Ritual power in society: Ritualizing Late Antique North African martyr cult activities and social changes in gender and status

Shira Li Lander, University of Pennsylvania


Scholars have claimed that women played a pivotal role in what is often called “the Christianization of the Roman Empire.” In the case of north Africa, women's involvement seemed to center on the martyr cults, which underwent significant changes during the fourth and fifth centuries. Scholarship has explained the reshaping of martyr cults by viewing it as a special case of the broader shifts occurring within Christianity during this time period. Yet why martyr veneration in general, and why in particular women's practices were targeted for change has not been adequately examined. Ritual theorists have posited that religious practices translate the abstract notion of differentiation from the realm of thought into the realm of action. When applied to women's activities in North African martyr cults, this theory makes explicit the processes of identity-formation and the reordering of social networks. Martyr cult practices were a likely object for marking similarity as well as difference precisely because they could do so on three planes: religion, social status, and gender. These practices were both visible and concrete, making them an ideal locus for negotiating the differences and similarities that structured social organization. In this study I attempt to show that women's activities were selected for what theorists call “ritualization” for two reasons. The first is rhetorical. Because women represented a fundamental dualism in a context where gender was the quintessential binary marker, women's martyr cult practices were deployed in the strategy of marking difference and similarity in order to reconstruct late antique Christian identities. The second reason is anthropological. Women experienced more social changes in this period than did men. Their martyr cult activities were both a cause and an effect of these changes. When the processes of social realignment are examined in this way, the phenomenon of Christianization is revealed to be an ancient rhetorical construction that privileged social transformation over continuity. This study concludes that the historical reality is more complex than ancient authors suggested; that rhetoric and practice were strategically combined to effect social change as well as to maintain social stability.

Subject Area

Womens studies|Religion|Ancient civilizations|Religious congregations

Recommended Citation

Lander, Shira Li, "Ritual power in society: Ritualizing Late Antique North African martyr cult activities and social changes in gender and status" (2002). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3073023.