Book by Professor Thomas Heffernan

Thomas J. Heffernan holds the Kenneth Curry Professorship at the University of Tennessee.  Dr. Heffernan is a member of the Departments of English and Religious Studies and the Program in Medieval Studies. Professor Heffernan is a native of New York City and studied at Manhattan College (B.A. cum laude 1968) and New York University (M.A.1971). He completed his Ph.D. at Cambridge University (1977) and was the recipient of Emmanuel College scholarships while in residence in Cambridge. He did post doctoral work at Harvard University. His Ph.D. is a study of religious literature and reform in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. On completing his Ph.D., Tom was awarded a fellowship by the Medieval Academy of America for the study of Latin palaeography at Harvard University. He is the author of six books.

Professor Heffernan is the author of  The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. 688pp. Oxford University Press. £60 (US $99). 978 0 19 977757 0, a new edition and commentary of this remarkable text – an account, told in the first person, of the imprisonment and condemnation of Perpetua, and her slave Felicitas.  The following extract describes how he came to write the book after becoming fascinated by the Perpetua story.

An Authentic Voice from Antiquity

I first came across the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity as a PhD student at Cambridge University working one afternoon in the University Library....I will never forget my astonishment as I came upon the story of Perpetua and her fellow martyrs.  At first I did not know what to make of it.  Such a rhetorically powerful and layered narrative, I thought, must be a fiction, since we had no evidence of other first-person narratives by women from this period.  I assumed therefore that this early composition was a skilled effort of a rhetorically sophisticated hagiographer and that its appeal to later Christian audiences was a foundational one.  That is, these heroic figures were meant to function as the principal, albeit sacral, figures of a tradition’s beginning – perhaps like Washington and Jefferson – and thus, at some level, they exist outside of time as paradigms of a noble but irretrievable past…

I remember pondering these matters and a host of other questions, but with the quick conviction of a young graduate student, I dismissed the autobiographical claims as a rhetorical device, and I settled comfortably on the presumption that, yes, the Passion was a fiction, likely composed sometime during the eighth or ninth century by a pious Christian hagiographer, as it surely did not represent what I had come to understand as “typical” hagiography.  While I put it aside, I could never quite put the Passion out of my mind.  It continued to inhabit a part of my consciousness, where it remained as a trace memory of behaviour only barely possible within a human frame.  Yet I could not escape the intuition that the behaviour being celebrated could represent the very quintessence of human agency – integrity held so dear that life itself is worth sacrificing for it.  Fifteen years were to pass before I decided to return to this unique representation of late antique Christian martyrdom.

I began my serious study of the text as a skeptic, believing the authenticity of the narrative a traditional pious fiction.  Yet the more time I spent reading and pondering a host of issues concerning the narrative …the more my scepticism waned.  I began to consider that perhaps the historical record could include a unique record that violates what we have come to read as normative and received.  The idea of a young Roman matron composing so skilful a document was unheard-of…Yet simply the fact that literacy rates for women were almost nonexistent cannot mean that all women were illiterate.  Thankfully, modern scholarship is beginning to recover these lost voices.  I became increasingly persuaded that the Passion was indeed a document that preserved the memory of an actual event, an event which had surely changed through transmission but whose core was a historically verifiable reality.

Professor Heffernan gave a lecture as a prelude to the world premiere of Perpetua, which took place in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on 22 November 2012.  The lecture was given on 20 November 2012 at Ertegun House, 37A St Giles, Oxford and was entitled The Prison Memoirs of a Roman Christian Martyr: Perpetua’s Story.

The lecture discussed how Perpetua's story is rare in Latin literature in that it represents uniquely a woman's reflections on her life and her impending execution.  The young woman Perpetua, imprisoned for her conversion to Christianity, has been condemned to death in the amphitheatre.  Her 'Passion' is her intimate depiction of her incarceration and the anxiety it causes both for herself and her family.  The Passion invites the modern reader into her world and her efforts to control her situation in the face of the most grave circumstances.