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  • Martyrdom and Literature in Early Modern England
  • Sarah Covington
Susannah Brietz Monta . Martyrdom and Literature in Early Modern England. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. viii + 245 pp. index. illus. $75. ISBN: 0–521–84498–3.

It is not surprising that the recent embrace of religion as a motivating historical impulse would lead to a resurgent interest in the phenomenon of martyrdom, particularly as it relates to the religiously-fraught early modern period. But martyrdom cannot be easily separated, if at all, from martyrologies, or the literature that sought to frame the lives and deaths of men and women within particular historical (and transhistorical) narrative bounds. Brad Gregory's seminal work on cross-confessional martyrdom was in many respects a study in martyrologies, while historians such as Susan Wabuda and Tom Freeman have also crossed interdisciplinary lines to explore the manner in which martyrdom was shaped textually and editorially within the context of larger print culture. But it has taken scholars such as John N. King to apply their particular literary perspectives to examining such texts with a closer lens, and within the context of a larger literary canon; and now, with Susannah Monta's Martyrdom and Literature in Early Modern England, another important work has been added to this oeuvre.

Martyr-historiography is fortunate to have such as scholar as Monta, who reads texts closely, insightfully, and sometimes surprisingly, and reveals new meanings in them with skill and eloquence. Arguing that martyrologies must be examined against one another, despite the competing Protestant or Catholic confessions they represent, Monta seeks to examine such texts on their own relational terms as well as uncover the ways in which those texts engaged with and resonated through the later writings of Spencer, Donne, Stapleton, and others. Contrary to being simple polemical tracts, the works of John Foxe or Robert Persons "helped to produce, not merely to record, religious divisions" (3), while on a literary level, Monta writes, martyrologists, in their intense awareness of the interlap between their claims and others "foster[ed] particular methods of reading and interpretation" (5) in order to guide their audience to the proper understanding necessary to salvation.

Among the highlights of Monta's work is her discussion, in part 1, of the manner in which martyrological texts such as Foxe's Acts and Monuments and Catholic recusant writings share a common rhetoric of conscience, comfort, and certainty while also "weaving" such vocabularies and conventions "into the fabric of theological specificities and controversial exigencies" (30). Intensely aware that the definition of martyrdom is a potentially indeterminate and contestable one, such writers seek to guide the reader into a kind of "godly interpretive community" (39, 45) that will be able to claim the true martyr and be strengthened in the faith for which that martyr died. The occurrence of miracles or marvels in martyrological narratives — which was evident in Protestant as well as Catholic texts (though, interestingly, less vehement than one might assume in later Catholic texts) — further spurred the necessity of proper interpretation; thus did Foxe, in his use of thunderclaps and other miracles, acknowledge the "persuasive force" (65) of the wondrous as well as its vexing interpretive potentialities. [End Page 269]

The second half of Monta's study is devoted to an examination of the manner in which other genres and discourses engage and argue with martyrologies, particularly as they touch upon subjects such as suffering, election, merit, and the apocalypse. The reworking of the Saint George legend in The Faerie Queene, for example, reflects a Protestant martyrological influence in Spencer's "drive to reread the persecuted saints of the past so as to construct a historical narrative of a pure, continuous faith and to realize that faith more perfectly in the present" (83); at the same time, Spenser went beyond Foxe by presenting a history fuller and more vexed by "competing saintly models," including, in Redcrosse, the hero himself. Spencer's use of the vocabulary of Revelation, on the other hand, would be challenged by such writers as Anthony Copley, whose critical commentary on Spencer, A Fig for Fortune, is lengthily examined for its competing claims of interpretive authority.

Subsequent chapters are similarly...


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