Masculine Women:
Gender, the Soul, and Controversy in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity

by Adam Miller, History

Abstract: Masculinity in women has long been controversial, despite its regular occurrence in both history and literature. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, a narrative which depicts the martyrdom of Vibia Perpetua and her companions in Carthage in 203 CE, provides one such case of female masculinity that has puzzled scholars since the time of late-fourth-early-fifth century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo. Perpetua, who allegedly wrote a large portion of her own narrative, reports that she was made into a man (“et facta sum masculus”) in one of her dreams in order to defeat the devil in combat, but many have made the claim that the transformation was not physical. By placing Perpetua in conversation with other biblical and Early Christian women that were praised for their masculinity, this paper argues that the lack of nuance in the text offers no proof that Perpetua’s transformation was not physical, and that the appearance of this transformation is controversial because Perpetua transmutes sex, uses masculinity as a tool, and still retains pride in her true sex in a way that subverts an Early Christian understanding of gender. This paper also argues that this subversion was particularly controversial around the turn of the fifth century when Christian authorities were grappling with the issue of women adopting masculine appearances, shown through the writings of St. Augustine and St. Jerome.

early Christianity, martyrdoms, gender nonconformity, women’s history

Women have been masculine since the delineation between masculinity and femininity was drawn. Masculinity in women is something of a complicated and controversial issue. In Roman and Early Christian texts, women are both praised and scorned for being masculine or for pushing back against what is expected of their gender. Ideas around gender and sex were different during this period than they are today because the two were viewed as virtually the same and usually treated as fixed. Despite this, masculine women appear throughout Christian history and literature, and they obtain their masculinity in different ways. Sometimes masculinity is given as a reward for piety, and sometimes it is given as a punishment. In a few rare instances, women take masculinity for themselves and use it as a tool, but this is not always looked upon favorably. The Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis tells the story of a group of Christians who were martyred around 203 CE in Carthage. Vibia Perpetua, featured in the Passion’s title, was a wealthy young woman who plays a major role in this narrative, and a third of the Passion was allegedly written by her own hand. Perpetua presents many masculine behaviors, culminating in her transformation into a man in a dream she has where she fights the devil. Although this narrative was extremely popular, and Perpetua was hailed as a holy martyr, this transformation garnered much controversy during the time of St. Augustine of Hippo, who did not approve of this part of her narrative and argued that she did not in fact physically become male.However, there is no reason to believe that Perpetua’s transformation is metaphorical; rather it provides an antithesis to Augustine’s notion that gender is untransmutable. Although her body in the real world remains female, Perpetua makes a point to highlight that her dream self’s body is able to become male, going against Early Christian ideas of gender. Unlike other, acceptable masculine women, Perpetua is controversial because she assumes masculinity for herself without relinquishing her feminine identity, instead subversively combining the two in an attempt to retain agency and achieve salvation through martyrdom.

Setting the Scene: Biblical Masculine Women and the Defeminization of Female Martyrs

Although in general, the early Church encouraged women to be feminine and men to be masculine, there are a couple of examples of women who garner praise for their masculinity. Two stand out in biblical literature, the first of which being none other than Mary Magdalene. The case of her masculinity appears in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, not in the main canon of the New Testament, so whether it reflects an overall belief that some women could be masculine in a holy way, or whether it reflects specifically Gnostic beliefs is a fair point to call into question. However, when put in conversation with another example, that of the Apostle Philip’s sister Mariamne found in the Apocryphal Act of Philip, the case of Mary Magdalene certainly hints at, if not points to, a trend. Mary Magdalene appears in the Gospel of Thomas as a figure of contention, although this is not something she brings upon herself, but rather something that centers around her gender. The Apostle Peter insists that Mary is not welcome among the Apostles because she is a woman.1[i] Jesus steps in, but he does so in a way that shows he is not defending women, but specifically defending Mary Magdalene. He says, “Behold, I myself shall lead her so as to make her male, that she too may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”2[ii] Jesus does not say that Mary is welcome among the Apostles regardless of her gender; rather, he designates her as male, allowing her to become something different, and arguably something better, than a woman. He gives masculinity not only as a gift of companionship, but one of salvation. Because Mary Magdalene is made male, she is welcome to “enter the kingdom of heavens.” Mary does not seek masculinity; instead, Jesus gives it to her.

Mary Magdalene is not the only woman that Jesus designates as masculine. In the Act of Philip, one of the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, Philip and his sister Mariamne face the issue of Mariamne’s gender, as it prevents her from traveling with her brother. In order for her to do so, she must “remove her feminine clothing and character.”3[iii] Jesus observes this and shows his approval, saying, “I know that you are good and manly in soul and blessed among women… the masculine and manly thinking is in you.”4[iv] He forms an intentional connection between her masculinity and her being “blessed among women.” Like Mary Magdalene, Mariamne appears better, even more holy, than other women because of her masculinity. Also, like Mary Magdalene, it is Jesus’s approval that allows Mariamne to become holy. Her masculinity is not subversive, but divinely approved. She becomes masculine in order to aid her brother on his Apostolic mission, not for her own gain. Jesus’s acknowledgement of her masculine soul stands out because it reflects later rhetoric perpetuated by St. Augustine, who fixates on the connection between gender and the soul. Neither Mary Magdalene nor Mariamne garnered controversy for their masculine transformations because they were either constructed or approved by Jesus, who in addition to being the son of God, was a man.

There are other examples of women becoming masculine that appear in martyrdoms, although this masculinization is often presented through torture. In these cases, masculinity appears as a punishment, and these women’s suffering is revered. The most famous of these cases is that of St. Agatha who was martyred in 251 CE in Sicily. In her martyrdom, Agatha, when she refuses the advances of a powerful man, is arrested and charged as a Christian. As part of her torture, her breasts are violently cut off. In response to this, she says, “Art thou not ashamed to cut off that which thou thyself hast sucked? But I have a breast sound in my soul, with which I shall at any rate feed my understanding.”5[v] Agatha does not seek masculinity, nor does she welcome it. Ælfric, the author, presents this as a form of suffering. This line also draws another connection between gender and the soul. Even after her breasts are cut off from her physical body, she retains them, and her femininity, in her soul.

Later in the martyrdom, Agatha has her breasts restored as a reward for her piety. After an unnamed Apostle visits her, she prays. Following this, “she looked at her breast, and the breast that had been cut off was restored through Christ.”6[vi] Throughout this martyrdom, Agatha’s gender presentation is outside of her control. Her femininity is taken from her and then returned. Masculinity is a tool for her suffering. In this way, she contrasts the biblical women mentioned previously who receive masculinity as a reward. Because masculinity is linked to suffering, this is what Agatha is known for. She regularly appears in depictions with her breasts severed from her body, not with them restored. The Church has decided that the removal of Agatha’s breasts, which makes her masculine, also makes her more holy. Again, the figures that hold power in this martyrdom are not Agatha, but men, both the torturer and the Apostle who restores her femininity. The trope of breast removal is not abnormal, as Agatha is not the only female martyr to undergo this form of torture. In her article “Shame and the Breast in Ælfric’s Life of St. Agatha and the Harley Psalter,” Alice Jorgensen references other historian, Kirsten Wolf, who argues that “breast torture… is a way of confronting their problematic female corporeality and making it a means, rather than an obstacle, to holiness.”7 Through this lens, there is another clear connection between Agatha and Mary Magdalene and Mariamne. Being a woman is a problem that must be resolved through masculinization, whether that is found through a reward or a punishment.

Perpetua, St. Augustine, and Masculine Holy Women of the Fifth Century

There is one polarizing case of a female martyr that takes and uses masculinity as a tool for her own gain, rather than having it handed to her. In the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis, Perpetua, in a dream, transforms into a man to fight the devil, and she is victorious. However, whether Perpetua actually becomes male or simply becomes masculine has inspired debate since the time of Augustine. In this dream, Perpetua looks down at herself and writes “Et facta sum masculus.8 In Perpetua’s Passions, Latinist Craig Williams issues a warning not to take this statement too literally. However, there is no real nuance in this statement because Perpetua clearly states, “and I was made male,” without any room for confusion. Williams calls upon Augustine who is very firm in his belief that Perpetua did not physically become a man. One unfounded argument he refers to is that Perpetua did not recount having male genitalia, even though Perpetua makes no reference to her genitals at all.9 It appears that readers of this martyrdom want to inject nuance in order to become more comfortable with this narrative. Perpetua’s transformation into a man is controversial and dangerous because it does not fit the model of masculine women presented above. It is something she decides for herself and something that allows her to become victorious.

Although Augustine mentions Perpetua in a more favorable light in some of his sermons, there is another account that reveals his true distaste with her narrative. In his book De Anima et Eius Origine, he dedicates a chapter to her transformation, titling it “St. Perpetua Seemed to Herself, in Some Dreams, to Have Been Turned into a Man, and Then Have Wrestled with a Certain Egyptian.” In this chapter, he places a heavy emphasis on the difference between body and soul in regard to gender. For Augustine, the soul is able to transcend gender, but the body is not. He states, “Quis autem dubitet, in illa similitudine corporis animam eius fuisse, non corpus, quod utique in suo femineo sexu manens, sopitis sensibus iacebat in stratis, quando anima eius in illa virilis corporis similitudine luctabatur?10 This argues that while Perpetua was sleeping, her body remained female, but her soul was able to become masculine to defeat the devil, who was in the guise of another man. He repeats this sentiment throughout the chapter, calling on his audience to think about the issue logically and arguing that it makes sense that only Perpetua’s soul had become masculine. This is a much easier concept to grasp, as the soul is identified with purity and the body is not.

For multiple years, St. Augustine issued a sermon on the feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. Of these, at least three still exist, labeled by historians as Sermons 280, 281, and 282. Generally, these sermons present Perpetua in a favorable light, but a close reading will reveal Augustine’s continual discomfort with her narrative. In Sermon 280, Augustine reflects on how admirable these martyrs are, but he tells his audience that their actions are not necessarily replicable. This is largely because of how extreme martyrdom is, but there is a second underlying message that can be pulled out. He says, “What, after all, could be more glorious than these women, whom men can more easily admire than imitate?”11 His question first draws a line between female martyrs and an apparently male targeted audience. Then, it draws an important distinction between admiration and imitation. Men can admire female martyrs and their actions, but they are not generally able, or are not encouraged, to imitate them. By placing this statement in a sermon on Perpetua, an easy connection can be formed between the mention of imitation and Perpetua’s transformation into a man. Augustine warns against one sex imitating the other. Later in this sermon, Augustine discusses the issue of the sex of the body versus the soul. He says, “…to the inner self they are found to be neither male nor female; so that even as regards the femininity of the body, the sex of the flesh is concealed by the virtue of the mind, and one is reluctant to think about a condition in their members that never showed in their deeds.”12 Again, referring primarily to Perpetua, he repeats the argument that the soul is able to transcend sex in order to overcome what he sees as an inherently weaker body. In fact, this mirrors what he said in De Anima et Eius Origine, but he turns it into a more general statement—a reminder to the audience that the body is unable to go against sex, unlike the soul.

Augustine continues to place an emphasis on the difference between body and soul by repeatedly highlighting the weakness of the female body and the strength of the soul. In Sermon 281, he praises female martyrs for what he views as abnormal strength, saying “A more splendid crown… is owed to those of the weaker sex… when their feminine frailty has not been undone under such enormous pressure.”13 He connects bravery and piety with masculinity, appearing surprised that women could exemplify these traits. This backhanded compliment is not necessarily meant to just praise these women for their bravery, but to remind the audience that what they did was abnormal for their sex. In this sermon, Augustine is not subtle about his views on women’s physical and moral strength, and how extraordinary he finds Perpetua and Felicity. He even states that “these women [died] faithfully like men.”14 He repeats this sentiment in Sermon 282 where he says that “… it was a greater miracle for women in their weakness to overcome the ancient enemy.”15 Again and again, Augustine makes the claim that women are inherently weak, and this is why their martyrdoms are more notable. This misogynistic belief feeds into his distaste for Perpetua’s transformation, as she takes strength for herself in a very physical way, rather than just adopting a purer, and therefore masculine, soul. In these sermons, Augustine firmly establishes the rules of gender, and they are not meant to be bent.

Although Augustine seems primarily occupied with Perpetua’s transformation, there appears to be a general awareness at this time of people that push back against the gender binary. St. Jerome, the creator of the Vulgate and a contemporary of Augustine, writes in a letter to a young woman about people who present outside of their assigned genders. He writes on masculine women that “Aliae virili habitu, veste mutata, erubescunt feminae esse, quod natae sunt crinem amputant et inpudenter erigunt facies eunuchinas.16 The language here is not favorable. He claims that these women are ashamed of the sex they were born as and compares them to eunuchs. In the next section of this letter, Jerome goes on to talk about those he perceives as men adopting feminine appearances. He talks about them “wearing their hair long like women,” which among other things he lists is a “[token] of the devil.”17 Jerome’s stance, like Augustine’s, is clear, but they approach this discussion in different ways. Jerome focuses on contemporary examples of people that transgress the gender binary, while Augustine focuses on historical examples like Perpetua. The same message comes through: women are feminine, and men are masculine, and anyone who goes against this is wrong.

Jerome continues to talk about these masculine women and offers a description of them. He says they cut their hair and wear a cilicium, a piece of men’s clothing often made of goat hair.18 He speaks of these women as if he has either met them or has heard of them extensively. This matter is so concerning to him that he places this warning in a letter to a teenage girl that primarily deals with virginity’s virtues.19 This, along with Augustine’s messages about Perpetua and the inability of the body to go against assigned gender, shows that this was a pressing and contemporary issue. Clearly the late fourth century into the early fifth was a time of severe backlash against gender fluidity that had not been as contentious of an issue when Perpetua wrote her narrative. Given the long tradition of holy women becoming masculine, it makes sense that Perpetua would adopt this trope for herself, yet by the time of Augustine and Jerome, this had become somewhat unacceptable. At some point in the mid-fourth century between 325 and 381, there was a Council held at Gangra that formally addressed this problem and banned ascetic women from presenting themselves masculinely in the way Jerome describes: by cutting their hair and wearing men’s clothing.20 Regardless of rules set by this council or the opinions of loud theologians like Augustine and Jerome, women continued to dress masculinely. Elizabeth Castelli claims that ascetic women continued to present masculinely as a “sign of female piety well into the ninth century,” even citing that several women are now known to have lived their entire religious lives as monks, with their assigned gender only being discovered after death.21 If anything, the continuity of female masculinity proves how present it was during the turn of the fifth century, and how unsuccessful the attempts to prevent it were.

The biggest question with Perpetua’s transformation is whether she actually becomes a man in body, or if she just becomes masculine. Williams argues that because Perpetua in her narrative continues to use feminine language to refer to herself after the alleged transformation, this means that she did not physically become male.22 Alternatively, her use of this language simply reflects that she still views herself as a woman and is not ashamed of her femininity. Again, there is nothing to suggest that Perpetua’s statement of “et facta sum masculus” is not meant to be taken literally. In this scene, there are only two instances where she uses feminine language to describe herself. The first is in her fight with the Egyptian man. She writes, “Et petiit silentium et dixit: ‘Hic Aegyptius, si hanc vicerit, occidet illam gladio; haec, si hunc vicerit, accipet ramum istum.’”23 This feminine language is used to distinctly juxtapose her with her enemy. If he, the Egyptian, wins, he will kill her, but if she wins, she will accept the branch of victory. Perpetua uses he versus she intentionally as a way to show that her victory is rooted in her womanhood. She may be in a male body, but she is still a woman and is able to defeat the devil. That is not to say that this transformation should be compared to modern feminism, as Perpetua, by becoming a man, agrees with the belief that the female body is inherently weaker than the male, and that is why she must change to become victorious. However, Perpetua does not abandon her womanhood, even as she becomes masculine. While it is wrong to try and ascribe a modern perspective on Perpetua’s account, her assuredness in her femininity is powerful and stands out among her contemporaries.

The second instance where Perpetua describes herself using feminine language is after she is victorious. She writes, “Et osculatus est me et dixit mihi Filia, pax tecum.’”24 The referee, a stand in for God, kisses her and calls her daughter. From a perspective like Williams’, this is a sure sign that Perpetua is still inhabiting a female body in order for this referee to view her and call her this. However, this is a dream, and the referee is meant to represent God, who is famously omnipotent. It is important to recognize that dream logic is not always sensical, so it is not helpful to look at it as such. Perpetua transforms into a man; defeats the devil, who is disguised as an Egyptian; and God who is disguised as a referee says, “Daughter, peace be with you.” The constant contrast between Perpetua’s masculine form and her feminine identity presents an opposite argument to Augustine’s. Here, her body becomes masculine, while her soul, which is visible to herself and to God, stays female. This is controversial because it makes the claim that physical sex is transmutable and that a female soul has strength. Not only does Perpetua demonstrate that she is capable of overcoming evil, but she shows that she has divine approval. God looks at her in her male body and both praises her and calls her daughter. This scene is meant to show the power of the female soul, something that Augustine finds incompatible with his view of gender.

Perpetua as a Masculine Woman

Although her transformation in the fourth dream is the most extreme, there are other instances in the Passion that show Perpetua going against what is expected of her gender in a subversive way. Two of these are found in her own narrative and lead up to her final transformation into a man, but there is another found in the editor’s addition to the Passion. Perpetua herself presents three instances of her subverting gender expectations that culminate in her fight with the Egyptian and present a balanced narrative structure that feels intentional. The scene added later—Perpetua meeting the eyes of the audience as she goes to her death—shows that the editor was both aware of Perpetua’s subversive character and encouraged it.

In Perpetua’s first dream, she sees her fellow future-martyr Saturus at the top of a ladder that is lined with weapons.25 At the foot of the ladder is a serpent, who, as Saturus warns, will hurt her if she is not careful.26 Instead, Perpetua uses the serpent as a tool to climb the ladder and enter Heaven. She writes, “Et desub ipsa scala, quasi timens me, lente eiecit caput. Et quasi primum gradum calcarem, calcavi illi caput et ascendi.27 Here, Perpetua references Eve and proves herself above the sin that is ascribed to her gender by using the serpent for her own advantage, rather than falling victim to it. In Sermon 280, Augustine speaks of this scene favorably, saying “Thus the head of the ancient serpent, which had been the ruin of woman as she fell, was made into a step for woman as she ascended.”28 She ascends into a garden, mirroring the one that Eve was banished from. This scene also has another heavily gendered interpretation when the serpent is taken as a phallic symbol. From this perspective, Perpetua uses masculinity as a tool to lift herself into Heaven. This is very similar to her final transformation, where she uses a masculine body to defeat the devil. This is the first of the three scenes, and when paired with the last in this way, shows that Perpetua was very aware of her narrative structure when writing this account. Everything that Perpetua wrote, including her claim to a male body, is intentional.

Although many of Perpetua’s interactions with her father show her taking on a more masculine role, these culminate in his reluctant acceptance of her chosen martyrdom and his placement of a new title on her head. She writes, “Haec dicebat quasi pater pro sue pietate basians mihi manus, et se ad pedes meos iactans et lacrimans me iam non filiam nominabat sed dominam.29 This scene shows him kissing her hands, falling at her feet, and weeping, none of which are particularly masculine actions. He gives up his control over her, succumbing to the reality that she has chosen a new, heavenly father. The most notable part of this scene is that he goes from calling her daughter [filiam] to lady [dominam]. Petr Kitzler, in his article “Passio Perpetuae and Acta Perpetuae: Between Tradition and Innovation,” calls this “turning the normal gender-hierarchy upside down and [Perpetua] gaining the position of dominance.”30 By calling her domina, Perpetua’s father admits that he has no control over her and admits to her independence, going against the rules of a traditional father-daughter relationship. Yet, in allowing her this more dominant, and therefore masculine, role, he still refers to her as a lady. This pushes back against both familial and gender hierarchies, as Perpetua can assume a role of power while still proudly keeping her feminine identity.

In literature, gender is not always a perfect hierarchical binary, as some women are presented as better than others. Lunette Warren discusses the classical idea of women who other themselves, which often coincide with a more masculine identity, in the book Like a Captive Bird: Gender and Virtue in Plutarch. This chapter, which focuses primarily on Greek historian Plutarch, shows how even outside of a Christian context, classical literature presents another option for women that want to step outside of the confines of their gender, although not in an entirely subversive way. Warren writes that these women seek superiority over other women by becoming closer to men.31 This is not to say that these women become masculine in a physical sense, but that they adopt a more dominant role through this move up the hierarchy. Warren quotes JoAnn McNamara as saying “‘…these writers [namely Plutarch and Paul] sought to redefine masculine virtue to accommodate virtuous women in a way that did not threaten the patriarchal matrix of domination.’”32 This mirrors the gender divergence of biblical women like Mary Magdalene and Mariamne who became masculine in opposition to their femininity. This is particularly true with Mary Magdalene who Jesus designated as male not only so that she might join the Apostles, but so that she might also enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In these cases, the women are deemed better than female because of their masculinity and are therefore forced to give up some aspect of their female identity.

Perpetua is different from other, more acceptable, masculine women because while she uses masculinity as a tool for her own gain, she takes it for herself and is not ashamed of her womanhood. Although it is found in a part of the martyrdom not written by her own hand, Perpetua dies as a woman, with details that point inarguably to her femininity. One could argue that the editor, who wrote this scene, focuses on Perpetua’s womanhood to fight against the masculine version of herself that she presents in her own narrative. However, there is also an example of Perpetua adopting a more masculine role within the editor’s section of the martyrdom that points to their approval of Perpetua’s balance of masculinity and femininity. These two scenes build on Perpetua’s complicated character that feels genuine. The editor does not attempt to shy away from the more controversial aspects of Perpetua’s identity, nor do they singularly focus on them.

When Perpetua and her fellow martyrs enter the amphitheater to meet their death, Perpetua boldly meets the eyes of the crowd. The editor writes, “Sequebatur Perpetua lucido vultu et placido incessu, ut matrona Christi, ut Dei delicata, vigore oculorum deiciens omnium conspectum.33 Williams notes that many have called this “coded as masculine.”34 This behavior is not socially acceptable, and the dominance she expresses through this action is certainly not expected or encouraged in women. The language used here conveys the tension in this scene and the power Perpetua feels through this action. She pushes back against the gazes of all in the crowd with her own, daring them to truly look at her. By returning their gaze, Perpetua forces the crowd not only to recognize her as a person, rather than a spectacle, but also as a woman. The titles attributed to Perpetua in this scene also show that the editor finds this action admirable, regardless, or perhaps because of how controversial and subversive it is. They call her a bride of Christ [matrona Christi] and the beloved of God [Dei delicata], two titles which designate her as holy but also highlight her femininity. She is feminine and loved by God despite her subversive, masculine behavior. Again and again, God gives His divine approval to Perpetua because of her masculinity, but He does so in a way that recognizes that she is a woman. In this martyrdom, God is not asking Perpetua to abandon her female identity like Jesus did in the case of Mary Magdalene. Rather, He praises her for clinging to her femininity while using masculinity as a pious tool.

Despite her more masculine behavior, Perpetua has a deep connection with her womanhood that she maintains even in the face of death. When Perpetua and Felicity first enter the amphitheater, they are wearing nothing but nets, so that the audience is able to see that they are young women.35 They are then taken away and dressed in more modest robes before being sent back into the amphitheater.36 At this point, Perpetua appears to be very aware of her body. The editor writes, “Et ubi sedit, tunicam a latere discissam ad velamentum femoris reduxit, pudoris potius memor quam doloris.37 She puts her modesty before her pain in an attempt to maintain control over her body. She then “acu requista et dispersos capillos infibulavit; non enim decebat martyrdam sparsis capillis pati, ne in sua gloria plangere videretur.”38 Both the covering of her body and the pinning up of her hair are behaviors expected of her gender that she clings to as she seeks agency. Perpetua finds enough power in her identity as a woman that as she approaches her final martyrdom, she wishes to present herself as such. Unlike other women who attempt to move up the gender hierarchy by positioning themselves as something other than female, Perpetua’s identity is deeply rooted in her assigned gender. She uses masculinity and masculine behaviors in order to achieve what she wants: martyrdom; yet, in her martyrdom she maintains her identity as a woman. 

The inclusion of these two juxtaposing scenes—Perpetua staring down the audience and then covering up her body for the sake of modesty—shows that the editor is aware of Perpetua’s complicated character and chooses to stay true to it. The Passion, which was compiled at some point between Perpetua’s death around 203 CE and the time of Augustine at the turn of the fifth century, reflects a different perspective on gender fluidity than what Augustine and his contemporaries held. Clearly, the editor finds Perpetua to be an inspirational, holy figure. This is why they keep Perpetua’s own narrative intact, assuming it is truly her own, including the controversial section where she transforms into a man. The editor even builds on Perpetua’s fluidity in gender expression through the two scenes described. Gender fluidity among holy women was not a new phenomenon, and as shown, is not one that disappears after the time of Augustine. If anything, the editor likely saw something of a Mary Magdalene-like figure in Perpetua, which is why they chose to home in on her masculine behavior. To her contemporaries, Perpetua presents a somewhat typical example of both a masculine holy woman and fits the classical literary trope of a woman moving up the gender hierarchy by becoming something other than female. It is only in the context of the mid-fourth century to the early fifth century when the Church began to crack down on gender nonconformity among holy women that Perpetua’s narrative presents a problem.

Conclusions: When is It Acceptable for Women to be Masculine?

There are a few instances where it is deemed acceptable, and in some cases even holy, for women to become masculine. As exemplified with the cases of Mary Magdalene and Mariamne, masculinity can be given as a gift from a man, in both of these cases, given by Jesus. Both Mariamne and Mary Magdalene in particular become something other and notably better than female. Here, being female is something to be ashamed of, and in order to reach their true holy potential, both women must relinquish their female identities. Masculinity can also be given as a punishment, as in the martyrdom of Agatha. In this narrative, a man cuts off her breasts as a form of torture, thereby masculinizing her physically, and she is later praised for her suffering. In all three of these cases, masculinity is not seen as subversive, nor is it something that these women seek. It is forced upon them, whether that is through reward or punishment. Perpetua, however, pushes this trope too far by taking masculinity for herself. She uses it as a tool to achieve salvation through martyrdom. In the most controversial example of this, she transforms into a man in her dream. The scene is so contentious that people have been arguing for centuries on whether she actually became male in a physical sense because it represents a complete subversion of Early Christian ideas of gender, exhibited by Augustine’s words on gender and the soul.

Although there is nothing to suggest nuance in this scene, St. Augustine argues that only her soul becomes male, while her body remains female. This is because if the soul becomes male but the body remains female, this maintains an impenetrable, innate physical distinction between the sexes while both acknowledging that the soul is beyond this, and that masculinity is inherently and divinely superior to femininity. However, if the soul remains female while the body becomes male, it dissolves all of this. It says that sex is transmutable, and that a female soul can be both victorious and holy. By insisting that Perpetua’s body remains female and only her soul becomes masculine, Augustine hopes to quell any suggestion that there is strength in womanhood; he asserts that the female sex is weaker and less pure than the male; he refuses to acknowledge that a woman might use the rules presented in cases such as Mary Magdalene for her own gain; and he casts shame on the idea that a woman might find power in her own femininity. Perpetua ultimately does physically transform into a man in her dream, but this is so controversial because in spite of this, she remains proudly female.


  1. Silke Petersen, “Becoming Male and the Annulment of Gender Difference: Return to Paradise?” In Ancient Christian Apocrypha: Marginalized Texts in Early Christianity, edited by Silke Petersen and Outi Lehtipuu (The Society of Biblical Literature, 2022): 75. ↩︎
  2. Elizabeth Castelli, “”I Will Make Mary Male”: Pieties of the Body and Gender Transformation of Christian Women in Late Antiquity,” in Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. Edited by Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub (New York: Routledge, 1991): 30. ↩︎
  3. Silke Petersen, “Becoming Male and the Annulment of Gender Difference: Return to Paradise?” In Ancient Christian Apocrypha: Marginalized Texts in Early Christianity, edited by Silke Petersen and Outi Lehtipuu (The Society of Biblical Literature, 2022): 83. ↩︎
  4. Petersen, “Becoming Male,” 83. ↩︎
  5. Ælfric. “Ælfric’s Lives of Saints.” Wikisource. Accessed December 11, 2023. ↩︎
  6. Ælfric, “Ælfric’s Lives of Saints,” Wikisource. ↩︎
  7. Alice Jorgensen, “Shame and the Breast in Ælfric’s Life of St. Agatha and the Harley Psalter,” JEGP, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 120, no. 3 (2021): 326. ↩︎
  8. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” In Perpetua’s Passions, edited by Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012): 10.7. ↩︎
  9. Craig Williams, “Perpetua’s Gender. A Latinist Reads the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” in Perpetua’s Passions, edited by Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012): 65. ↩︎
  10. Saint Augustine of Hippo, “De Anima et eius Origine,” Wikisource, accessed December 11, 2023. ↩︎
  11. Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermons: Volume 8 (New York: New City Press, 1994): 72. ↩︎
  12. Saint Augustine, Sermons, 72. ↩︎
  13. Saint Augustine, Sermons, 78. ↩︎
  14. Saint Augustine, Sermons, 78. ↩︎
  15. Saint Augustine, Sermons, 82. ↩︎
  16. Saint Jerome, Select Letters of St. Jerome. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933): 22.27. ↩︎
  17. Saint Jerome, Select Letters, 22.28. ↩︎
  18. Saint Jerome, Select Letters, 22.27. ↩︎
  19. Castelli, “I Will Make Mary Male,” 44. ↩︎
  20. Canon XIII: “If any woman, under pretence of asceticism, shall change her apparel and, instead of a woman’s accustomed clothing, shall put on that of a man, let her be anathema.” ↩︎
  21. Castelli, “I Will Make Mary Male,” 44. ↩︎
  22. Williams, “Perpetua’s Gender,” 63. ↩︎
  23. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 10.9 ↩︎
  24. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 10.13. ↩︎
  25. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 4.3 ↩︎
  26. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 4.6. ↩︎
  27. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 4.7. ↩︎
  28. Saint Augustine, Sermons, 72. ↩︎
  29. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 5.5 ↩︎
  30. Petr Kitzler, “Passio Perpetuae and Act Perpetuae: Between Tradition and Innovation,” Lisy filologické. No. 130. (2007): 8-9. ↩︎
  31. Lunette Warren, “A Virtuous Ideal,” In Like a Captive Bird: Gender and Virtue in Plutarch, Lever Press (2022): 114. ↩︎
  32. Warren, “A Virtuous Ideal,” 114. ↩︎
  33. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 18.2. ↩︎
  34. Williams, “Perpetua’s Gender,” 66. ↩︎
  35. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 20.2. ↩︎
  36. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 20.3. ↩︎
  37. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 20.4. ↩︎
  38. “Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis,” 20.5. ↩︎


Ælfric. “Ælfric’s Lives of Saints.” Wikisource. Accessed December 11, 2023.

Augustine of Hippo. “De Anima et eius Origine.” Wikisource. Accessed December 11, 2023.

Augustine of Hippo. Sermons: Volume 8. New York: New City Press, 1994.

Castelli, Elizabeth.  “’I Will Make Mary Male’: Pieties of the Body and Gender Transformation of Christian Women in Late Antiquity.” in Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. Edited by Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub. New York: Routledge, 1991.

“The Council of Gangra.” From Nicene and Post-Nicen Fathers Series II, Volume 14: The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Jorgensen, Alice. “Shame and the Breast in Ælfric’s Life of St. Agatha and the Harley Psalter.” JEGP, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 120, no. 3 (2021): 326-351.

Kitzler, Petr. “Passio Perpetuae and Act Perpetuae: Between Tradition and Innovation.” Lisy filologické. No. 130. (2007): 1-19.

“Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis.” In Perpetua’s Passions. Edited by Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Petersen, Silke. “Becoming Male and the Annulment of Gender Difference: Return to Paradise?” In Ancient Christian Apocrypha: Marginalized Texts in Early Christianity, edited by Silke Petersen and Outi Lehtipuu, 69–88. The Society of Biblical Literature, 2022.

Saint Jerome. Select Letters of St. Jerome. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1933.

Warren, Lunette. “A Virtuous Ideal.” In Like a Captive Bird: Gender and Virtue in Plutarch, 113–62. Lever Press, 2022.

Williams Craig. “Perpetua’s Gender. A Latinist Reads the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis.” In Perpetua’s Passions. Edited by Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Acknowledgements: To my lovely friends who let me ramble on about this.

Citation Style: Chicago