RELI/ENGL 39, Fall 2015, University of the Pacific

Tag: Martyrs

A Martyr Is a Witness


Sinclair, Stéfan and Geoffrey Rockwell. “Voyant Tools: Reveal Your Texts.” Voyant. 31 Aug. 2015 <>

In my Introduction to Digital Humanities course, my students are conducting very basic text analysis using Voyant and AntConc.  One of the datasets we are using is a set of martyr texts taken from the now public domain Ante-Nicene Fathers series (available at

I’m a little bit of a skeptic regarding wordclouds; I generally regard them as useful insofar as they are aesthetically pleasing and in that they may spark a deeper interest in a text or set of texts.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to see the results of the wordcloud in Voyant.  A martyr is a witness, quite literally in Greek.  And lo and behold: the most prominent word (after accounting for a standard English stop word list) is “said.”  Speaking.  Witnessing?

We also put the martyr texts through AntConc, and we tested the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas against the rest of the dataset to check for key words: just which words were distinctive to Perpetua and Felicitas?  Once again I was pleasantly surprised.

AntConc: Keywords in Perpetua and Felicitas measured against other martyr texts in English translation

AntConc: Keywords in Perpetua and Felicitas measured against other martyr texts in English translation

Note the prominence of “I” and “my” and “me.”  The “keyness” of the first person pronouns reflect the presence of a section of the martyr text often called Perpetua’s “prison diary”; according to tradition, the diary was written by Perpetua herself.  The keyness of “she” and “her” of course reflect the text’s women protagonists.


Perpetua and Felicitas: Counter-Culture in the 3rd Century (October 5th, 2015)

This article from PBS about early Christian martyrs is an interesting one. Within, Professor Wayne A. Meeks describes what is happening with Christianity is a sort of counter-cultural movement. Now as someone who attended Catholic school for eight years, counter-culture was pretty much explained to me as that which goes against the teachings of the church. And that interested me, the perspective shift from Christianity being the counter-culture of its day, to defining counter-culture to me as that which was not them. This is likely some weird thing from my early Catholic school days, but it has always stuck with me. And I found counter-culture to be an intensely interesting subject. Maybe the martyrs did too. I do not know the specific context for this story other than what I read in the article and what I have learned from school, and I always have been bad with historical context, but I think that a lot of these martyr stories are hard to relate to our own personal context. Here in the United States we at least try to have a separation of church and state, the Roman government had no such distinction and thus had rituals embedded into their culture as something that the community does as a whole. I think a big part of historical context that escapes me, and may escape others is that the further back you go in time, individuals and small groups just become numbers that we don’t relate to. Or generalizations of a story. But this story, that of Perpetua and Felicitas (though as a child I was always told it was Felicity), focuses on two individuals and helps to reign that back in for me. It was individuals who were persecuted. Individuals who offered themselves to God by the edge of the sword. Small groups of society being persecuted interacting with other small groups of society that wanted to persecute. I think, that since the Roman government at large did not have a strict policy on the persecution of Christians that it was the small minority that banded together as a group to execute those of another faith, or at least those who did not participate in a same social manner. I think that the outliers on both sides of the story were those well documented because it wasn’t the mundanity of regular culture. Why document the regular everyday happenings of real life if everybody already knows it? The stories of the Christian martyrs, as far as I know, are documented better than the early growth and expansion of Christianity (as well as being part of that growth), and the stories continue to contribute to Christian faith to this day. The importance of their martyrdom, in my eyes, was the counter-culture idea that people believed so strongly in their faith that they would die for it. Again, I do not know the context of the time, but from what it seems like, the Roman community practicing sacrifice could just as easily have taken the same steps that some Christians did and faked their way through the offerings. They could have been weaker in their faith to their gods than the Christian martyrs had in their God. And I believe this is why Christianity drew upon martyrdom as a source of power and not tragedy, it proved their place in the pantheon of religions that existed at the time, and established them as a real participant in humanity’s dialogue with the concept of higher being(s). -Luke Bolle


This image of Perpetua and Felicitas also shows something that wasn’t brought up in the reading: they were also women of color.

Image Source