exercises in compound storytelling

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

John Foxe: Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World

Title page of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs.Image via Wikipedia
I snagged a copy of Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World out of the dollar bin at my local Goodwill, and if I had it to over again I think I would have left it.

Foxe's Book of Martyrs was one of the most-read books in English, after the King James Version of the Bible, and it did a lot to frame the way the various heirs of the English Reformation saw themselves. It was Matthew Foxe's lifework, eventually comprising two volumes of more than two thousand pages each. For this reason most people read it in some sort of updated, abridged version. This book is one of those. I wish I'd held out for a better version: partly because this one is such a hash, and partly because this is such an important book I really should have worked harder to do it justice on the first try.

Foxe tells two fairly simple, if gruesome stories:
  • Historic persecution of the Church in Roman times, up through the conversion of Constantine
  • Persecution of English Protestants under various Catholic monarchs
Foxe tells these stories together to suggest that the English Reformers were the heirs of true Christianity as opposed to their Catholic enemies, although he never says this explicitly. He just says all these various people were martyrs and leaves it to the reader to understand that they were all martyrs in the same sense. Needless to say this doesn't sit well with his Catholic readers; see e.g. its entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia. He has apparently come back into favor in recent years, primarily because for much of what he covers he's the only historical source.

I came away with from reading this abridgment with a few impressions:
  1. The English Reformation was a brutal business; the history I learned growing up that focused on one monarch displacing another was way too tidy, and the truth on the ground was appalling.
  2. The painful process of making the Bible available to people who were not clergymen had already started before movable type made it relatively easy to print and distribute it. Also, while a rising literacy rate plays an important part in the story, it doesn't play a part in as many martyr stories as I would have expected.
  3. The distinctives worth dying for changed with time; some of the early English Reformers made common cause with the Lutherans, while it's hard to imagine that the latter ones would have.
  4. Foxe's Book of Martyrs played a more important role in how my particular tribe of dissenters saw themselves than I suspected. 
This is on the whole not a good abridgment, and I'll need to find a better one, but it was sufficient to give me a taste of what Foxe's original book was like. 

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