In a previous post I mentioned the 2011 publication by Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas S. Freeman. I’ve been reading and re-reading some elements of this book recently. I’m largely checking what they have to say against my 2009 thesis. Turning that into a book – or at least parts of it – requires that I make sure that I’m not saying anything that is out of date, has since been challenged, or at the very least has not become more complex in the meantime. This book is interesting for many reasons, but in part because of the purpose of its production as claimed by its authors. Many assumptions and misunderstandings surround John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, today just as much as two hundred years ago when its words were still heavily debated in religious and political circles.
It is for this reason that Evenden and Freeman wrote Religion and the Book in Early Modern England. In its compilation they were operating under the methodological assumption that too many myths and half-truths had entered into scholarly discussion of Foxe. There was a need to go back to the sources and compare their findings with established ‘facts’ about the Acts and Monuments. I think the authors have gone some-way in rectifying these inaccuracies, and not before time.
Such an approach is common in History – every now and then it needs a fresh re-examination and a relook at the historiography that has built up around a given subject. It is amazing how easy errors and myths creep into and re-occur in historiographical studies. It is a feature of History writing that each generation finds new truths and new interests related in part to the evolving and amassed historiographical traditions and content and in part due to the pressures of their own day.
It is perhaps ironic then, that Foxe needed such assessment, and close examination. The Acts and Monuments is, in itself, just the same thing: an attempt to look back at the sources and compare them to the accepted tradition of his own day.
The established historiography of the sixteenth century was, by definition, a Roman Catholic one. No one else had existed in a position of power and intellectual capability other than heretical groups that, by the definition of that self-same church, were to be considered unusable and removable in terms of their writings. The accepted story claimed categorically that Christianity was brought to England by St Augustine in the sixth century and had been maintained ever since. It was up to Protestant writers, such as Foxe, to re-examine the sources as a means to prove otherwise.
Thomas Stapleton, a Roman Catholic scholar, published his own edition of Bede’s ecclesiastical history, showing it as a powerful example of the difficulties that the Protestant writers would need to overcome. The claim that the chronicle traditions were therefore faulty, inaccurate, even falsified was therefore a response by Protestants to the awkward telling of accepted history.
Foxe, in particular, provided a detailed counterpoint to Catholic arguments based upon a massive documental basis. As most recently stressed by Evenden and Freeman, it was no longer enough to simply publish a text such as Bede or cite them as proof, Roman Catholics needed to prove that the manuscript chronicles themselves were not falsified. This was no easy task when the manuscript copies that they would need to carry out such a battle were in general held in Protestant hands. Matthew Parker (Archbishop of Canterbury) and Sir William Cecil (Chief Secretary) in particular collected, safeguarded, and choose who would see, many of the surviving English manuscripts.
Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas S. Freeman, Religion and the Book in Early Modern England: The Making of Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).