Protestant Hagiography and Martyrology Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Protestant Hagiography and Martyrology

Literary works covering the life and martyrdom of Protestants from a Protestant perspective emerged during and after the Reformation and form a unique genre of literature. As John R. Knott has noted, the writers of these histories felt that their biographical accounts “provided the most revealing expression of the spiritual temper of the … martyrs and of the reasoning by which they sustained themselves and others struggling to maintain their protestant faith.” The accounts reveal a sense of community that came about through shared suffering, and the writers felt that sharing this suffering via printed letters would strengthen their fellow Protestants' faith.

John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563), better known as the Book of Martyrs, is perhaps the most famous martyrology. According to I. Ross Bartlett, Foxe's purpose in writing The Book of Martyrs was “to do people good, to inspire faith, to proclaim the triumph of a particular view of the truth, and to assert God's role in the sometimes troubling events of human life.” In his work, Foxe praises English Protestant martyrs, contrasting their godly character with the shame of the persecutors, and exhorting committed Protestants to remain faithful through whatever tribulation they may have to endure. The book was revised a number of times, as the total number of people executed by the Roman Catholic Church in England rose to nearly three hundred in four years. Miles Coverdale, a contemporary of Foxe, published another well-known collection of Protestant martyr accounts, called the Letters of Martyrs (1564). As Knott has put it, together these two works describe the “acts of individual martyrs … as part of a collective expression of faith.”

Foxe's Book of Martyrs had a tremendous influence during the Reformation. According to D. R. Woolf, the work was “perhaps the most widely read book in Reformation England, apart from the Bible, to which it was often seen as a supplement.” While The Book of Martyrs has been closely scrutinized from a number of different perspectives, and has been charged with falsification, most critics agree that the Book of Martyrs and the other hagiographical and martyrological works written at the time accomplished their intended purpose, to record what happened during the persecutions of the Reformation and to encourage and lift up Protestant spirits through trying times.