Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician, Philosopher, Martyr

Hypatia of Alexandria (martyred 8 [?] March, 415/16)

Although biographical information about Hypatia of Alexandria is scarce, several sources note the date of her death as 8 March. Whether this is entirely accurate is not the point--but this date offers us the chance to juxtapose Hypatia's martyrdom to Perpetua's, which was noted yesterday, 7 March.

Hypatia of Alexandria,
detail from Raphael's
School of Athens
Since beginning a daily blog posting on notable women in January, I have recorded quite a few entries for Christian saints and martyrs--although I am not myself a believer in any religion, history has recorded the names and accomplishments of many Christian women, and as a medievalist, I've long been interested in the stories of these women. The "pagan" Hypatia's death--or her "assassination," as one source calls it--offers us a bit of a counternarrative to the focus on Christian saints and martyrs. 

Hypatia of Alexandria was a noted mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer. I've often quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica in these blog posts for its persistent tendency to discount women's achievements, but in Hypatia's case, the assessment of her accomplishments is notable: "She was, in her time, the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer, the only woman for whom such claim can be made. She was also a popular teacher and lecturer on philosophical topics of a less-specialist nature, attracting many loyal students and large audiences."

Hypatia's martyrdom--or assassination or murder--was at the hands of a Christian mob. After a period of relative tolerance, the religious climate changed in fifth-century Alexandria after the accession of Cyril to the bishopric. The new bishop was zealous in his pursuit of orthodoxy, and it was under Cyril that Hypatia was dragged from her carriage one day, beaten to death, her body torn apart by a group of Christians and burned.

There are brief accounts of Hypatia's life and accomplishments in several online sources, but I'm including one from the Smithsonian website here.

There are several good books available on Hypatia, but I recommend Maria Dzielska's Hypatia of Alexandria. For a sense of the influence of Hypatia's story on generations of women, see Linda Lopez McAlister's anthology Hypatia's Daughters: Fifteen Hundred Years of Women Philosophers.

Raphael's The School of Athens,
1509-11, Vatican