Religion and the Book in Early Modern England: The Making of John Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs'

The story of the painstaking creation of an influential work is a revelation to Lucy Wooding

July 14, 2011

A book can be a storehouse of evidence, a historical statement, an act of religious witness, a piece of propaganda. John Foxe's Acts and Monuments, popularly known as the "Book of Martyrs", was all of these things. It was also an object; a complex arrangement of paper, ink and binding whose manufacture would stretch the resources of the English printing trade to their limit. Foxe's book was more than six times as long as the Bible, and to English Protestants, it was arguably almost as important as the Bible.

This book tells the story of its manufacture. It gives the reasons behind the four different editions of 1563, 1570, 1576 and 1583; it roots them in the complex political and religious surroundings of Elizabethan England; it demonstrates the astonishing array of sources used to build what was as much ecclesiastical history as martyrology, and it shows precisely how word and image ended up on the printed page.

Acts and Monuments was the result of an exceptional collaboration between its author, John Foxe, and its printer, John Day. It was not an easy task. England lagged behind Europe when it came to printing: in 1583 there were only 22 printing houses in London, and only eight had more than two presses. Ink was expensive, labour costs were high and paper had to be imported from the Continent. In printing the second edition, Day ordered insufficient paper, so some pages had to be hastily pasted together from smaller sheets and others were made of wrapping paper.

A huge financial outlay was required at the beginning of the printing process, with no certainty that the printer would see a return on his investment. It was fiddly, highly specialised work and, of course, could only be done in daylight. Workers hired from abroad might not even speak English. Contemporaries commented that correctors ideally needed to be fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as knowledgeable when it came to etymology, punctuation and proofreading. It was observed that it was also necessary to be sober, but it is clear that the travails of the publishing business were enough to drive anyone to drink.

Some features of the business are oddly familiar: the need to impress with technical ability, the use of one book to advertise another forthcoming title, and the need to rush books out in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Others are less familiar. Success came not from sales, we learn, but from impressing those in power who might grant monopolies and other forms of patronage. Day survived the exhausting years of working on Acts and Monuments only because he also had the monopoly on printing the primers and books of metrical psalms that were such a huge success in the Elizabethan Church. But those in power, most particularly William Cecil, had important reasons for wanting Foxe's great work published. We would be wrong to assume that in the 17th century the appearance of subsequent editions would have been dictated by sales. Foxe's vibrant anti-Catholicism ensured that new editions were just as likely to be political; the 1684 edition was a gesture of Whig defiance in the face of a Catholic king.

Foxe was an idealist. If he could just put down the truth in black and white, he thought, readers would be converted. He presented one of his anti-Catholic works to a well-known recusant, expecting it to do the trick. His chief concern was "the historical unfolding of biblical prophecy".

In some ways, he was an outstanding historian, striving to make his book accurate in the tiniest details, constantly revising in the light of new testimony, trawling through archives. He made copious use of eyewitnesses who had seen Protestants martyred during the reign of Queen Mary, called in favours - and manuscripts - from a huge network of acquaintances, and with each new edition corrected past errors.

Yet Foxe also believed he was writing the history of the true church, and he could not afford to let it appear in a bad light. He had to rebut Catholic taunts of "where was your church before Luther?" Defending Protestantism, he was swift to edit or conceal anything that might make Protestants look bad. He skated over their doctrinal disputes, left out their more regrettable actions and beliefs and, just in case, did not mention too many women, as female martyrs were a dubious asset. An exception here was the contested story of the Guernsey martyr who gave birth as she was burnt at the stake, only for her baby to be tossed back into the flames. This tale was too valuable as propaganda to be left out.

There are many paradoxical elements here. Foxe was both balanced historian and outspoken polemicist. He wrote a book that helped to define British national identity and yet initially he was determined to include continental history, and worried that publishing a work in English rather than Latin would damage his reputation. In an age when many Protestants were opposed to the use of images, the illustrations in the "Book of Martyrs" would become famous. This book about martyrdom all but martyred the two men who laboured to produce it; at one point Day's wife tried to sell his paper stock in order to halt production and protect her husband's health. She failed, and he died not long after, exhausted by his efforts. Foxe's life was also in thrall to his creation. But their efforts were not in vain. For all the errors, muddles and oddities of all the editions of Acts and Monuments, all lovingly detailed here, they produced a work that would remain unique, and uniquely influential.

By comparison with the tome it discusses, Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas Freeman's book is positively slim. But by modern standards it is still a hefty volume, packed with detail, and demanding some prior knowledge of early modern England. The more thorny points have been firmly contained in the extensive footnotes, however, and the book is well written and readable.

The authors have almost, but not completely, concealed their affection for the two inspired, intractable, zealous individuals at the centre of the story, and there are welcome touches of humour. Day's complicated relationship with his son Richard culminated in painful confrontation, after which Richard took holy orders; the authors observe that "possibly he hoped that by entering the service of his heavenly father he might assuage the wrath of his earthly one".

The study of Foxe's Acts and Monuments is now in itself a small industry. A great deal of impressive work has been produced by the network of scholars involved, and this book touches only briefly on the conclusions they have already reached in order to focus on new material about Foxe and his book. It is best understood, therefore, in the context of the wider research effort, but it is a great achievement in its own right. By anchoring Foxe's work in its material culture, it has told us a great deal about the life of the book in general, as well as the life of this book in particular.

As the authors observe, Foxe's "Book of Martyrs" keeps company with Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Karl Marx's Capital as a book that is known to multitudes who may never have read a word of it. It helped to define early modern England, and this book brings us a lot closer to understanding how that was possible.

The Authors

Elizabeth Evenden's professional life is interwoven with her personal interests. "I work on the interaction between Christians and Muslims in the early modern period. So I am very interested in all things Portuguese," she says. "I am interested in Portuguese architecture, pottery and tiles, and religious architecture across Europe in general."

She completed a BA in English and related literature at the University of York, and then studied for an MA at the University of Birmingham before returning to York to pursue a PhD.

Evenden held academic posts in the Faculty of History and at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge before moving to Brunel University, where she is a lecturer in English. She is an avid painter and organist and has a "long history of involvement in church music".

Thomas Freeman, a research Fellow with the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, gained his bachelor of arts from the College of New Jersey before earning a master's and a doctorate from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

In addition to his theological background - he is one of the editors of the Catholic and Recusant Texts series published by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto - he is deeply interested in the American Civil War, "an event whose causes and consequences are very relevant to what remain central issues in national life...(it) is, and has been, continually interpreted and reinterpreted in both popular culture and academic history".

A baseball aficionado, he says he is a "disappointed" follower of the New York Mets. "I'll paraphrase Will Rogers' quip about the Democrats: 'I don't follow organised sports. I'm a Mets fan'."

Religion and the Book in Early Modern England: The Making of John Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs'

By Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas S. Freeman

Cambridge University Press

387pp, £60.00

ISBN 9780521833493

Published 14 July 2011

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