Martyrs and Sanctity

Origins of Christian Martyrdom Early Martyrs: Saints Polycarp and Perpetua

St. Edmund

St. Agnes Thomas Becket

Martyrdom and Power

Protestants and Martyrdom Elizabeth, a Flemish Protestant Martyr


Pronunciation: 'mär-t&r
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English, from Late Latin, from
Greek martyr-, martys, literally, witness
Date: before 12th century
1 : a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing
to and refusing to renounce a religion
2 : a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life
itself for the sake of principle
3 : VICTIM; especially : a great or constant sufferer <a martyr to
asthma all his life -- A. J. Cronin>

When studying blood, power and gender in the Christian faith it is impossible to overlook the issue of martyrdom. No other act embodies as much power or acclaim. It is also an act that has no gender biases. Male and female martyrs are regarded as equals in the eyes of God and by Christians in general. The spilling of blood conveys strong meaning in any context but it is particularly extraordinary when it takes the form of martyrdom. -- Merriam Webster Online

Jesus can be considered the first "martyr" of the Church because in Christian tradition he came to Earth and died to forgive the sins of others. Martyrdom as a concept in early Christianity is interesting because it explains the ways that early Christians thought about sacrifice and redemption. Martyrdom was widespread in early Christianity, simply because Christians as a group were being persecuted. Thus, every Christian who died at the hands of the Romans was martyred. The earliest Christian writers and philosophers most likely saw martyrdom as an attempt to imitate Christ's suffering and death; martyrs were making a conscious decision to die as Christ did.

The cult of the saints and emphasis on martyrs began as a direct result of the Roman persecution of the early Christians, seen as a threat to Roman piety and order. The early martyrs were described as paradigms of Christian living during precarious times of persecution. These people were the ultimate followers of Christ; their faith and convictions were strong enough, author Lawrence S. Cunningham writes, that these martyrs were driven to imitate Jesus' sacrificial death (13-14). The saints who eventually chose martyrdom were considered ‘witnesses' to the Christian tradition. A quote by the early Christian writer Tertullian explains this ideas quite graphically,

"The martyrs' blood was the seed of the Church (Cunningham 15)."

As the cult of saints and martyrs in early Christianity developed, a change in perception of blood and purity took place. Orthodox Jewish belief suggests that the presence of blood is unclean, impure, and cause for ritual purification. Examples of this are seen in the Orthodox Jewish practices of kashrut and Taharat Mishpacha, or family purity laws. The Christian experience, however, suggests that the death of Jesus Christ and the bloodshed of martyrs are reasons for blood to be regarded as sacred if sacrificial. The following stories of the deaths of three Christian martyrs, St. Polycarp, St. Agnes, and St. Thomas `a Becket, reveal this change in attitude toward blood and purity.

St. Polycarp (A.D. 69-155) was one of the earliest Christian saints. In the account of his martyrdom, it is clear that Polycarp's blood is sacred. After he was stabbed, a fire surrounding his body was put out by the blood flowing from his body. This story suggests the blood of saints and martyrs is consecrated, rather than impure. The following is an excerpt of a passage describing the martyrdom of Polycarp.

"When he was tied up to be burned, Polycarp prayed, ‘Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son of Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight, I bless, for having made me worthy of this day and hour, I bless you, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of your Christ, to resurrection in eternal life, resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in your presence, as you have prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God who is faithful and true. For this and for all benefits I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be to you with him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen.' The fire was lit as Polycarp said, ‘Amen,' and then the eyewitnesses who reported said they saw a miracle. The fire burst up in an arch around Polycarp, the flames surrounding him like snails, and instead of being burned he seemed to glow like bread baking, or gold being melted in a furnace. When the captors saw he wasn't being burned, they stabbed him. The blood that flowed put the fire out."

from Catholic online Saints

The witness of brave martyrs in-fact encouraged new converts. The persecutions were very public displays, and the overwhelming faith of the martyrs intrigued many seeking to convert. This was especially true in early Christianity when, in Rome, it was common to see Christians thrown to the lions or other beasts in the arena.

Although more modern theologians have declared that one cannot become a martyr unless killed against his/her will, early Christians saw any death related to their faith as the sacrifice of themselves to God. The idea of martyrdom distinguished Christianity from its pagan contemporaries. Although ritual deaths and sacrifices of animals were popular in various cults and non-Christian religious religous groups was not.

For more see
Roman Mystery Religions

Some individuals had a desire to become martyrs. Ignatius bishop of Antioch in the first century CE wrote extensive confessions of his desire to become a martyr.

"Grant me nothing more than that I should be poured out as libation to God, while there is still an altar ready... I am God's wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread...Entreat Christ for me, that through these beasts I may be found a sacrifice to God." (Frankiel, 74)

Christ's death and resurrection could be seen as the most important principle of Christianity, so martyrdom imitated that holy act. Accordingly anyone who became a martyr was guaranteed immediate residence in heaven. All martyrs were regarded as saints and the remains of Martyrs are used as
relics in shrines.


Saints Perpetua and Felicity

Perpetua was a Roman woman who converted to Christianity against the wishes of her pagan father. She knew that she would probably be killed for this decision; in fact, she had a dream in which a dragon was seated at the foot of a ladder to heaven. She was able to climb the ladder by stepping on the dragon's head. After having this dream, Perpetua knew that she would be martyred and went willingly to her death. She was to be killed in an arena-the Romans released a maddened cow on her and another woman; however, the cow failed to kill them, so they were killed after the games. Her executioner failed to kill her the first time he tried, so Perpetua grabbed his hand and guided the knife across her throat.
Perpetua's dream had shown her that by dying she would be able to join her fellow Christians along with Christ in heaven. By shedding blood for what she believed in, she would be redeemed in the eyes of God.In this way, early notions of martyrdom reflect early Christian ideas about sacrifice and redemption.

Saint Edmund

St. Edmund was born in England in 841. On Christmas Day in 855 he was made king at the young age of fourteen. He is accepted as a good leader, who acted with virtue and honor. As the years past he memorized the Psalms and grew acquainted with the Bible. However, towards the end of his kingship he began to face attacks from non-Christian Danish raiders. In 870 a large invasion force had gathered near St. Edmund's lands. Soon battle ensued. While St. Edmund was somewhat successful in defending his lands, the overwhelming force of the Danes soon overtook his men. Thus, he fled to Framingham castle. While in the castle the leader of the Danes offered him a peace treaty. St. Edmund however refused the treaty on the grounds that it would infringe on the Christian beliefs of him and his people. The Danes understood that he was not going to accept the treaty so they made arrangements to kill St. Edmund. However, even when facing certain death St. Edmund declared that his religious beliefs meant more to him than his life. Thus, he was tied to a tree, whipped, shot with arrows, and then beheaded. St. Edmund exactly represents the qualities of a martyr. Death and torture could not move him to abandon his beliefs.

Saint Edmund

St. Agnes was a martyr in Rome in the fourth century. She is of particular interest because of the great emphasis placed upon her virginity and the role that it played in her martyrdom. St. Agnes was eventually killed for refusing marriage because of her love and devotion to Jesus Christ. In Vita S. Agnetis, the writings of St. Agnes, the virgin martyr explains,
"Depart from me, because I am already committed to another lover, one who has adorned me with ornaments and a ring far better than yours and who has pledged to me in faith...I commit myself to him in all devotion to him. When I love him, I am chaste; when I touch him, I am pure; when I receive him, I am a virgin. Nor after the marriage will somes be wanting, where birth takes place without sorrow and fruitfulness increases daily (Winstead 27)."

  St. Agnes is often associated and shown with a lamb, representing her virginity. There are gender implications to the significance of blood in this story. First, blood can again be seen, although indirectly, as impure because Agnes's virginity is a largely emphasized in her sainthood. However, her blood is also seen as sacred, for her bloody death by a sword is seen as an act of martyrdom.

Thomas `a Becket is an important because his death on December 29, 1170 transformed Canterbury Cathedral into one the most popular pilgrimage sites, second only to Rome. Becket was an archbishop of Canterbury and a powerful religious figure in England. After uttering his final words, "I accept death for the name of Jesus and for the Church," Becket was slain (on the orders of King Henry II) by the swords of four knights. Becket's story of martyrdom is especially interesting because bloodshed, while previously desecrating a sacred space, led Canterbury Cathedral to become the destination of ritual pilgrimages.

The following passage includes excerpts from an account of Becket's murder by his biographer Edward Grim in Vita S. Thomae, Cantuariensis Archepiscopi et Martyris.

excerpts and picture taken from this site.

Thomas said,

"Here I am ready to suffer in the name of He who redeemed me with His blood; God forbid that I should flee on account of your swords or that I should depart from righteousness." The murderers pursued him and asked, "Absolve and restore to communion those you have excommunicated and return to office those who have been suspended." To these words [Thomas] replied, "No penance has been made, so I will not absolve them." "Then you," they said, "will now die and will suffer what you have earned." "And I," he said, "am prepared to die for my Lord, so that in my blood the church will attain liberty and peace; but in the name of Almighty God I forbid that you hurt my men, either cleric or layman, in any way."

The glorious martyr acted conscientiously with foresight for his men and prudently on his own behalf, so that no one near him would be hurt as he hastened toward Christ. It was fitting that the soldier of the Lord and the martyr of the Savior adhered to His words when he was sought by the impious, "If it is me you seek, let them leave." But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death." But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow he shattered the sword on the stone and his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church with the colors of the lily and the rose, the colors of the Virgin and Mother and the life and death of the confessor and martyr.

The fourth knight drove away those who were gathering so that the others could finish the murder more freely and boldly. The fifth - not a knight but a cleric who entered with the knights - so that a fifth blow might not be spared him who had imitated Christ in other things, placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, "We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again." But during all these incredible things the martyr displayed the virtue of perseverance. And how intrepidly -how devotedly and courageously - he offered himself for the murder when it was made clear that for his salvation and faith this martyr should fight for the protection of others so that the affairs of the church might be managed according to its paternal traditions and decrees."

Translated by
Dawn Marie Hayes []

Click here for more on Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral and their implications of power.

The following is an ancient Latin hymn from the sixth century written to the Martyrs:

Deus Tuorum Militum

O God, your warriors' lot,
their crown and prize,
as we sing your Martyrs' praise
release us from the bonds of wickedness.

Discerning the poison,
the bitterness that lurks within the world's joys
and its dull diet of deceits,
they reached the Heavens;

Brave, they ran to face the penalty,
courageously endured torments,
pouring out their blood for you,
and now possess treasures eternal.

All Gracious, we beg you,
their tortures beseech you,
as your Martyrs celebrate their triumph
drive harm from your lowly servants.

Praise and everlasting glory
to the Father and the Son
and to the Holy Advocate
to ages unending. Amen

As the story of St. Agnes shows, there is specific emphasis on the importance of virginity and purity, especially for the female saints. For example, there are three basic liturgical categories for saints: martyrs, confessors, and virgins. However, there is also a fourth group that is used for categorizing the women saints only, which is non-virgins. Yet, it is obvious that Saint Augustine, although not classified as such, was a non-virgin, as seen through his writings in The Confessions. This can be seen as an example of the significance of purity and chastity, which is more emphasized for the female saints (Cunningham, 20).

In her book Virgin Martyrs, author Karen A. Winstead explains the notion of female saints and virgin martyrs. One subject of particular interest is a painting of Mary cradling baby Jesus and eleven female saints are gathered around them. Of the eleven women shown, at least nine endured great suffering in order to uphold their personal convictions of Christianity. For example Saints Margaret and Cecilia were boiled; Agnes was burned; Katherine was mangled by spiked wheels; Agatha and Barbara had their breasts torn off; Apollonia had her teeth pulled out; Lucy gouged her own eyes out in order to deter an admirer; and Saint Ursula was butchered. Each of these women's pain and suffering is depicted in this portrait through objects and symbols either on their clothing or in their hands. These examples demonstrate the association between brutality, sexual purity, endurance of brutality and the virtues of female sainthood. In each case, a pagan fell in love with a Christian saint, attempted to woo her and, after discovering that she would not comply, tortured the woman. This not only emphasizes the purity of the female martyr, but also the stresses the sexual obsession and frustration of the male pagan figure. In this case, human bloodshed could be considered sacred. On the other hand, the gender and power implications of this issue are not as supportive of the female figure. It seems that female saints and martyrs are held to different standards than male saints, because the importance of males' virginity is not as emphasized in throughout the many accounts of martyrdom. Click here for more on Christian saints and the implications of saintly power.

Protestants and Martyrdom

The Anabaptists (re-baptizers), so-named because they believed only in adult baptism and hence re-baptized new adult members, called for a complete separation between church and state. Many Anabaptists also called for a return to the simplicity of the apostolic era, refused to pay taxes or serve in the military, and advocated separation from the secular world. The sixteenth-century Anabaptist movement was severely repressed by both Protestant and Catholic authorities. In general, the Protestant movement denied the intermediary power of saints and the efficacy of martyrs' relics. Groups like the Anabaptists (and the English Puritans) saw themselves as set apart from the world. Therefore, they regarded all members as saints, and had no hierarchy of sanctity.
Nevertheless, Anabaptists collected stories of their martyrs and preserved them as a witness for the faith. The Burning of a Flemish Anabaptist, 1571

from The Martyrs Mirror by Thieleman J. van Braght
The excerpt below is the from the diary of a young Flemish Anabaptist named Elizabeth bears a striking resemblance to the early Christian martyr story of Perpetua. Like Perpetua, she was a young married woman who gave birth in prison. Like Perpetua, she saw her martyrdom as an imitation of Christ's martyrdom and a requirement for her faith. The language, if not the ritual veneration, of martyrdom, thus continued to provide a powerful model for Protestant believers.  

Elizabeth, a Flemish Protestant Martyr

Testament Written to Jannekin my own dearest daughter, Antwerp 1573

The true love of God and wisdom of the Father strengthen you in virtue my dearest child . . . . I, who am imprisoned and bound here for the Lord's sake, can help you in no other way; I had to leave your father for the Lord's sake, and could keep him only for a short time. We were permitted to live together only half a year, after which we were apprehended because we sought the salvation of our souls. They took him from me, not knowing my condition, and I had to remain in imprisonment, and see him go before me; and it was a great grief to him, that I had to remain here in prison. And now that I have abided the time, and borne you under my heart with great sorrow for nine months, and given birth to you here in prison, in great pain, they have taken you from me. Here I lie, expecting death every morning, and shall now soon follow your dear father. And I your dear mother, write you, my dearest daughter, something for a remembrance, that you will thereby remember your dear father and mother.

Since I am now delivered up to death, and must leave you here alone, I must through these lines cause you to remember, that when you have attained your understanding, you endeavor to fear God, and see and examine why and for whose name we both died; and be not ashamed to confess us before the world, for you must know that it is not for the sake of any evil. Hence, be not ashamed of us; it is the way which the prophets and the apostles went, and the narrow way which leads into eternal life, for there shall no other way be found by which to be saved.

Hence, my young lamb, for whose sake I still have, and have had, great sorrow, seek, when you have attained your understanding, this narrow way, though there is sometimes much danger in it, according to the flesh, as we may see and read, if we diligently examine and read the Scriptures, that much is said concerning the cross of Christ. And there are many in this world who are enemies of the cross, who seek to be free from it among the world, and to escape it. But, my dear child, if we would with Christ seek and inherit salvation, we must also help bear His cross; and this is the cross which He would have us bear; to follow his footsteps, and to help bear His reproach, for Christ Himself says, 'Ye shall be persecuted, killed, and dispersed for my name's sake.' Yea, He Himself went before us in this way of reproach, and left for us an example, that we should follow His steps, for the sake of whom all must be forsaken, father, mother, sister, brother, husband, child, yea, one's own life. . .

As I am now soon to offer up my sacrifice, by the help of the Lord, I leave you this: . . . 'Seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness. . .' that you might know the truth when you have attained your understanding, and that you might follow your dear father and mother, who went before you; for your dear father demonstrated with his blood that it is the genuine truth, and I also hope to attest the same with my blood, though flesh and blood must remain on the posts and on the stake, well knowing that we will meet hereafter. . . .

Let it be your glory, that we did not die for any evil doing, and strive do to likewise, though they should also seek to kill you. And on no account cease to love God above all, for no one can prevent you from fearing God. If you follow that which is good, and seek peace, and pursue it, you shall receive the crown of eternal life; this crown I wish you and the crucified, bleeding, naked, despised, rejected, and slain Jesus Christ for your bridegroom.

Source: Hans J. Hillebrand, ed. The Protestant Reformation. New York: Harper Books, 1968.

Bibliography/ Links

Brown, Peter, The Body and Society, Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 1988.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Libreria Editrice Vadicana, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ, 1989

Cunningham, Lawrence S. The Meaning of Saints. Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1980.

Frankiel, Sandra S., Christianity, HarperCollins Publishers, San Francisco, Ca, 1985.

Winstead, Karen A. Virgin Martyrs. Cornell University Press. 1997.

information on more sacred sites

images of St. Polycarp and St. Agnes

image of Thomas Becket

information on more saints

Catholic online saints

The Murder of Thomas Becket

PBS online. Frontline: From Jesus to Christ: Discussion of St. Perpetua

Catholic Saints Online: Perpetua

Holy Innocents as a prototype of martyrdom

St. Edmund