Comments on Foxe's Book of Martyrs

michael_legna's picture

It is always hard to address broad or general complaints.


If I might respond to your question to JWMCMAC and GILDAS

You asked if Catholics “discount the veracity of the claims of torture and dominant tyranny held by the Roman Catholic Church prior to the era of the Reformation and counter-reformation? Would you agree that some of the very things your counter-reformation sought to do was provide redress for the tyranny and greed of prior popes? Do you deny the historical accounts contained in world history books, not just protestant books like Foxe, of a system that did hold people in utter slavery to itself? Or are you more offended by the fact Foxe does not also spell out the innocent Catholic Christians who were tortured for their conscience' faith?

It is always difficult to respond to broad comments on an issue and so each case must be taken on its own and discussed in detail. So answers to general inquiries like yours on torture (without a specific example) and dominant tyranny (without a clear definition accepted by all as to just what that means) is impossible. Like wise it is difficult to respond to claims of historical accounts contained in world history books, not just protestant books like Foxe, when no clear example is provided. I mean who knows if you mean a set of books like Gibbons Decline of the Roman Empire (which is a most prejudice of text - though some consider it a trustworthy scholarly tome). Nor is it easy to respond to inflammatory comments like referring to ones Church as "a system that did hold people in utter slavery to itself" as you do of the RCC, again with no specific examples of what is meant by this comment.

It is for these same reasons that books like Foxe’s need to be addressed by scholarly historic research way beyond what we can do in an on-line forum.

But I will address this much in an effort to shed some light on your questions.

Did the Church persecute members of the Church in the Inquisition? – Yes. And there is to be some apology for the abuses, but the vast majority of the events involving the RCC were discipline of its own members who submitted to the authority of the Church. But much of the severe treatment occurred at the hands of the secular governments who imposed the laws of the land against sins which were also crimes of their respective lands. Specifically the Spanish Inquisition (which was far and away the worst in this manner) was controlled by the Spanish Government and continued long after the Pope told them to disband it. Even that has been wildly exaggerated by Protestant historian of the same ilk as Foxe.

"....the Spanish Inquisition, in spite of wildly inflated estimates of the numbers of its victims, acted with considerable restraint in inflicting the death penalty, far more restraint than was demonstrated in secular tribunals elsewhere in Europe that dealt with the same kinds of offenses. The best estimate is that around 3000 death sentences were carried out in Spain by Inquisitorial verdict between 1550 and 1800, a far smaller number than that in comparable secular courts." (Inquisition by Edward Peters (The Free Press/Macmillan, 1988 [Univ of CA Press, 1989]), page 87)

James Hitchcock, a professor of history at St. Louis University, summarizes the conclusions of the best of modern Inquisition studies:

(1) The inquisitors tended to be professional legists and bureaucrats who adhered closely to rules and procedures rather than to whatever personal feelings they may have had on the subject.

(2) Those rules and procedures were not in themselves unjust. They required that evidence be presented, allowed the accused to defend themselves, and discarded dubious evidence.

(3) Thus in most cases the verdict was a "just" one in that it seemed to follow from the evidence.

(4) A number of cases were dismissed, or the proceedings terminated at some point, when the inquisitors became convinced that the evidence was not reliable.

(5) Torture was only used in a small minority of cases and was allowed only when there was strong evidence that the defendant was lying. In some instances there is no evidence of the use of torture.

(6) Only a small percentage of those convicted were executed -- at most one or two percent in a given region. Many more were sentenced to life in prison, but this was often commuted after a few years. The most common punishment was some form of public penance.

(7) The dreaded Spanish Inquisition in particular has been grossly exaggerated. It did not persecute millions of people, as is often claimed, but approximately 44,000 between 1540 and 1700, of whom less than two percent were executed.

The above facts have little resemblance to Foxe's version of events.

But none of this relates to or should have been included in Foxe’s book unless he was prepared to cover all martyrs since the beginning of Christianity. Of course the vast majority of those would have been Catholics being persecuted by the Romans or other governments and would not have been inflammatory and would rather have bolstered the reputation of the RCC which was not Foxe’s intent. It is this point which best fits under your questions as to whether Catholics are "more offended by the fact Foxe does not also spell out the innocent Catholic Christians who were tortured for their conscience' faith?" Of course this is a two pronged issue - those Catholics who were persecuted by the early governments (long before anyone heard of a Protestant) and those Catholics persecuted by Protestants or killed in religious wars by them (which is probably what you were referring to in your question). The issue we cannot lose sight of is that Foxe's book fails in both points.

Moving to a more applicable issue from your perspective we could ask - Did the Catholic Church persecute members of the Reformation? Yes, but as you have noted there were abuses on both sides (if one can refer to full blown wars as abuses). Are there apologies needed? Yes, but once again this would need to be reviewed in each cases specifics and how is war and prejudice to be treated in such detail. Are English Protestants prepared to go over the 400 years of suppression and prejudice the Irish have faced at their hands? Is it even possible? Can the Irish Catholics apologize on a case by case basis for those specific instances where they caused harm to innocent people during their war against the British? Is it even possible?

The following is a short summary of the information in the Catholic Encyclopedia which might explain why Catholics do not trust Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (which few people today have actually read – what is read today is a much abridged version)

While at Basle, Foxe was supplied by Grindal (ArchBishop of Cantebury) with reports of the persecution in England and in 1559 he published a large Latin folio of 740 pages which began with Wyclif and ended with Cranmer. After Foxe’s return to England he began to translate this book and to add to it the results of fresh information. The "Acts and Monuments" as it was first titled was finally published in 1563 but came almost immediately to be known as the "Book of Martyrs".

The criticism which the work called forth led to the publication of a "corrected" edition in 1570. Two more (1576 and 1583) came out during his life and five (1596, 1610, 1632, 1641, 1684) within the next hundred years. There have been two modern editions, both unsatisfactory; they are in eight volumes and were published in 1837-41 and 1877. The size of the original may be gathered from the fact that in the edition of 1684 it consists of three folio volumes of 895, 682, and 863 pages respectively (the current version I see most often has as few as 400 pages in pocket paperback form). A copy of the original can be gotten free online as an annotated reproduction of the texts of the 1563, 1570, 1576, and 1583 edition; from The Humanities Research Institute Online Press

Each page in Foxe’s full manuscript has two columns and over eighty lines. The first volume besides introductory matter contains the story of early Christian persecutions, a sketch of medieval church history and an account of the Wyclifite movement in England and on the continent. The second volume deals with the reigns Henry VII and Edward VI and the third with that of Mary. A large number of official documents such as injunctions, articles of accusation, letters, etc., have been included. The book is illustrated throughout by woodcuts, some of them symbolizing the triumph of the Reformation, most of them depicting the sufferings of the martyrs.

The passionate intensity of the style, the vivid and picturesque dialogues made it very popular among Puritan and Low Church families down to the nineteenth century. Even in the fantastically partisan church history of the earlier portion of the book, with its grotesque stories of popes and monks and its motley succession of witnesses to the truth (including the Albigenses, Grosseteste, Dante, and Savonarola) was accepted among simple folk and must have contributed much to anti-Catholic prejudices in England.

When Foxe treats of his own times his work is of greater value as it contains many documents and is but largely based on the reports of eyewitnesses; but he sometimes dishonesty mutilates his documents and is quite untrustworthy in his treatment of evidence. He was criticized in his own day by Catholics such as Harpsfield and Father Parsons and by practically all serious ecclesiastical historians.

Wikipedia points out “Foxe often treated this material casually, and any reader "must be prepared to meet plenty of small errors and inconsistencies." - 2009 Encyclopædia Britannica article by J. F. Mozley

Furthermore, Foxe did not hold to later notions of neutrality or objectivity. He made unambiguous side glosses on his text, such as "Mark the apish pageants of these popelings" and "This answer smelleth of forging and crafty packing."

So far from being an objective scholarly effort, as some would put it forward. We find it is a prejudice text with a clear agenda. Is it any wonder Catholic do not accept it?

Your brother in Christ,