- Martyrdom and Literature in Early Modern England
Martyrdom accounts are intrinsically sensational, which has led to revived interest in them as scholars have become fascinated by the relationship of literature and what Anglo-American (residually Puritan) culture calls "the body." A century ago, Catholic apologist-historians gathered and discussed narratives of Early Modern English Catholic martyrs to assert dramatically the importance of a persistent Catholic culture repressed in Whig historiography and to identify Catholicism as a source of resistance to the dominant culture. On the other hand, the contemporary revived interest in the John Foxe's Book of Martyrs (Actes and Monuments), a work that had enormous and formative cultural impact in early modern England, has helped to put the topic of martyrdom back at the center of historical and literary attention of early modern specialists. Recent work, such as Brad Gregory's Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (1999), which takes a comparative approach to Catholic and Protestant martyrologies, and Peter Lake's and Michael Questier's essay on "Agency and Appropriation at the Foot of the Gallows: Catholics (and Puritans) Confront (and Constitute) the English State" (incorporated in The Antichrist's Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists & Players in Post-Reformation England ) have analyzed the interesting cultural forces at play in situations of martyrdom and martyrological discourse. Like Gregory, Susannah Brietz Monta takes a comparative approach to the topic and, like Lake and Questier, she considers issues of representation, political negotiation, and cross-confessional influences and ambiguities in martyrdom accounts and in the literary works influenced by them.
The strongest argument (convincingly) made in Monta's book is that the conventions employed in Protestant and Catholic martyrdom discourse do not greatly differ. Although there were competing martyrologies that were actually read cross-confessionally and had different polemical and theological agendas implicit in them, they shared a basic set of conventions for representing those who were portrayed as dying for and bearing witness to their faith. In the three lucid and informative chapters of part 1 of this study, Monta analyzes the questions of representation and interpretation involved in the production and reception of both Catholic and Protestant martyrdom accounts, their uses to confirm religious truth, and their presentations of marvelous or miraculous [End Page 380] spectacles. Although Protestant depictions of providential marvels differ somewhat from Catholic emphasis on the miraculous, and Protestants treasured the printed texts that contained the instructive accounts of the martyrs while Catholics celebrated and used the physical relics of their martyrs, Monta stresses the similarities between the two bodies of writing.
In the four chapters of part 2 of the study,Monta cannily sets Protestant and Catholic literary texts against one another both to distinguish their confessional characteristics, but also to explore the subtle, sometime ambiguous, ways martyrological literature impacted literary discourse. Thus, chapter four contrasts the first book of Spenser's The Faerie Queene with its unusual handling of the St. George legend with Anthony Copley's poetic rejoinder, A Fig for Fortune. While, Monta argues, Spenser uses the emphasis on suffering to "reform"the St. George legend and to "synchronize . . . [it] with Protestant apocalyptics" (p. 91), Copley takes issue with the Protestant interpretation of Revelation and portrays patient Catholic suffering of persecution as a prelude to an "anticipated apocalyptic triumphalism" (p. 103), meanwhile making an implicit plea for toleration.
In the fifth chapter, Monta pairs Robert Southwell, S.J., with the lapsed Catholic author, John Donne, not only contrasting the former's idealization of suffering in the Epistle of Comfort and the latter's argument that contemporary Catholic martyrdoms are acts of suicide, but also examining the devotional poetry of each to discover some of the reasons why religious verse had a renaissance in late Elizabethan and early Stuart England. She suggests that the popularity of Southwell's poetry was rooted in its use of the themes of martyrological writing. This may be the case, but there is a problem here, and elsewhere in the study, having to do with the line one...