 and 97-138. One of the still classic
treatments of the ars moriendi remains Sister Mary Catherine O’Connor, The Art of Dying Well: The
Development of the Ars Moriendi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942). Also of value for
understanding this early modern “art of dying” are N. L. Beaty, The Craft of Dying: A Study in the Literary
Tradition of the Ars Moriendi in England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970); and Carlos Eire, “Ars
Moriendi,” in Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox
Press, 1984), 21-22.
33
Joy Enders, The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1999), 4.

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 10
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.”34 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.

34
Perkins, The Suffering Self, 12. Cf. also p.3, “A culture’s discourse represents not the ‘real’ world, but
rather a world mediated through the social categories, relations, and institutions operating in the specific
culture. Another way of saying this is that every representation reflects some cultural ‘interest,’ and,
therefore, discourses in a society never just float free. They are informed by, and they help to constitute,
the society’s particular preoccupations and intentions.”

Nunzio N. D'Alessio 11