Virgin Saints and Martyrs – Blandina the Slave

illustration of Saint Blandina the Slave; from 'Virgin Saints and Martyrs' by Sabing Baring-Gould, 1924In the second century Lyons was the Rome of Gaul as it is now the second Paris of France. It was crowded with temples and public monuments. It was moreover the Athens of the West, a resort of scholars. Seated at the confluence of two great rivers, the Rhône and the Sâone, it was a centre of trade. It is a stately city now. It was more so in the second century when it did not bristle with the chimneys of factories pouring forth their volumes of black smoke, which the atmosphere, moist from the mountains, carries down so as to envelop everything in soot.

In the great palace, now represented by the hospital, the imbecile Claudius and the madman Caligula were born. To the east and south far away stand Mont Blanc and the snowy range on the Dauphiné Alps.

Lyons is a city that has at all times summed in it the finest as well as the worst characteristic of the Gallic people. The rabble of Lyons were ferocious in 177, and ferocious again in 1793; but at each epoch, during the Pagan terror and the Democratic terror, it produced heroes of faith and endurance.

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher full of good intentions, and a sentimental lover of virtue. But he fondly conceived that virtue could only be found in philosophy, and that Christianity, which was a doctrine and not a speculation, must be wrong; and as its chief adherents belonged to the slave and needy classes, that therefore it was beneath his dignity to inquire into it. He was a stickler for the keeping up of old Roman institutions, and the maintenance of such rites as were sanctioned by antiquity; and because the Christians refused to give homage to the gods and to swear by the genius of the emperor, he ordered that they should be persecuted to the death.

He had been a pretty, curly-haired boy, and a good-looking young man. He had kept himself respectable, and looked on himself with smug self-satisfaction accordingly. Had he stooped to inquire what were the tenets, and what the lives, of those whom he condemned to death, he would have shrunk with horror from the guilt of proclaiming a general persecution.

In Lyons, as elsewhere, when his edict arrived the magistrates were bound to seek out and sentence such as believed in Christ.

A touching letter exists, addressed by the Church of Lyons to those of Asia and Phrygia giving an account of what it suffered; and as the historian Eusebius embodied it in his history, it happily has been preserved from the fingering, and rewriting, and heightening with impossible marvels which fell to the lot of so many of the Acts of the Martyrs, when the public taste no longer relished the simple food of the unadorned narratives that were extant.

“The grace of God,” said the writers, “contended for us, rescuing the weak, and strengthening the strong. These latter endured every species of reproach and torture. First they sustained bravely all the insults heaped on them by the rabble – blows and abuse, plundering of their goods, stoning and imprisonment. Afterwards they were led into the forum and were questioned by the tribune and by the town authorities before all the people, and then sent to prison to await the coming of the governor. Vetius Epagathus, one of the brethren, abounding in love to God and man, offered to speak in their defence; whereupon those round the tribunal shouted out at him, as he was a man of good position. The governor did not pay attention to his request, but merely asked whether he, too, were a Christian. When he confessed that he was, he also was transferred to the number of the martyrs.”

What the numbers were we are not told. The most prominent among them were Pothinus, the bishop, a man in his ninetieth year, Sanctus, the deacon of the Church of Vienne, Maturus, a recent convert, Attalus, a native of Pergamus, Blandina, a slave girl, and her mistress, another woman named Biblis, and Vetius, above referred to.

Among those arrested were ten who when tortured gave way: one of these was Biblis; but, although they yielded, yet they would not leave the place of trial, and remained to witness the sufferings of such as stood firm; and some – among these was Biblis – plucking up courage, presented themselves before the judge and made amends for their apostasy by shedding their blood for Christ.

The slaves belonging to the Christians of rank had been seized and were interrogated; and they, in their terror lest they should be put to torture, confessed anything the governor desired – that the Christians ate little children and “committed such crimes as are neither lawful for us to speak of nor think about; and which we really believe no men ever did commit.”

The defection of the ten caused dismay among the faithful, for they feared lest it should be the prelude to the surrender of others.

The governor, the proconsul, arrived at the time of the annual fair, when Lyons was crowded; and he deemed this a good opportunity for striking terror into the hearts of the Christians.

Those who stood firm were brought out of prison, and, as they would not do sacrifice to the gods, were subjected to torture.

Blandina was a peculiarly delicately framed young woman, and not strong. Her mistress, who was one of the martyrs, was apprehensive for her; but Blandina in the end witnessed the most splendid confession of all. She was frightfully tortured with iron hooks and hot plates applied to her flesh from morning till night, till the executioners hardly knew what more to do; “her entire body being torn and pierced.”

Brass plates, red hot, were also applied to the most tender parts of the body of the deacon, Sanctus, but he continued unsubdued, firm in his confession. At last he was thrown down on the sand, a mass of wounds, so mangled and burnt that he seemed hardly to retain the human shape. He and Blandina were conveyed back to prison.

Next day “the tormentors tortured Sanctus again, supposing that whilst his wounds were swollen and inflamed, if they continued to rend them when so sensitive as not to bear the touch of the hand, they must break his spirit” – but it was again in vain.

Then it was that Biblis, the woman who had done sacrifice, came forward “like one waking out of a deep sleep,” and upbraided the torturers; whereupon she was dragged before the chief magistrate, confessed Christ, and was numbered among the martyrs.

The proconsul ordered all to be taken back to prison, and they were thrust into a black and noisome hole, and fastened in the stocks, their feet distended to the fifth hole – that is to say, stretched apart as far as was possible without dislocation – and so, covered with sores, wounds and blisters, unable to sleep in this attitude, they were left for the night. The suffocation of the crowded den was too much for some, and in the morning certain of those who had been crowded into it were drawn forth dead.

Next day the aged bishop Pothinus was led before the magistrate. He was questioned, and asked who was the God of the Christians.

“If thou art worthy,” answered he, “thou shalt know.”

He was then stripped and scourged, and beaten about the head. The crowd outside the barriers now took up whatever was at hand, stones, brickbats, dirt, and flung them at him, howling curses and blasphemies. The old man fell gasping, and in a state hardly conscious was dragged to the prison.

And now, on the great day of the fair, when the shows were to be given to the people, the proconsul for their delectation threw open the amphitheatre. This was a vast oval, capable of holding forty thousand spectators. It was packed. On one side, above the arena, was the seat of the chief magistrate, and near him those reserved for the city magnates. At the one end, a series of arches, now closed with gates of stout bars and cross-bars, hinged above and raised on these hinges by a chain, opened from the dens in which the wild beasts were kept. The beasts had not been fed for three days, that they might be ravenous.

It was the beginning of June – doubtless a bright summer day, and an awning kept off the sun from the proconsul. Those on one side of the amphitheatre, the slaves on the highest row, could see, vaporous and blue on the horizon, above the crowded tiers opposite, the chain of the Alps, their crests white with eternal snows.

“No sooner was the chief magistrate seated, to the blare of trumpets, than the martyrs were introduced. Sanctus had to be supported; he could hardly walk, he was such a mass of wounds. All were now stripped of their garments and were scourged. Blandina was attached to a post in the centre of the arena. She had been forced every day to attend and witness the sufferings of the rest.”

But even now they were not to be despatched at once. Maturus and Sanctus were placed on iron chairs, and fires were lighted under them so that the fumes of their roasted flesh rose up and were dissipated by the light summer air over the arena, and the sickening savour was inhaled by the thousands of cruel and savage spectators.

Then they were cast off to be despatched with the sword.

The dens were opened. Lions, tigers, leopards bounded forth on the sand roaring. By a strange accident Blandina escaped. The hungry beasts paced round the arena, but would not touch her.

Then a Greek physician, called Alexander, who was looking on, unable to restrain his enthusiasm, by signs gave encouragement to the martyrs. So at least it would seem, for all at once we learn that the mob roared for Alexander, as one who urged on the Christians to obstinacy. The governor sent for him, asked who he was, and when he confessed that he was a Christian, sent him to prison.

Attalus was now led forth, with a tablet on his breast on which was written in Latin, “This is Attalus, the Christian.”

As he was about to be delivered to the tormentors, some one whispered to the proconsul that the man was a Roman. He hesitated, and sent him back to prison.

Then a number of other Christians who had Roman citizenship were produced, and 13had their heads struck off. Others who had not this privilege were delivered over to the beasts. And now some of those who had recanted came forward and offered themselves to death.

Next day the proconsul was again in his place in the amphitheatre. He had satisfied himself that Attalus could not substantiate his claim to citizenship, so he ordered him to torture and death. He also was placed in the iron chair; after which he and Alexander were given up to be devoured by the beasts.

This was the last day of the shows, and to crown all, Blandina was now produced, together with a boy of fifteen, called Ponticus. He, like Blandina, had been compelled daily to witness the torments to which the rest had been subjected.

And now the same hideous round of tortures began, and Blandina in the midst of her agony continued to encourage the brave boy till he died. Blandina had been roasted in the iron chair and scourged.

As a variety she was placed in a net. Then the gate of one of the larger dens was raised, and forth rushed a bull, pawed the sand, tossed his head, looked round, and seeing the net, plunged forward with bowed head. Next moment Blandina was thrown into the air, fell, was thrown again, then gored – but was happily now unconscious. Thus she died, and “even the Gentiles confessed that no woman among them had ever endured sufferings as many and great.” But not even then was their madness and cruelty to the saints satisfied, for “… those who were suffocating in prison were drawn forth and cast to the dogs; and they watched night and day over the remains left by beasts and fire, however mangled they might be, to prevent us from burying them. The bodies, after exposure and abuse in every possible way during six days, were finally cast into the Rhône. These things they did as if they were able to resist God and prevent their resurrection.”

The dungeons in which Saint Pothinus, Saint Blandina, and the rest of the martyrs were kept through so many days, are shown beneath the abbey church of Ainay at Lyons. It is 15possible enough that Christian tradition may have preserved the remembrance of the site. They are gloomy cells, without light or air, below the level of the river. The apertures by which they are entered are so low that the visitor is obliged to creep into them on his hands and knees. Traces of Roman work remain. Adjoining is a crypt that was used as a chapel till the Revolution, when it was desecrated. It is, however, again restored, the floor has been inlaid with mosaics, and the walls are covered with modern frescoes, representing the passion of the martyrs.

What makes it difficult to believe that these are the dungeons is that the abbey above them is constructed on the site of the Athenæum founded by Caligula, a great school of debate and composition, and it is most improbable that the town prisons should have been under the university buildings. In all likelihood in the early Middle Ages these vaults were found and supposed to have been the prisons of the martyrs, and supposition very rapidly became assurance that they were so. The prison in which the martyrs were enclosed was the lignum 16or robur, which was certainly not below the level of the river.

The question arises, when one reads stories of such inhuman cruelties done, did the victims suffer as acutely as we suppose? I venture to think not at the time. There can be no question, as it is a thing repeatedly attested, that in a moment of great excitement the nerves are not very sensitive. The pain of wounds received in battle is not felt till after the battle is over. Moreover, it may be questioned whether the human system can endure pain above a certain grade – whether, in fact, beyond a limit, insensibility does not set in.

I attended once a poor lady who was frightfully burnt. A paraffin lamp set fire to a gauze or lace wrap she had about her neck. All her throat and the lower portion of her face were frightfully burnt. I was repeatedly with her, but she was unconscious or as in a sleep; there was no expression of anguish in her face. She quietly sank through exhaustion. I have questioned those who have met with shocking accidents, and have always been assured 17that the pain began when nature commenced its labour of repair. Pain, excruciating pain, can be endured, and for a long period; but I think that when carried beyond a fixed limit it ceases to be appreciable, as insensibility sets in.

This is a matter for investigation, and it were well if those who read these lines were to endeavour to collect evidence to substantiate or overthrow what is, with me, only an opinion.

– text and illustration taken from Virgin Saints and Martyrs, by Sabine Baring-Gould, F Anger, illustrator, published in New York, 1901