Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by James Miller Dodds
John Foxe (1516–1587)
 
[Foxe was born at Boston in 1516, and educated at Oxford, where he became Fellow of Magdalen. He had a delicate conscience on the subject of ceremonies, and resigned his fellowship in 1545. In 1547 he married. From 1548 to 1553 he was tutor to the children of the Earl of Surrey. In 1553 he lost his tutorship, and, holding by this time pronounced Protestant opinions, he retired to the Continent, and in 1554 had printed, at Strasburg, a Latin sketch on the lines of his future Acts and Monuments, but ending with the year 1500. After a short stay at Frankfort he settled at Basle as corrector of the press for the printer Oporinus, who published in 1559 the first edition, in Latin, of the Book of Martyrs. Foxe returned to England in 1559, and in 1563 the work, with many additions, was issued by John Day in English. Further editions, all in folio, were issued in 1570, 1576, 1583, 1596, 1610, 1632, 1641, and 1684. He died in 1587.]  1
 
AFTER the Bible itself, no work so profoundly influenced early Protestant sentiment in England as the Book of Martyrs. Even in our own time it is still a living force: some of its descriptions are burned into the memories of us all, and its spirit is perpetuated in the Pilgrim’s Progress and in other religious classics, as well as in the tradition of countless households. When it first appeared, in 1563, the religious question was paramount. An infant church, torn with the pang of recent separation, sought to justify its departure from the bosom of Roman Christendom. In Foxe it found a worthy apologist, who saw, and made it see, in its slaughtered saints, a glorious proof of its apostolic birth. His book is throughout an exalted commentary on the text, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” From beginning to end it is inspired by the great conception, which its pages first made part of the national consciousness, that faith is made perfect by suffering without distinction of age or country. “If comparison be to be made between saint and saint, martyr and martyr, with whom might I better match this blessed martyr, John Hooper, than with Polycarp, the ancient Bishop of Smyrna? For as both agreed together in one kind of punishment, being both put to the fire, so which of them showed more patience and constancy in the time of their suffering it is hard to be said…. In teaching alike diligent both, in zeal fervent, in life unspotted, in manners and conversation inculpable: bishops and also martyrs both.” Such words as these were at once balm for consolation and a battle cry in conflict. The church and the nation felt themselves raised to the traditional level; and we can understand how it was no mere accident that altered the title which Foxe gave to his work—The Acts and Monuments of these Latter and Perilous Days touching Matters of the Church—to its popular designation, The Book of Martyrs, and gave it a desk side by side with the Bible in all cathedrals and in many parish churches.  2
  But the book is far more than a bare record of persecution. It is an arsenal of controversy, and a storehouse of romance, as well as a source of edification. Protestantism is traced to its origins in England, Bohemia, and Germany, and the corruptions which had crept into the Church of Rome are exposed at enormous length and with unsparing denunciation. The same method is continued in treating of the English Reformation, and Foxe thus avoids an error which makes so many Lives of the Saints mere catalogues of painful perfections. He plunges, indeed, into the opposite extreme. He accumulates details like Defoe; he is as garrulous as Dogberry. All is grist that comes to his mill. Citations, rejoinders, lengthy dialogues, eye-witnesses’ narratives, judgments and sentences—whole piles of documents (with pithy commentaries on each) are heaped one upon the other till we almost hear the parchments crackling. “I grant,” he says, “that in a laboured story containing such infinite variety of matter as this doth, much more time would be required; but such time as I had, that I did bestow, if not so laboriously as others could, yet as diligently as I might…. I grant and confess my fault; such is my vice, I cannot sit all the day fining and mincing my letters, and combing my head and smoothing myself at the glass of Cicero.” The painting is often rough; we can see the boards through rents in the canvas. But the scenes are presented with all the vividness of a dramatic representation: inquisitors, martyrs, and spectators are instinct with life and movement, and we involuntarily remember that Foxe lived among the precursors of Shakespeare. The effect of the whole is to leave upon the reader a strong impression of reality, which, it must be added, does not in every case stand the test of impartial inquiry—for Foxe sometimes allowed policy or prejudice to prevail over truth. He has a keen sense of the interesting, and often goes out of his way to introduce an amusing episode or to quote a homely trait of character. He is a born story-teller. His command of pathos is great, well nigh intolerable. He describes the most horrible barbarities with a matter-of-fact calmness than which nothing could be better calculated to stir the deepest springs of indignation. It is easy to believe, with the historian of the English Puritans, that “No book ever gave such a mortal wound to Popery as this.”  3
 
 
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