SOURCE: Knott, John R. “The Holy Community” and “Bunyan and the Language of Martyrdom.” In Discourses of Martyrdom in English Literature, 1563-1694, pp. 84-116; 179-215. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
[In the following essays, Knott claims that writings about early Protestant martyrs reveal a community with a common identity wherein the martyrs bond was strengthened by the suffering they shared for their faith; he then examines the impact of Protestant martyrology on the writings of John Bunyan.]
THE HOLY COMMUNITY
The days are come, in the which we cannot but declare what we be.
John Bradford, Writings
If Foxe's rendering of the Marian persecution offers numerous scenes of solitary heroism, it also reveals the emergence of a community bound by common experience and a collective sense of preserving the heritage of the primitive church. The many letters of individual martyrs that Foxe reprinted in the Acts and Monuments form a body of literature that gives striking evidence of the communal nature of the resistance he celebrated. In 1564 Miles Coverdale published Letters of [the] Martyrs, a collection of just over 200 letters from the Marian period by leading protestant ministers (including Cranmer, Ridley, Bradford, Hooper, Philpot, Saunders, and Taylor) and notable laymen such as Robert Glover, Bartelet Green, and John Careless.1 The overlap between Coverdale and Foxe is considerable but not total. Foxe includes fifty-seven of Bradford's letters in his later editions and refers his readers to Coverdale for others (Coverdale prints seventy-three). He uses letters to document events, to illustrate the character and the piety of his subjects, and to edify his readers; he includes Ridley's letters and treatises, he says, for their “fruitful admonitions, wholesome doctrine, and necessary exhortations” (6.552). Both Foxe and Coverdale seem to have felt that these letters provided the most revealing expression of the spiritual temper of the Marian martyrs and of the reasoning by which they sustained themselves and others struggling to maintain their protestant faith. Taken together, the letters reveal a resilient holy community, its sense of identity sharpened by the fact of shared suffering. In this context the acts of individual martyrs appear as part of a collective expression of faith.
The letters printed by Foxe and Coverdale belong to a genre that reaches back ultimately to the Pauline epistles, which they recall along with the letters of early fathers such as Ignatius and Cyprian.2 The Marian persecution stimulated an outpouring of letters praising martyrdom and exhorting the faithful as those awaiting examination or execution sought from their scattered prisons to maintain their connections with each other, with relatives and friends and, in the case of ministers, with their congregations. By rehearsing the arguments for suffering, often after describing their fears or the harshness of prison conditions, the letter writers reinforced their own determination and sought to strengthen each other. They exhorted those not yet in their situation to remain faithful and attempted to prepare them psychologically to embrace whatever ordeals they might encounter.
As the policy of the Marian regime on religious matters became clear, committed protestants had to decide whether to risk severe penalties by holding to their beliefs, avoid confrontation by fleeing abroad, or conform. Some sought to compromise by conforming outwardly and yet remaining true in their consciences to the religion they had practiced under Edward VI, a position that leaders such as Ridley and Bradford attacked as untenable. In a tract he wrote at the outset of the Marian period, Ridley described fleeing as an acceptable alternative to speaking out, one authorized by Scripture, but gave no quarter to those who sought to preserve both themselves and their faith by giving the appearance of conformity. They were guilty of “wily ways with the word of God.”3 The urgency and force of many of the prison letters reflect the real difficulties their authors faced in trying to convince those who had not yet suffered to be prepared to do so. It was much easier to go to mass than to face the loss of property, imprisonment, and possible death at the stake. Many did conform, and many who were cited for their beliefs abjured. The community of those who chose the apostolic way of boldly confessing the Word was a select one.
To Coverdale, publishing his Letters of the Martyrs six years after the accession of Elizabeth, the “late persecution” was a time when the providence of God manifested itself in the heroic resistance of the truly faithful. He emphasizes the role of God in sustaining those who turned to him (“how joyful under the cross, how quiet and cheerful in trouble, he made them”) and enabling them to triumph (“what victory over their enemies, what deliverance out of bonds and captivity … he gave and bestowed upon them”).4 Like Foxe, he likens the acts and writings of the protestant martyrs to those of the “old ancient Saints” and sees them as offering a counterweight to the “lying legends of feigned, false, counterfeited, and popish canonized saints.” He praises the letters for making plain “what the very thoughts of their hearts were,” after quoting Jerome and Erasmus on the way letters reveal the man, and likens them to the psalms for the range of feelings they manifest, from the “horror of death” and the “grief of sin” to the “sweet taste” of God's mercy and comfort. Yet if Coverdale valued the letters as revelations of spiritual life, he seems to have valued them even more as convincing evidence of the divine influence that enabled the martyrs to “see life even in death.” How else could they be “so patient, so quiet of mind, so cheerful and merry in adversity,” he asks, and then offers proof of their suffering by detailing prison conditions.5
Coverdale's catalogue of “torments” practiced by the “stout sturdy soldiers of Satan” upon the “Saints of God” is worth quoting at length for its use of graphic description to validate the sufferings of those imprisoned for their faith:
Some being throwne into dungeons, ugsome holes, darke, lothesome, and stinking corners: other some lying in fetters and chaines, and loaded with so many irons that they could scarcely stire: some having their legges in the stockes and their neckes chained to the walle with gorgets of iron … some standing in most painful engines of iron with their bodies doubled: some whipped and scourged, beaten with roddes, and buffeted with fistes: some having their handes burned with a candel to trie their patience, or force them to relente: some hunger pined and most miserably famished.6
Prisoners were not always treated so harshly, as one can see by a letter from Bradford to his mother saying that he has books and what he needs for his comfort,7 but Coverdale naturally wanted to dramatize their condition and would have found abundant detail to serve his purpose in letters and in oral reports of survivors.8 By documenting their pain, and their endurance, he could authenticate their suffering and justify comparing them with the early martyrs.
Coverdale's recital of prison horrors underscores a further point about the difficulty of writing letters and getting them to their intended destination. The prisoners were sometimes hampered by chains or lack of light, he notes, or interrupted by “the hasty coming in of the keepers or officers, who left no corner or bedstraw unsearched.” They might have to write with lead from windows, or use their own blood for ink. Foxe says of Ralph Allerton: “He wrote this letter in prison with blood for lack of other ink” (8.414).9 The letter-writers themselves sometimes call attention to their difficulties. Philpot describes one of his letters as “Written in a coal-house of darkness out of a pair of painful stocks,” dramatizing this act of writing as he did his defiance of his examiners.10 The challenge of writing and smuggling out letters and documents became a familiar part of the story of protestant resistance. By collecting and publishing his Letters of the Martyrs, and presenting such letters as heroic testimony of faith sustained by the support of God, Coverdale contributed, with Foxe, to shaping an image of the Marian persecution that captured the imagination of English protestants.
The letters that Coverdale published resemble Pauline epistles in their basic structure. They typically begin with a variation on the Pauline salutation, identifying the recipients and wishing them peace and grace.11 For example, Nicholas Ridley writes:
To the brethren which constantly cleave unto Christ, in suffering affliction with him, and for his sake.
Grace and peace, from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ be multiplied unto you, Amen.12
The formula may be elaborated, as when John Bradford identifies himself in a letter to those who profess the Gospel in the city of London as “a most unworthy servant of the Lord, now not only in prison, but also excommunicated and condemned to be burned for the same true doctrine” (Paul characteristically asserts his apostolic authority).13 Some of the letters move from salutation to thanksgiving, the usual second element of the Pauline epistle, typically thanking God for the constancy of the recipients and praying that they will continue faithful.
The body of the Marian letters tends to offer a mixture of consolation and exhortation directed to the situation of their recipients. This may have relatively little in common with the paraenesis of the Pauline epistle—with its moral instruction in the form of clustered maxims, or lists of vices and virtues, or exhortation on a particular topic—beyond pastoral concern and a commitment to preaching the Gospel.14 An obvious difference is that Paul himself provided much of the language with which the Marian martyrs fortify their writings. Paul's discussion of his afflictions and the meaning of suffering for a Christian in his second epistle to the Corinthians, for example, offered a way of understanding their own experience. While their letters lack the liturgical function of Paul's, which were intended to be read in the churches, many were addressed to communities of believers and would have been shared, perhaps read aloud where circumstances permitted. The degree to which the Marian martyrs imitated the Pauline manner, and drew analogies between Paul's experiences and theirs, registers the strength of their desire to identify with apostolic Christianity. They frequently identify themselves as prisoners of Christ or “in bonds” for Christ, like Paul, and like Paul ask those they write to pray for them.15 They use terms such as “brethren” and speak of themselves as children and God as a loving father, imitating the affective language of the Pauline epistles. And they echo Paul's benedictions as well as his salutations. Ridley concludes the letter quoted above with language virtually identical to that of Philippians: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all evermore, Amen.”16
John Christopherson reacted with indignation to what he saw, correctly, as an assumption of the apostolic manner: “Lette them not then glorye in their fetters, as though they were Apostles, and write letters of comforte one to another in an Apostles style after this sorte, ‘Grace and peace be with you from god our father, and the Lord Jesus Christe.’”17 Christopherson denounced the letter-writers as false apostles and false martyrs, rebelling against the authority of church and sovereign rather than suffering patiently in the manner of the true martyrs with whom they unjustifiably identified, apostles and such heroes of the early church as Ignatius and Polycarp. He clearly saw the danger of allowing his opponents to seize the high ground of apostolic tradition. The Marian court preacher James Brooks launched a similar attack in an early sermon at Paul's Cross, identifying the protestants with notorious heretics attacked by the fathers and imagining Polycarp reacting with horror to violence against altars and crosses.18
The “Apostles style” that so rankled Christopherson was not a mere aping of scriptural convention. It contributes importantly to the effort to establish a sense of communitas among those suffering persecution or likely to because of efforts to resist Catholic worship and doctrine.19 This often depended more upon shared experience than upon the hierarchical structure of the church. Protestants who wanted to continue meeting were driven underground, forced to meet in unauthorized gatherings (conventicles) of the sort formerly associated with radical religious groups. They might, if led by a minister, continue to celebrate formal worship according to the Edwardian Book of Common Prayer or, if not, engage in Bible reading, prayer, and religious discussion.20 Ministers were active in nurturing the communitas of beleaguered protestants, but those in prison played a new role, defined by Paul in his own prison letters. They wrote as sufferers addressing those who were in a similar condition or might soon be, and they were joined by laymen who assumed a similar role.
When John Hooper began a letter to a group of Londoners imprisoned for praying together in Bow churchyard by wishing them the grace and consolation of the Holy Spirit, he implicitly grounded his discourse in the assumption that he and they stood together before God.21 In his version of the Pauline thanksgiving, Hooper addresses his audience as “Dearly beloved in the Lord” and expresses his joy at their action and his sorrow at the cruelty it provoked, in this fashion welcoming them affectionately into a holy community of the suffering. After comparing them with primitive Christians persecuted by Trajan for saying psalms, he assures them that God has preserved them for a purpose and will “be present in your hearts, and in your mouths to speak his wisdom.”22 Invoking a favorite touchstone of assurance (Matt. 10:30), he promises them that their hairs are numbered and “not one of them can perish, except your heavenly Father suffer it to perish.” The letter is dominated by what Wayne Meeks, speaking of Pauline epistles, has described as the “language of kinship and affection” used to express the “intimacy of communal life.”23 Hooper and others drew upon such language to create a sense of spiritual kinship, promising not only a new kind of intimacy but the assurance of being sustained by the extended family of God. Hooper tells his audience that they have standing at their backs “all the multitude of the faithful,” who will be moved to follow them, and seals it with the request that they pray for him, as he will pray for them. He closes with a Pauline peace wish (“God's peace be with you”), after expressing the confidence that although they are “asunder” in the world, in their separate prisons, they will meet in “the palace of heavenly joys.”
Others whose letters Foxe and Coverdale print adapted Pauline conventions to console and exhort, sometimes in idiosyncratic ways, creating a similar sense of a community of the suffering. The Coventry weaver John Careless, twenty-two of whose letters Coverdale includes, writes with a distinctive exuberance. He swells his salutations to paragraphs, delights in linguistic play, and seems always to be stretching affective language to its limits (“Ah, my most swete and loving breathren, and dearest harts in the Lord”).24 In a letter that Coverdale omits but Foxe includes Careless begs Philpot's pardon for his “metaphorical speech,” after spending a paragraph punning on Philpot's name (8.172). Ridley represents the other extreme, writing within the same Pauline frame but more sparely and reflectively, with a concern for defining the issues, condemning those he sees as having corrupted “Christ's true religion” and articulating the tradition of the suffering church.
Ridley wrote as one of the “chief captains … of Christ's church here,” and took a more active role than did Cranmer or Latimer in corresponding with protestant leaders.25 From the Bocardo in Oxford, where he was held from the spring of 1554 until his death in September of 1555, Ridley maintained a correspondence with Bradford, a leader among the London prisoners, and wrote several general letters to those in prison for their faith. He exchanged letters with Edmund Grindal, who spoke for the exiles in Frankfurt, expressing the hope that the exiles would “light and set up again the lantern of his Word in England.”26 Ridley's letters reflect his preoccupation with nurturing the community of the faithful suffering persecution and carrying on the tradition of the true church, which he traces to its roots in apostolic times. His letters to Bradford occupy themselves mainly with news and personal reassurances, but he indicates that they should be shared as Bradford sees fit.27 He begins one letter by wishing not only Bradford but “all the holy brotherhood” that suffer in prison for the Gospel “grace, mercy, and peace.”28 The experience of prison forged a new sense of “holy brotherhood,” of a communitas based not upon holding positions of authority in the reformed church of Edward VI, or exercising the influence of a popular preacher, but upon sharing the experience of persecution for holding to the Gospel as they understood it. Bradford was not so much an individual correspondent as a representative of this community, through whom it might be addressed.
In a farewell letter to “the Prisoners in Christ's Gospel's cause” and those who chose exile “for the same cause,” Ridley used the occasion of his own imminent death to urge others to be patient and to affirm their common membership in a church whose identity is defined through suffering.29 He appeals to Christ's blessing of those “persecuted for righteousness' sake” and his promise of rewards in heaven (Matt. 5:10-12), then minimizes the “sting of death” by setting it against eternity and invoking the sufferings of the apostles, especially those of Paul. Ridley turned naturally to the two texts likeliest to ennoble the sufferings of those he addresses, Paul on his own sufferings (“his beatings, his whippings, his scourgings, his shipwrecks”) and on those of the great company of sufferers for God's truth among the Israelites evoked in Hebrews 11:
they were stoned, hewn asunder, tempted, fell and were slain upon the edge of the sword, some wandered to and fro in sheeps' pilches [skins], in goats' pilches, forsaken, oppressed, afflicted, (such godly men as the world was unworthy of,) wandering in wildernesses, in mountains, in caves and in dens. Others were racked, and despised, and would not be delivered, that they might obtain a better resurrection; other again were tried with mockings and scourgings, and moreover with bonds and imprisonment.30
Ridley adapted his text to make it speak more directly to contemporary experience, rearranging parts and adding references to racking and to “godlyness,” yet the passage's great appeal was as an evocation of the suffering, and the resistance, of a persecuted remnant in any time. In the series of farewells with which he closes, Ridley addresses his audience as the “congregation of the chosen of God … the true church militant of Christ” and summons up the powerful image of the woman in the wilderness of Revelation 12, “Christ's dearly beloved spouse here wandering in this world, as in a strange land, far from thine own country, and compassed about on every hand with deadly enemies.”31
Ridley's ability to subsume individual suffering in a moving vision of the suffering church shows the power that the more public of the martyrs' letters could attain. These communal letters, which might be addressed to a particular group of prisoners or to the faithful of London or (as in Ridley's case) to all of those suffering for the Gospel, tend to be the most Pauline in manner and can be distinguished from the large number of letters addressed to individuals, although the two kinds have many points of resemblance. No one wrote more or better letters to individual Christians than John Bradford. These letters claim far more space than those of anyone else in Coverdale's collection and reveal a kind of ministry typical of other imprisoned preachers. Bradford wrote to Ridley and Saunders and Philpot but also to various godly women who supported the prisoners, to Lord Russell, to members of the family of Sir James Hales (a suicide), to those he knew to be in some kind of spiritual need or peril. His fundamental message is the austere one that Christians should be true to the demands of their faith whatever the personal costs. He represents the alternatives with deliberate starkness in a letter to Robert Harrington and his wife: “If ye go to mass, and do as the most part doth, then may ye live at rest and quietly; but, if ye deny to go to it, then shall ye go to prison, lose your goods, leave your children comfortless, yea lose your life also.”32 But, he continues, life is short, “a very shadow and smoke,” and the “punishment of hell-fire” is endless. He urges another couple already prisoners in Newgate, “to learn to loathe and leave the world,” forgetting about their property and commending their children to the care of God.33 Bradford continually seeks to win others to his own demanding vision, in letters given urgency by his sense that his execution is imminent. Like Richard Baxter preaching “as a dying man to dying men” a century later,34 he used the specter of his death to dramatic effect: “My staff ‘standeth at the door’; I continually look for the sheriff to come for me, and, I thank God, I am ready for him.”35
Bradford grounded the feeling of spiritual crisis that he conveyed
For Bradford as for others, embracing the cross was a means of imitating Christ. He wrote Lady Vane, describing his own state: “Now do I begin to be Christ's disciple; now I begin to be fashioned like to my master in suffering, that so I may be in reigning.”36 The logic of this position leads to the further assertion that more suffering is better because it makes us more like Christ. Bradford concludes, in a letter to Joyce Hales: “Then doubtless, the greater crosses, the greater comforts we shall feel: and, the more sharp and heavy they be, the more like we shall be unto Christ in this life, and so in eternal life.”37 Bradford was offering a particular message of assurance to someone who needed it, emphasizing the “comforts” to be gained in heaven by enduring afflictions here, but in urging those he wrote to conform themselves to Christ through suffering he was sounding one of the major themes of the letters of Foxe's protestant martyrs.
These letters frequently describe suffering as a trial sent by God, understood as a means of testing the faith of Christians. The protestant appeal depended upon establishing a sense of crisis; its message was that one had to act, not simply settle into the comfortable way of conformity to the new religious order. Bradford characterized the times in words that others who wrote from prison would have been likely to endorse: “The days are come, in the which we cannot but declare what we be.”38 He welcomed persecution as “the true touchstone, which trieth the true church-children from hypocrites, as the wind doth the wheat from the chaff.”39 He and others saw trial by suffering as God's means of purgation, “a purifying fire to burn the dross away of our dirtiness and sin,” echoing a familiar figure from the first epistle of Peter (1 Peter 1:7) comparing faith to gold refined in the fire.40 This emphasis upon the purifying effects of suffering recalls the writings of the early fathers. In one memorable passage Bradford develops his own, domesticated version of Ignatius' assertion that he is the wheat of Christ:
As the fire hurteth not the gold, but maketh it finer, so shall ye be more pure by suffering with Christ. The flail and wind hurteth not the wheat, but cleanseth it from the chaff; and ye, dearly beloved, are God's wheat: fear not therefore the flail, fear not the fanning wind, fear not the millstone, fear not the oven; for all these make you more meet for the Lord's own tooth.41
Bradford offers a persuasive message of assurance here by drawing metaphors for suffering from a familiar process with which his readers would have been comfortable. The metaphors work so well because they do not ignore the fact of pain (implied by the flail, the millstone, the oven) but subordinate it to the process of purification by which the soul loses its earthly imperfections. The whole process “hurteth not” the wheat if we imagine the wheat as being cleansed and transmuted into a higher substance, although the governing image of God consuming his saints, in a kind of eucharist in reverse, must have been disturbing to those who lacked Bradford's apparent appetite for suffering.
Another means of speaking to common fears was to show trial by persecution as God's way of fostering spiritual health and growth. Bradford pictures God as a physician saving Christians from spiritual peril by “ministering physic, which is the cross” and as a planter ripening his seed with the sunshine of persecution.42 Various letter writers describe trial as leading to self-knowledge and knowledge of God. Bradford writes a gentlewoman in trouble with her parents over refusing to go to mass that she is in “the school-house and trial-parlour of the Lord.”43 Elsewhere he describes a couple in prison as being brought by God into his “school-house.” The metaphor, capturing the sense shared by others that trial could be an education in holiness, grew out of actual prison experience. Foxe characterizes the prisons where protestants were confined as becoming “right christian schools and churches” and goes on to describe the “prayers, preachings, most godly exhortations, and comfortings” with which the prisoners sustained themselves (6.684). This was the other side of the recital of prison horrors, proof that good could come out of apparent evil. Prison functioned not only as God's schoolhouse but as a new kind of church. Rowland Taylor, according to Foxe, preached “repentance and amendment of life” to prisoners who came to him (6.684). Bradford preached twice a day in the King's Bench and gave the sacrament to those who crowded into his chamber (7.145). Philpot and his fellow prisoners sang hymns and psalms in Bonner's “coal-house,” imitating Paul and Silas singing in prison.
The assurances that Bradford and his fellow letter writers offer, by representing the spiritual benefits of trial, mirror the problems they faced in persuading those they addressed. They needed to offer assurance and at the same time acknowledge the difficulty of what protestants were being called to do, because they were speaking to real fears and uncertainties. Some of the most vivid writing in the letters addresses the challenges of the way of faith. Hooper warns Ann Warcop: “Sister, take heed: you shall in your journey towards heaven meet with many a monstrous beast: have salve of God's word therefore ready.”44 The familiar biblical figure of life as a journey or pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world toward the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 11:13-16) assumed particular relevance in a time of persecution. It underlies a striking letter that has been attributed both to Bradford and, in a slightly different form, to Latimer.45 The letter uses homely metaphors to give a realistic sense of the trials of this allegorical journey, anticipating Bunyan's more ambitious elaboration of the figure in The Pilgrim's Progress.46 Readers are urged to press on, “though the weather be foul and storms grow apace,” with the assurance that “your brothers and sisters pad the same path,” as the patriarchs and apostles did before them, and the promise that “the end of your journey shall be pleasant and joyful.” The letter reflects the particular historical moment and conveys the sense of desperate urgency that pervades Bradford's letters in particular. Readers are exhorted to run out their race “with more haste” before the night comes: “The devil standeth now at every inndoor in his city and country of this world, crying unto us to tarry and lodge in this or that place, till the storm be overpast: not that he would not have us wet to the skin, but that the time might overpass us to our utter destruction.”47 Bradford and others who counselled wavering protestants had to persuade them that the way to the heavenly Jerusalem lay through persecution. To seek a dry place in the storms, by yielding to worldly comforts and the security of the parish church, would be fatal to their spiritual lives. In their dark view all England had become a City of Destruction.
Perhaps the most common metaphor for the ideal posture of the Christian, one that took on a rich life in the seventeenth century, was that of the Christian soldier. The watchword of Foxe's martyrs is patience: “Let us endure in all troubles patiently, after the example of our master Christ.”48 One had to learn to brave the storms, to endure the refining fires of persecution, to “be stable and immovable in the word of God.”49 Yet protestants also saw themselves as engaged in an active struggle against the powers determined to destroy what they regarded as the true church. Their agon, like that of Eusebius' “athletes of piety,” demanded courage and the resolve to combat the raging of enemies seen as satanic. An exhortation of George Marsh in a letter reprinted by Foxe epitomizes the martyrs' sense of Christian life as warfare: “Forasmuch as the life of man is a perpetual warfare upon earth, let us run with joy unto the battle that is set before us, and, like good warriors of Jesus Christ, please him who hath chosen us to be soldiers” (7.65). In their Conferences Ridley appealed to Latimer, as “an old soldier and an expert warrior,” to help him “buckle my harness.” He invoked the experience of a youth spent not far from the Scottish borders: “I have known my countrymen watch day and night in their harness … and their spears in their hand.”50 Philpot was similarly concrete in urging Robert Glover to persevere to the end: “Many go on well till they come to the pikes; and then they turn their backs and give over in the plain field, to the shame of Christ and his church.”51 Philpot catches the sense of danger, and the fear, that must have been felt by many. To overcome it one had to “play the man,” as Latimer urged Ridley, to be courageous enough, as Ridley himself put it elsewhere, to resist Satan “manfully” and “follow our captain Christ.”52 This meant, most obviously, to be willing to face the stake, but it could also mean, as it did for Philpot and many others, to be bold enough to challenge one's examiners. One followed Christ, an invisible commander, by holding to the standard of Scripture and the example of the martyrs of the primitive church.
The final argument for engaging in such warfare, and for enduring what the enemy could inflict, was the assurance of ultimate victory and the transcendent peace and joy of heaven that would accompany it. The martyrs frequently remind each other, and those they are trying to persuade to follow them, of this prospect. The conviction that they would prevail through suffering, with God's help, was fundamental. Ridley in his farewell letter to Bradford asserts: “Though Satan rage, the Lord is strong enough to bridle him, and to put an iron chain over his nose when it shall please him.”53 The specter of death itself, “Doctor Death” in Bradford's phrase, could be diminished. Ridley urges: “Let us not fear death, which can do us no harm, otherwise than for a moment to make the flesh to smart.”54 Foxe quotes Bradford as promising the young apprentice who has his companion at the stake “a merry supper with the Lord this night” (7.194), his rendering of the marriage supper of the Lamb of Revelation 19; he reports Thomas Cromwell making a similar comment about a “sharp” breakfast followed by a “joyful dinner” (5.438).55 These were ways of domesticating the image of death. It was easier to be “merry” if one could imagine death as a moment's smarting of the flesh or a sharp breakfast, ordinary-seeming unpleasantnesses to be undergone on the way to extraordinary joys.
The view of heaven suggested by the figure of “a merry supper with the Lord” is both festive, like that implied by the figure of martyrdom as a wedding with Christ, and communal. Bradford instinctively includes the apprentice who was to die with him in the supper he imagines, as he had included those he wrote in the community of those who suffered for their faith: “For no small company of God's children are gone that way, and we are a good company here together which are ready to follow the same way through God's grace.”56 Like Ridley's “holy brotherhood,” Bradford's “good company here together” assumes a dynamic fellowship among members of the true church who were physically separated. The insistence upon community, in letters from prison to prison, or from prison to scattered individuals or groups, was an effort to overcome the fact of separation by insisting upon unity in Christ. It is a note that recurs again and again, as in Robert Whittle's urging that his readers “have brotherly love amongst yourselves, which is a token that ye be Christ's disciples”57 or Laurence Saunders's reference to “that unspeakable accord and unity among us the many members of this mystical body.”58
The community to be enjoyed in heaven, with each other and with God, was seen as a perfected version of the earthly one. Philpot wrote of looking to meet again in the kingdom of heaven, “there to rejoice perfectly of that godly fellowship which here we have had on earth.”59 Bradford promised one correspondent: “Now we are dispersed, but we shall be gathered together again there, where we shall never part but always be together in joy eternal.”60 The letters of the Marian martyrs frequently close with such assertions, which promise a communal as well as an individual triumph over death and suffering. Those cast out from the unity of the visible church and seeking to persuade others to join them insisted upon the transformation of the invisible church into the church triumphant in which God's children would finally be united.
The Marian years gave new depth and focus to a language of persecution and suffering that those who wrote from prison knew but never had to live by until they found themselves faced with the possibility of martyrdom. They had been accustomed to appealing to the ideal of the primitive church, particularly the apostolic church, in the continuing protestant attack on Roman doctrine and worship. It exemplified the simplicity, the purity, the emphasis upon an inward and spiritual religion and, above all, the direct reliance upon the Word of God which they could not find in the late medieval church. It also offered a model of the true church as a suffering church. Under Mary those who stayed to witness to their sense of God's truth, and to a lesser degree those who chose exile, found themselves acting out the ideal. They created their own version of the apostolic church, not traveling like Paul and Timothy to widely scattered churches but establishing a network linking separate communities of prisoners (in Newgate, the Marshalsea, the King's Bench, the Bocardo in Oxford) and groups of friends or congregations in England and on the continent by a secretive correspondence carried on with the help of family and friends who served as messengers. Prison and the threat of imminent death for one's religious faith, on a scale not seen before in England, forced a new realization of how the English church could revitalize apostolic ideals.
Those who defined the tradition of the suffering church anew in the Marian period wrote out of a sense of continuing persecution for protestant beliefs in England. Memories of earlier persecution, under Wolsey in the 1520s and More in the early 1530s and under conservative bishops in the aftermath of the Act of Six Articles (1539), were kept alive in protestant writings of the 1540s and early 1550s. Litanies of martyrs included such figures as Thomas Bilney, Robert Barnes, John Frith (all burned in the early 1530s), and Anne Askew and John Lascelles (burned together in 1546). Two letters from William Tyndale to Frith in the Tower that Foxe reprints, written in 1533, anticipate the letters of the Marian martyrs with their Pauline salutations and closings and their mingling of consolation and encouragement to stand fast (5.131-34). Tyndale ennobles martyrdom (“Your cause is Christ's gospel, a light that must be fed with the blood of faith”) and urges Frith to “be of good courage,” promising that God's power will be in him, that “his Spirit shall speak in you, and teach you what to answer.” His biblically based formulae resemble those of the Marian letters. In his Answere to More Tyndale had distinguished between a fleshly and a spiritual church, identifying the latter with a “little flock” of the elect whose lot is to be “in captivity and persecution under their brethren, as we be under ours in the kingdom of the pope.” He saw persecution as a condition of life for the faithful in all times: “And Ishmael persecuted Isaac, and Esau Jacob, and the fleshly the spiritual; whereof Paul complained in his time, persecuted of his carnal brethren; we do in our time, and as the elect ever did, and shall do to the world's end.”61 Protestants had established a sense of communal identity in part by invoking the tradition of a persecuted elect and developing ways of talking about suffering that made it seem an inescapable aspect of Christian life and the path to spiritual victory.
In The Image of Both Churches Bale comes back repeatedly to the inevitable and continuing persecution of the “poor chosen flock of Christ,” first by the Roman emperors and then by their heirs, the “deceitful and ravenous wolves” of the Roman church. He plays upon the motif of the innocent blood of the martyrs and takes a fierce pleasure in celebrating God's vengeance upon those who have shed it. Bale represents suffering by naming the torments of the flesh (“they inhibit, sequester, banish, imprison, slay, hang, head, burn, and drown the poor preachers of the verity”), at the same time insisting upon the power of the Word and the ultimate unity of the “scattered flock” of the true church in Christ: “Christ will seek up his lost sheep and bring him again to his fold, that they may appear one flock, like as they have one shepherd.”62 Biblical images of the faithful as God's flock had particular resonance for reformers representing the suffering of the true church. They suggested both the dependence of Christians upon God, seen as a loving and protective shepherd (as in Psalm 23 and in the parable of the good shepherd), and their acute vulnerability to the hostile powers of the world. They also implied an identification with the Israelites, described in the prophetic books as “scattered” by their enemies and then reunited by God in a “good fold” and given “fat pasture.”63
The habit of referring to the true church as the little flock of Christ was well established by the time Foxe was working on what would become the Acts and Monuments. The metaphor took on new force in the Marian period, as in Thomas Becon's A Comfortable Epistle to the Afflicted People of God, written in exile in Frankfurt. Becon catalogued the afflictions of protestants (“divers burnt unto ashes, divers famished in prison, divers spoiled of goods, divers exiled”) and characterized the church as “persecuted and hunted of the synagogue of Satan.” He asked: “The flock, which the high Bishop Christ purchased with his most precious blood, to be scattered, rent, torn, and devoured of those cruel lions and ravening wolves, who lamenteth not?”64 In An humble supplication unto God Becon drew heavily upon Ezekiel 34 in projecting a vision of God gathering his scattered sheep “out of all lands” and bringing them home to pasture on the “mountains of Israel.”65
The image of the church as a persecuted “little flock” had persisted even in the Edwardian years when it was less justified.66 English protestants so identified with the suffering church, embracing the fundamental New Testament principle that Christians would overcome their persecutors “by patient sufferance only” (as Bale put it), that many could not let the image go. In the earlier Edwardian years they were still reacting against the consequences of the Act of Six Articles. Anthony Gilby, writing in 1547 against Stephen Gardiner's defense of transubstantiation, opposed the protomartyr Stephen to the bishop and summoned a company of “faitheful witnesses of the truthe” from all ages.67 He represents the persecution of the church in the three hundred years before Constantine and the sufferings of more recent martyrs in ways that recall Bale and anticipate Foxe. Hooper dwelt upon the sufferings of the church in answering Gardiner in 1547 and in preaching a series of sermons on Jonah before king and council during Lent in 1550.68 The sermons on Jonah enabled him to portray the trials of the faithful, their deliverance by God, and the inevitable frustration of persecutors of the Word: “though they burn, the Lord will quench; if they kill, the Lord will make alive; if they curse, the Lord will bless.”69 Latimer in the Edwardian years continued to preach that the cross was the lot of Christians and to argue the benefits of embracing suffering sent by God, including learning to pray and “to know ourselves.”70 Both Latimer and Hooper were demanding preachers, more inclined to fault the Reformation under Edward for falling short of the ideal than to act as apologists for the reformed church. They saw themselves as prophets arousing resentment by speaking unpleasant truths.71
Prior to the Marian years protestant writers, including some who would suffer martyrdom, were asking the questions and developing the answers that one finds in the prison letters printed by Foxe and Coverdale. In “Two Sermons on Oppression, Affliction, and Patience” (1552), Roger Hutchinson first establishes the fact of suffering (“We be all God's martyrs, we do all bear a cross in this life”) and then asks why God allows it and how one should bear the “image of Christ.”72 George Joye, who eventually fled to the continent to escape persecution himself, wrote in 1544 that “In blode is the gospell planted, with blode therefore must it be conserved and defended” and offered five consolations for the suffering, urging that it is for the trial of our faith and it “bringeth forth patience.”73 Joye offers the Gadarenes with their “little pigs” (the swine that rushed over the cliff after Jesus cast out the demons in them) as emblems of attachment to worldly goods, cites the biblical promise that God has numbered the hairs of our heads, and asserts that God will judge the persecutors (asking where is Decius, where is Wolsey?). Such writers helped to forge the language that served the more urgent needs of the Marian martyrs and their audiences.
This language was not peculiarly English, of course. Luther had articulated a theology of the cross, arguing that “God is known only in suffering” and describing the church as a communion of saints, one of whose marks was suffering (“Baptism and death, baptism and suffering, baptism and martyrdom, belong together”).74 He attacked the reputed miracles of the Legenda Aurea and celebrated protestant martyrs from Hus to those of his own time, anticipating Foxe in the process of reconstituting the ideal of Christian martyrdom.75 The burning of Henry Zutphen in December of 1524 prompted a justification of martyrdom as a fundamental attribute of Christianity: “In our day the pattern of the true Christian life has reappeared, terrible in the world's eyes, since it means suffering and persecution, but precious and priceless in God's sight.” For Luther, God through Henry had demonstrated “his Spirit and power” and shown that Christ would overpower and convert the world “not by force but through the blood and death of his saints.”76
Calvin incorporated a justification of suffering into the Institutes, arguing the necessity of learning to live under the cross in order to recognize one's human frailty and need for God. He saw affliction as a testing imposed by God, to try patience and teach the unruly flesh obedience. Calvin was particularly attuned to the “contrary affections” of those facing martyrdom. Peter dreaded death, he observed, yet nonetheless submitted cheerfully. Christian patience, as Calvin describes it, is a balanced and dynamic state, not philosophical resignation to necessity or stoic insensibility: “For the Scripture applauds the saints for their patience, when they are afflicted with severe calamities, but not broken and overcome by them; when they are bitterly distressed, but are filled at the same time with spiritual joy; when they are oppressed with anxiety, but are revived and exhilarated with divine consolation.”77 Calvin found himself addressing the real anxieties of prospective martyrs when five students of theology at Lausanne were arrested and imprisoned in Lyons. In a series of letters written in 1552 and 1553, he first expressed hope for their release and then, when death appeared inevitable, offered a series of traditional consolations: God's choice of them as martyrs is a token of superabundant grace, they will be strengthened by the Spirit, their deaths will resound powerfully, God will punish enemies now given free rein.78
Calvin's commentaries on the Pauline epistles and on Acts contain numerous reflections on the necessity and the uses of suffering, but a sermon on Hebrews 13:13 (translated into English in 1561 and again in 1581) offers the most concentrated statement of his views on the subject.79 The sermon plays upon key texts that appear repeatedly in protestant writings on persecution, including Romans 8 (God's children should be made conformable to him, they are as sheep to the slaughter), 1 Peter 1 (Christians are like gold tried in the fire), and 2 Corinthians 4 (Christians endure tribulations but are not distressed by them). Calvin invokes the example of famous martyrs, including the Maccabees and the anonymous heroes of faith among the Israelites praised in Hebrews 11, and also miraculous deliverances such as those of Daniel from the lion's den and Peter from Herod's prison. He concludes with a series of consoling scriptural promises: that nothing will happen except by God's will (not a hair will fall), that God will sustain those who suffer by the power of the Holy Spirit, that the fruit of suffering will be immortal glory.
Those English protestants who wrote out of the Marian persecution inherited a well-developed language of suffering, based upon biblical texts that had become touchstones, and a fund of tested arguments. What they wrote emerges from a vigorous body of writing in England and on the continent that saw suffering as at the heart of Christian experience and as a defining characteristic of the true church. Yet it was shaped by their own distinctive experience. It was one thing to say “We be all God's martyrs” and another to see the metaphor suddenly become literal as one confronted the prospect of martyrdom. The difference was that between preaching on the necessity of suffering and writing a farewell letter to friends and family in preparation for death at the stake. The emotional intensity of much of the Marian writing reflects the hardships and the pressure the writers experienced and the fact that they addressed urgent individual and communal needs. Under extreme pressure they elaborated language that had become traditional and gave it a new immediacy by imagining themselves as recreating the experience of the primitive church. The Pauline form of many of the letters attests to an intimacy and a sense of community that go beyond anything seen earlier in England. The scale of the persecution and the needs for communication it generated (to keep in touch with fellow sufferers in prison, to nurture the faith of those outside, to record examinations, to define doctrinal positions) generated a unique body of literature.
Foxe did more than anyone to fix the image of the Marian period as a climactic episode in the history of the true church, by drawing heavily upon the writings of the martyrs themselves and by constructing a narrative that identified them with the tradition of a suffering church faithful to apostolic ideals. He offered his Elizabethan readers a dramatic version of recent events designed to show the heroic spirit of protestantism under persecution and the dynamic fellowship of believers that it fostered. And the triumphant emergence of the Elizabethan church from the ashes of the martyrs. Foxe built toward a conclusion in which he hailed Elizabeth, the new Constantine, for ending the persecution and restoring the image of the godly ruler, damaged by what he represented as centuries of papal oppression of kings and emperors. He combined the tradition of the persecuted church with the imperial tradition in which he placed Elizabeth, as Paul Christianson has observed.80 This imperial tradition, or theme, constitutes a central element of the Acts and Monuments and deserves the attention it has received from Haller and others.81 Foxe's celebration of the Elizabethan Settlement (and Elizabeth's role as governor of both church and state) as the culmination of the long struggle between pope and prince in England gave the Acts and Monuments immense patriotic appeal and made possible the quasi-official status it gained. Yet, as Jane Facey has recently argued, the Acts and Monuments reveals unresolved tensions between the image of a suffering church, sustained by groups of true believers through periods of persecution, and that of an established church defined by ordinances of prince and clergy.82 The cracks in Foxe's attempted synthesis of the two ideals, a holy community of the elect and a national church headed by a godly prince, began to appear early. Peter Lake has shown how the protestant tradition described by Foxe split apart in the debate about presbyterianism that erupted in the 1570s.83
Seventeenth-century opponents of prelacy could reject Foxe's praise of bishop martyrs and the advent of a new religious order under Elizabeth and yet respond to his vision of the continuity of the true church and the resurgence of faith in the Reformation, because this vision was at the heart of the Acts and Monuments.84 It drew its power from Foxe's sense of the church as purified and strengthened by persecution. The dominant theme of a preface added to the 1570 edition (“To the True and Faithful Congregation of Christ's Universal Church”) is God's preservation of his “small silly flock” through centuries of violence: “the more they suffered, the more of their blood increased” (I.xx). Foxe characterizes his history, given in concentrated form in the preface, as offering Christian readers “the image of both churches … especially of the poor oppressed and persecuted church of Christ” (I.xix) and creates an honor roll of “faithful witnesses” from different periods. When he turns to the present at the end of the preface, one gets a sharp sense of discontinuity. The little flock has become a national church and in the process has lost the unity that Foxe attributes to Christians banding together under persecution. He ends with a prayer that the God of peace “still these winds and surging seas of discord and contention among us” (I.xxi). The contrast is even more striking in the 1583 preface in which, as we have seen, Foxe opposes the image of Wyclif and other “godly men” preaching barefoot in “frieze gowns” (I.xxxv) to his own church's preoccupation with clerical vestments.
Foxe saw his massive history as answering the familiar taunt, “Where was this church of yours before these fifty years?” (1.9), by demonstrating the continuity of the true church from apostolic times to the present. Yet he had relatively little to say in the Acts and Monuments about the actual church of which he was a part. The image of the true church that fired his imagination was that of a fellowship of believers who proved their faith under trial. Facey sees this as an “underground tradition” epitomized by the Waldensians and the “secret multitude of true professors” among the Lollards, whose zeal Foxe contrasted with the religious temper of his own day, in language truer to his own religious temperament than to theirs:85 “To see their travail, their earnest seekings, their burning zeal, their readings, their watching, their sweet assemblies, their love and concord, their godly living, their faithful demeaning with the faithful, may make us now, in these days of free profession, to blush for shame” (4.218).
The Waldensians were widely viewed by reformers as providing a link between their own time and the ideals of the primitive church.86 Foxe, drawing upon Flacius Illyricus and contemporary histories, traces their origins to the movement founded by Peter Valdes in twelfth-century Lyons and details what he understood to be their articles of belief, including an insistence upon the primacy of Scripture and opposition to the authority of the pope and to much of Catholic doctrine and practice. He describes their dispersal and major persecutions directed against those, including the Albigensians, that he identifies with the Waldensians. Borrowing from Jean Crespin, he recounts the notorious atrocities in southern France in the 1540s, including the rasing of Merindol and the slaughter of women and children at Cabriers.87 The burden of Foxe's capsule history is that the Waldensians “by long persecution driven from place to place, were grievously in all places afflicted, but yet could never be utterly destroyed” or compelled to yield to Rome (4.508). He shows those who migrated to the territory of the Duke of Savoy in the Piedmont martyred in 1559 “as the sheep which are led into the slaughterhouse” or driven “into the mountains covered with snow, naked and without victuals” (4.516), anticipating Milton's famous sonnet on the latest atrocity, “On the Late Massacre in Piemont” (1655).
Yet one needs to reach back beyond the Lollards in England and the Waldensians on the continent to understand Foxe's ideal. He found the model for early communities of believers, as for the communities created by the Marian martyrs and those who identified with them, in the primitive church of the first three centuries, which he characterized as “spoiled, imprisoned, contemned, reviled, famished, tormented, and martyred every where.” Yet, he says, its members assembled as they could at night “to sing psalms and hymns together” and experienced greater “inward consolations” as their “outward tribulations” increased: “Then was true religion truly felt in heart. Then was Christianity not in outward appearance showed, but in inward affection received … Then was the name and fear of God true in heart, not in lips alone dwelling” (4.139). Passages such as this are colored by a deep nostalgia for a time of simple, pure, and intense faith inseparable from the fact of persecution. Foxe measured the Elizabethan church against an ideal of the holy community established by the primitive church and kept alive by the Waldensians and the Lollards. He reveals his impatience with its imperfections (contentiousness, lack of fervor, a concern with externals such as clerical dress) and minimizes or ignores signs of discord in the communities he praises.88
Foxe was sufficiently orthodox and sufficiently inclined by temperament to moderation and harmony in the church to react against extremism in any form (he complained in a letter about the treatment of his son by “factious puritans” at Oxford and worried that such men would “throw all into confusion”). He served the church when called upon, preaching at Paul's Cross at the behest of the Bishop of London (Edmund Grindal) and editing a revision of the canon law (Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum). He accepted a prebend in the cathedral of Salisbury upon the publication of the first English edition of the Acts and Monuments in 1563, although he got into trouble for not attending synods and elections at the cathedral. Foxe resisted playing a formal role in the church and opposed its policies on occasion, refusing to obey the 1565 edict prescribing uniformity in vestments and vigorously but unsuccessfully opposing the burning of heretics, whether Anabaptists or Catholics.89 He chose to function primarily as a spiritual counselor, occasional preacher, and scholar, revising the Acts and Monuments and pursuing other works, such as the commentary on Revelation that elaborated his vision of the evolution of the true church.
Foxe's strong attraction to the theme of the persecuted church can be seen in his early apocalyptic comedy, Christus Triumphans (1556), in which he drew heavily upon Revelation. The central figure of Ecclesia, modelled upon the woman clothed with the sun of Revelation 12 and the bride of Christ of the closing chapters, anticipates many of Foxe's preoccupations in the Acts and Monuments. The persecutor Dioctes embodies the cruelty of the Roman persecutors and their successors, Pornapolis (the whore of Babylon) the moral corruption of the false church, and Pseudamnus (Antichrist seen as the pope) the venality and imperialistic ambition Foxe attributed to the papacy. Satanic rage emerges as the force animating the persecution of Ecclesia, more clearly than it could in the historical narrative of the Acts and Monuments, and we see the suffering of a long succession of martyrs yielding to the prospect of Ecclesia's ultimate triumph over Satan through the power of Christ. The play ends with an epithalamion celebrating the expected wedding of Ecclesia and her bridegroom Christ, whose return will bring relief from Satan's torments and victory over the power of the world embodied in Babylon. Since Elizabeth had not yet displaced Mary, Foxe could only anticipate some kind of deliverance. By his apocalyptic perspective he preserved the broadest possible conception of Ecclesia, as embodying the suffering of all the faithful and the hope of a peace made possible by Christ.
Foxe's conception of Ecclesia enabled him to represent the universality of the sufferings of the true church (her children are Europus, Africus, and Asia) and something of its character.90 In a parodic version of the classic confrontation with ecclesiastical authority, Foxe shows her brought before Pseudamnus in tattered clothes and abused by shouted insults (“Heretic!” “Wycliffite!” “Anabaptist!”).91 Her accusers respond to her insistence that she is “Ecclesia, the bride of Christ,” with the claim that she is instead “Some poor woman of Lyons,” alluding to the Waldensians. Foxe uses the figure of Ecclesia to evoke the pathos of the persecuted church (she appears marked by red stripes, “a widow, bereft of my goods, and an exile cut off from my country”)92 and also its dignity. She rises above shame by embracing her role and articulating a theology of suffering: “Their way is to inflict injustices, ours to endure them: this indeed is the lot of saints and their victory.”93 The turning point of the play comes when Ecclesia's prayer to Christ, for “the wretched little sheep of your own flock,” is answered by a vision of heaven and the descent of garments in which she is dressed for the celestial wedding.
Foxe appears to have written Christus Triumphans at the height of the Marian persecution, and the play gains immediacy from his veiled references to contemporary events. We see the preacher Hierologus denouncing Pseudamnus as antichrist and then hear of his imprisonment with his companion Theosebes in a town that is unmistakably Oxford, an apparent reference to Latimer and Ridley.94 Pornapolis complains: “Now these people aren't frightened by chains, rings, racks, swords, torments, punishing flames, or anything else.”95 She protests that ordinary people are reading Scripture and opposing it to tradition. Such evidence of resistance heightens the sense of crisis, and impending change, that informs the play.
Foxe returned to the theme of the persecuted church near the end of his career in his unfinished commentary on Revelation. In the course of speculating on the mysteries of that work, including its complex chronology, he traces the cruelties visited upon the flock of Christ (“contra innocuum Christi gregem”) through the ten Roman persecutions and those of his own time and demonstrates the vengeance of God by citing examples of judgments upon persecutors. Revelation 12 occasions commentary on the persistence of a remnant of the faithful despite the slaughter of numerous martyrs. Foxe asserts that the church has stood unconquered through storms of persecution against the fury of the Caesars and the Turks and the continuing tyranny of antichrist.96 He invokes famous martyrs of the early church such as Polycarp and Blandina and parallels the Roman persecutions with events in England but gives much more attention to Hus and Jerome of Prague, his candidates for the two witnesses of Revelation 11 and the embodiment of the resurgent faith of the Reformation. The opposition of the two churches that he shows in their confrontations with authority runs through the work, as it had through Christus Triumphans and the Acts and Monuments.
In the historical perspective of the Acts and Monuments the Marian martyrs appear as the contemporary representatives of the persecuted church, heirs of the Waldensians and earlier Christian communities united by persecution. We see them insisting, like Ecclesia, that they and not their examiners represent the true church. Philpot accuses his examiners of belonging to the Babylonical church and asserts: “I am of the true catholic church, whereof I was never out” (7.680). At his examination in 1558, Roger Holland, a merchant tailor of London, offers a lay history of the true church from Adam to the present and argues that “our church hath been the apostles and evangelists, the martyrs and confessors of Christ, that have at all times and in all ages been persecuted for the true testimony of the word of God” (8.476). Defenders of the true church had to explain its lack of institutional continuity. Hence Bradford, responding to the accusation that his church can be found only in a corner of Germany, characterizes it as “dispersed, and not tied to this or that place, but to the word of God” (7.190). For Bradfo
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