Michael Schmidt is Professor of Poetry at the University of Glasgow. He is a poet, novelist, translator and anthologist. His most recent books include Lives of the Poets, The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets, The Story of Poetry (in five volumes, still in progress), The Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, and (forthcoming) The Resurrection of the Body (poems). Michael is writing a history of the English novel to be entitled Lives of the Novelists. Here he discusses Foxe's Book of Martyrs.
Michael Schmidt on Foxe's Book of Martyrs
In April 1579, The Golden Hind put in at the little port of Huatulco in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was laden with booty, having recently taken one of its principal prizes, a Spanish treasure ship called Cacafuego or Shitfire, intercepted on its way from Peru to Panama with a huge cargo of bullion. Sir Francis Drake, licensed to be a privateer by Queen Elizabeth I, took a few of the little town's citizens hostage on board, and reprovisioned his ship with water and wood. One hostage, the local priest Simon de Miranda, later told the authorities of the Inquisition that every day the English captain came ashore and read from a huge book. It was not the Bible. It was illustrated with unambiguously horrible illuminated images of the early martyrs and, nearer in time, of the Protestants burned in Spain and other righteous deaths, and with this volume, from which he read aloud, he daily rekindled the anti-Papist zeal of his comrades. They prayed and recited Psalms. What was this book, another Mexican hostage dared to ask. He too was shown the images. Drake made no secret of his feelings about the Pope and all who followed him. [see Zelia Nuttall, New Light on Drake..., pp. 348ff, 354-7.]
The book Drake showed his reluctant hosts was Actes and Monuments of these latter perilous times touching matters of the Church, better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, published in English for the first time only some fifteen years before and already enjoying almost the status of holy writ. The book is a compendious history of Protestant martyrdoms, an answer to the long-popular anthologies of lives of saints which the Roman Catholic Church had been producing for worshippers for centuries. The days of The Golden Legend were over. John Foxe lays a proper English emphasis on the martyrs produced during Bloody Mary's reign, but he starts far back with the birth of the Church and its Roman martyrs. Like the Roman Catholic saints' lives, his martyrs are recalled in a plain style, heightened with dialogue between the persecutors and their victims.
The book is more than a collection of harrowing and heartening stories, many of them familiar to us (here we read of the martyrdoms of Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer and others). It includes theological considerations in the form of debates, deviations from the immediate subject, and sermonizing. It also includes accounts of examinations for heresy, and to it clings the reek of the smoke of burning witnesses. Many types of writing are figured here in the impure mix of Foxe's encyclopaedia of Roman Catholic bigotry and guilt, and he deploys various rhetorical strategies to powerful effect. The elements which were to become the common concerns of the novel are contained here and the novel form itself prefigured.
The exemplary story, he insists, is the core of his edifying project. In his life of Thomas Hawks he outlines his procedure. He begins by evoking the character, instancing his conversation, telling where relevant of his origins and vocation, and then narrating how he entered into conflict with the Roman Church 'and other adversaries', in the detail and proportion which the telling requires. There is at once thrift and efficiency in the approach. It is not formulaic, but it is insistently responsible, refusing (by its own account) to go further than recorded fact or credible oral accounts.
Thomas Hawks, with six others, was condemned on the ninth of February, 1555. In education he was erudite; in person, comely, and of good stature; in manners, a gentleman, and a sincere Christian. A little before death, several of Mr. Hawks' friends, terrified by the sharpness of the punishment he was going to suffer, privately desired that in the midst of the flames he should show them some token, whether the pains of burning were so great that a man might not collectedly endure it. This he promised to do; and it was agreed that if the rage of the pain might be suffered, then he should lift up his hands above his head towards heaven, before he gave up the ghost.Foxe insists that he is a truth teller, as against the false fabulists and historians. When he reports something he does not credit, he is bold to declare, 'Mark here a fable.' The Marian martyrs were near to him in time. Some of them were friends and acquaintances. He was certainly close to the events he recounted in the closing portions of his book, and this first-hand knowledge of the brutality of martyrdom informs the whole of his account, from the primitive church onwards.
Not long after, Mr. Hawks was led away to the place appointed for slaughter by Lord Rich, and being come to the stake, mildly and patiently prepared himself for the fire, having a strong chain cast about his middle, with a multitude of people on every side compassing him about, unto whom after he had spoken many things, and poured out his soul unto God, the fire was kindled.
When he had continued long in it, and his speech was taken away by violence of the flame, his skin drawn together, and his fingers consumed with the fire, so that it was thought that he was gone, suddenly and contrary to all expectation, this good man being mindful of his promise, reached up his hands burning in flames over his head to the living God, and with great rejoicings as it seemed, struck or clapped them three times together. A great shout followed this wonderful circumstance, and then this blessed martyr of Christ, sinking down in the fire, gave up his spirit, June 10, 1555.
What distinguishes Foxe's book from the Catholic books of martyrs is that they are 'histories' in a specific sense. He does away with the vision of transcendent intercession, with the painted ceiling crawling with angels and saints reaching down to assist the tortured soul. Such tales cannot 'abide the touch of history', marred as they are by dogma and wilful invention. His saints go through the flames aided only by the purity and intensity of their faith; their deeds are, therefore, imitable by those with faith; there is choice, and virtue is manifest in that choice.
But truth and falsehood do not correlate as precisely with fact and fiction as we sometimes ask them to do today. Yes, Foxe chides the Catholic Sir Thomas More for 'juggling with the truth' in Utopia, that deliberate fiction: it is part and parcel of his treachery to his country and to his countrymen, the Protestants. The Golden Legend he despises because it is impious, staining the faith with fables, mixing legend and fantasy with history, so that fact becomes as unstable, as unfixed, as invention. There is no authority then except that of the enforcers, the monks and friars and bishops, and the Pope, puppeteers of miracle and portent. It is the impurity of form and motive that disturbs Foxe, and he is irritated when his critics cast aspersions on the veracity of his own accounts.
On the other hand, he had time for Dante, the poet of damnation and of grace, who equated the Pope with the Whore of Babylon and insisted that civil power take priority over the Pope's authority. Dante is an honorary member of Foxe's party. So too are other great Roman Catholic writers, like Petrarch, similarly harsh on the papacy. They are among those who helped open a way for that mighty reformer, Martin Luther. Foxe regarded Chaucer and Gower as comrades in the spirit: how is it that the bishops never understood their force or forbade the reading of their tales? There is nothing fabulous in Foxe's work; he has referred to archives, to documents and letters, he has used comparative techniques. But he has also read and understood the poets. And he knows the dramatists, too. Many misuse the theatre but a natural alliance can exist between 'preachers, players and printers' against 'the Pope's three-storeyed crown'. The dialogues in Actes and Monuments are set out in some places so that they can be used in church, performed as it were on an appropriate day as part of the service itself or, as with many of the religious plays, in the churchyard, inn yard or on the village common. The traditional language to which Foxe most commonly resorts for actual quotation, metaphor or oblique allusion is that of the Bible, which lends to his whole enterprise a validating authority. His book is an adjunct to the Bible, a kind of continuing enactment and vindication of its teachings.
Though his cause is clear, Foxe's rhetorical objectives are never single or simple. He is addressing a mixed audience from a complicated set of materials. We are a little surprised at the points of comedy and satire, the lapses from solemnity, the admission of laughter into the sternest courts of the spirit. In this sense his narratives, like much else in the informing tradition of the novel, are based in mediaeval customs of speech. The wailing complaint sharpens into satire, the satire into irony; and when there is irony there is sufficient distance for the writer to form and shape the material, to order it in clear proportion and to contrive precise effects. The effects are not subtle, but they are often complex, and the resonances between lives and fates develop a symmetry which it is hard not to regard as carefully, even artfully contrived.
Men and women relished a well-told tale of persecution, the little details ('his fingers consumed with the fire'), the time of year and the weather, the sense of being part of the crowd of witnesses and at the same time safe, just out of reach of history. 'We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.' The stories whiled away the winter evenings, either read aloud or read to oneself alone by the friendly hearth fire. The ending was always happy, of course: the body might be left behind, flayed, roasted, mutilated, but the soul was bound for a better place, taking with it the horror and the edified spiritual relief of the reader. When Peter Martyr, a good old man busy about King Edward's business, is persecuted under Mary, his wife's bones are disinterred and reburied in a dung hill. Foxe's anger is fuelled with a sense of the deep discourtesy to her sex and to her station. The good people of the town of Oxford dug the bones out of the dung-hill and reburied her in proper ground. In the 1613 abridgement to Foxe's book, The Mirror of Martyrs, Clement Cotton claims that his distillation of the larger book will 'yield thee sound comfort, and profitable delight'. The triumph of the spirit licensed the reader to indulge that repulsive human prurience that feeds vicariously on the meat of another's suffering.
A taste for fiction and the art of fiction both begin to develop when writing is no longer comfortable in a position of subordination to power, ecclesiastical or political. Writing can serve and support; it can also subvert. Writers need not be radical for their writing to have a radical impact; when dogma, morality or oligarchy are corrupt or ineffective and lay themselves open to scrutiny, they are probed and tested by language which becomes a capable instrument when it finds appropriate forms. Fiction is one way of telling the truth, in part because it wears the mask of truth and marshals facts and seeming facts into plausible, telling structures.
Foxe spent his remaining time further developing and improving his book, completing the definitive version in just over a decade. He was an obsessive writer, refusing to share the responsibility even for note-taking with an amanuensis, and writing out the whole text himself. He pushed himself so relentlessly, by daylight, candle-light and rush-light, that he shrivelled and altered beyond recognition, 'consumed by an inner fire'. If we believe the hagiographies (he has himself been the subject of many edifying 'lives'), we can affirm that despite his heroic labours on the Actes and Monuments he fulfilled his parish duties and remained a singularly pious man. He stayed at his post when the plague of 1563 broke, pursuing his pastoral duties and administering alms on behalf of the rich who kept their distance from the streets. His reputation was large. In 1570 he preached his most famous sermon on Christ Crucified at Paul's Cross. The Queen herself referred to him as 'Our Father Foxe' and recognized the fact that, though he loathed the Catholic church, his was a spirit much more generous and conciliatory than some who vexed her. The age of 'point of view' had well and truly begun.