- The English Martyr from Reformation to Revolution by Alice Dailey
When Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador was saying Mass on March 24, 1980, witnesses say he flinched as he saw a gunman at the door of the church, just before a single, high-velocity bullet went cleanly through his chasuble and expanded inside his chest. When Jan Graffius came to examine his clothing under a [End Page 611] microscope, she found salt crystals, “the residue of a sudden and profuse sweat.” There was a moment of intense fear as the archbishop realized what was about to happen; yet he stayed at the altar. In 1996, Christian de Chergé and his fellow Cistercians decided to stay in their monastery at Tibhirine, Algeria. They were seized on the night of March 26 and beheaded on May 21. De Chergé left a testament that ends with forgiveness of the man who might murder him and the hope that, God willing, they would meet “like happy thieves” in paradise. Both Romero and the monks of Tibhirine bore witness to their faith before anyone told their story.
It is necessary to say this, because the starting point of Alice Dailey’s book is that “the martyr is a retrospectively constructed figure created in and through literature” (p. 3); her interest is in the “dialogue between history and literary form” (p.2). Dailey challenges the “limitations of historicist readings of martyrology” (p. 5). Brad Gregory, through “inattention” to literary form, “reads martyrology as a transparent record of early modern Christian belief” (p. 5), whereas “genre structures the history that the genre in turn narrativises, and vice versa” (p. 5). Dailey surveys martyrdom across the confessional divide from the medieval models in the Golden Legend and John Foxe’s great Actes and Monuments (London, 1563) to St. Edmund Campion and King Charles I. Because martyrs rehearse a “paradigmatic story” (p.3), Acts and Monuments best fits her thesis. She is not the first to be gripped by the physical detail or convinced that Foxe allows “the hideous facts to speak for themselves” (p. 67).
When she comes to the Catholic martyrs, she sees their deaths as the “fractured performance of conflicting scripts” (p. 114); Campion is forced into “a delicate medial space” (p. 107) between competing discourses of treason and martyrdom, having “failed in one of the necessary acts of Christian martyrdom, the confession of the tenets of the faith” (p. 108). This is despite the fact that, just before the cart was pulled away beneath his feet, Campion asked those Catholics present to join in reciting, “with as much fervour as they could,” theSymbolum Apostolorum: one of the oldest expressions of faith in the Church. Campion, at the moment of “his agony,” transformed the crowd around the scaffold into a community of faith. When Lord Charles Howard returned to the Court, he told Queen Elizabeth I that he thought the three papists “had died for no fault.” The queen, apparently stunned, said, “Is that so? Well, let those who are responsible look to it.” Howard was unconvinced by the treason narrative, and the queen disowned it, but Dailey sees Campion as “compromised” (p. 114) by his prayer for the queen. Campion revealed at his trial that he had told the queen that he accepted her authority and that the deposition of monarchs was not part of the potestas ordinata of the pope; it was certainly not an article of faith.
Those who look at the early-modern period with postmodern detachment will like this book; others will find the idea that martyrdom is a literary genre, created posthumously, profoundly surprising. The past may be “a foreign country,” but these men and women sweated with fear, stood their ground, and bore witness with their blood, long before anyone constructed the narrative. Henry Walpole wrote his [End Page 612] fine poem, “Why doe I use my paper...