Revising the collective memory of Christendom: the impact of the Magdeburg Centuries in late sixteenth-century England

Abstract: Between 1550 and 1574 the city of Magdeburg played host to a collaborative enterprise that produced a massive, albeit incomplete, fourteen volume ecclesiastical history, often referred to as the Magdeburg Centuries. The creators of this work, the so-called Centuriators – led by Matthias Flacius Illyricus – sought to place the reformation and Christian theology and practice into the context of its medieval past as a means of revising the perceived ‘errors’ of past histories. In so-doing they influenced the collective memory of reformation, not only in Germany but across Europe, and particularly in England.

In this paper I trace the impact of the Centuries across territorial boundaries and between differing religious and political institutions and languages, with a particular focus on England. By looking at the influence of this history on scholars and clergymen such as John Bale, Matthew Parker, and John Foxe I will conclude that there was a semi-united effort across country boundaries to revise and implement a Christian past that was both acceptable and considered ‘true’ to the Protestant faithful. I further argue that without the inspiration and ideas of the Magdeburg Centuries, Parker might never have embarked on his wide-ranging gathering in of the lost monastic manuscript heritage and Foxe might never have enlarged his Acts and Monuments to encompass a universal history of Christendom. Such activities led to and influenced an idea and understanding of the English Reformation that remains largely intact even today, in popular memory.



The aim of this paper is to trace the initial impact in England of the Lutheran ecclesiastical history most commonly called the Magdeburg Centuries. This fourteen-volume history published between 1559 and 1574 in Basel but written in the German town of Magdeburg, sought to demonstrate the historical foundations of Lutheran faith. It did so by using a mass of sources to show the continuity of the Christian faith from Christ to the thirteenth-century, and especially showing that this continuity was not reliant upon the entity known as the Roman Catholic Church.

First, I will provide a summary of what the Magdeburg Centuries are, and then I will look at how they were presented in England and how they were incorporated into an English-specific context as a means of supporting the emergent Elizabethan Church of England.



What is the Magdeburg Centuries?

Whilst Martin Luther had initially rejected the need to consider history as a means of reforming the Church, others who followed him managed to eventually change his mind. However, there was quite a bit of debate about what form that history should take. The Magdeburg Centuries is the result of one approach directed by the Lutheran scholar Matthias Flacius and carried out by a large collaborative group and achieved using a wide-ranging network of scholars, clergymen, and officials. Whilst successful in-of-itself, it was also controversial. For example, upon seeing a copy of the first volume, the French legal humanist and supporter of the project, François Baudouin commented that ‘I see a great heap and mass of things. I fear the material is shapeless’. Baudouin referred to the controversial structure of dividing up the history into 100-year periods (i.e. a century) per volume and then ordering the material for that century by a series of themes.


Such a structure, now somewhat common, was completely new in the sixteenth-century, and many commentators disliked it. The history was also based upon a genre of history-writing with its origins in the fourth century; specifically, ecclesiastical history, in the Eusebian form. Such a history was reliant on the verbatim copying of primary documentation, which easily led to repetition, disharmonious and opposing accounts of the same person or event, and shifting stylistic language. In this context, it is easy to see why Baudouin was disappointed.

Nonetheless, the Centuriators – as the collaborative group of scholars became known – managed to achieve a great feat in producing fourteen volumes of the history. Even if the structure and some of the contents were controversial, and the work too cumbersome in size to be entirely useful as a promoter of true faith, the Centuries did prove very useful and influential in providing a basis for other Protestant scholars to build their own histories. Their actions also encouraged others to make use of old chronicles and documents as a means of supporting the reform movement in religion.

Whilst certainly not alone, this is exactly what happened in England.

Matthew Parker

Once Elizabeth I came to the throne in England, the urgent need arose to support the Queen’s fragile rule by contextualising it and the Protestant religion it sponsored with a suitable history. England had, essentially, become divorced from its past as soon as it had broken away from Rome during the reign of Henry VIII. Elizabeth’s return to that path meant that England needed its own Magdeburg Centuries. The impetus for such a history came from a variety of angles but particularly took form in the actions of Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury and in John Foxe’s ecclesiastical history, the Acts and Monuments.Slide4

I’ll begin with Parker. In early July 1560, a representative of the Centuriators arrived at the Court of Queen Elizabeth. In his hand was a copy of the brand new Fourth Century of the Ecclesiastical History. The Centuriators had dedicated the volume to Elizabeth and in the preface praised her reign as a glorious thing in this war against Antichrist. Furthermore, they hoped that Elizabeth would be enlightened by their discussion of Constantine the Great who hailed from England and had become the first Christian Roman emperor. They compared Elizabeth to Constantine as a saviour of the true faith. It was hoped that, in return for the dedication, provision could be provided of old English manuscripts and books from England which could aid them in developing further editions.

On 14 July, Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary passed the request on to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, who in turn passed it to the ageing historian, John Bale, who now resided at Canterbury. Bale replied within twelve days, supplying several small books and promising larger books if someone would come and collect them. Bale also listed the name and the current location of all manuscripts, not just English, that he could think of at that time. William of Malmesbury, Bale claimed, was in the hands of the executors of John Cheke, while John Perkins a canon of Westminster had a copy of Simeon of Durham. A specific request for information on Matthew Paris’ chronicle was met with an enthusiastic reply that ‘no chronicle paynteth out the byshop of Rome in more lyuely colours’.  In other instances, Bale tied his own concerns directly to Parker.  Bale began the letter by exclaiming that:


From research carried out by Norman Jones, we can conclusively confirm that Parker and Bale worked together to find these books over the next few years but met with only limited success.[1]

On 22 May 1561, Matthias Flacius wrote to Parker promising to send a messenger to England to collect the manuscripts and books which Parker had found.[2]  He also exhorted the Archbishop to ‘make it his business,’ to bring obscure manuscripts to light.

Until his association with the Centuriators, there is no solid evidence to suggest that Parker had any special interest in the past. He was known more as a capable administrator, then an antiquarian or historian. Yet, from July 1560 Parker made a great effort to search out England’s dispersed and endangered manuscript heritage, dedicating members of his household to the task, such as John Joscelyn, his Latin secretary – who prepared several lists to aid the gathering exercise, wrote an old English lexicon, and was most likely Parkers ghost-writer – and Stephen Batman, one of his chaplains – who travelled the country gathering old manuscripts to bring to London. Parker also relied on his patronage network in the clergy and his network of friends and allies.

This was important work. Twenty years on from the dissolution of the monasteries, the fate of monastic manuscripts in England was still uncertain. Parker could save some of these from oblivion and make use of them in support of the Elizabethan State. Some he published, such as the chronicles of Matthew Paris and Thomas Walsingham. Others he included in polemical tracts designed to prove the historical justification for the English Church, such as a fragment of an Old English sermon that he claimed proved that services had once been conducted in the vernacular. Others he lent out to a network of scholars also dedicated to making a similar argument.


John Foxe

Parker’s scholarly activities were therefore inspired by the Centuriators, but more than that historians have now identified Parker as a powerful patron of John Foxe.


At this point in time, Foxe was known only for his two Latin commentaries but had spent the years between 1559 to 1563 writing an expanded English version that drew on a combination of the martyr’s own writings, various official documents, and a multitude of oral reports. This became the first edition of the Acts and Monuments and it included, also, a section tracing the corruption of the Roman Church from the first millennium to their own time as well as a parallel story of resistance by various English kings, holy roman emperors, and so-called heretical groups.

I think it is fair to claim that the first edition is not quite a fully-formed ecclesiastical history, but it is moving in that direction. It is possible – though difficult to prove – that Parker involved himself to ensure that it moved in the direction of becoming England’s answer to the Magdeburg Centuries. It’s also possible that the idea came directly from Foxe who was already familiar with their work. During his time in exile, Foxe helped to see the first volumes of the Centuries through the printing press in Basel. Either way, work on the second edition, guided somewhat by Parker, took the work fully into that direction.

Indeed, the influence of the Magdeburg Centuries on the compilation of the Acts and Monuments should not be understated. It is extremely important. Our tendency to focus on the contemporary portions of the text has often blinded us to how deeply vital that influence is. When compiling the second edition, Foxe became indebted to the Centuriators for his overriding structure of ecclesiastical history. He was also indebted to them for the comparison of Queen Elizabeth to Constantine the Great, which I mentioned earlier, and of which Foxe used to open the Acts and Monuments. He was also indebted to them for the text and argument of almost the entire Roman history that formed the first book of twelve from the second edition onwards.

Despite Foxe providing an array of citations to a variety of printed and manuscript authorities both from England and the continent, the Roman history is almost entirely extracted from various passages and segments from the earlier volumes of the Centuries. Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas Freeman have stated as much in their 2011 study of Foxe’s book, and the commentary on The John Foxe Project outlines several examples where material more likely derived from the Centuriators work than from the original source. Currently, I am building on all of this by comparing the two texts sentence by sentence.

Caution is needed. In 2009, Freeman stressed that whilst Foxe might have relied on the Centuries, this does not preclude him from also checking the original sources whenever he was able. Indeed, by close study of the entire pre-Lollard history and comparison to its probable source materials, I would argue that Foxe repeatedly uses that methodology throughout. Foxe would often check a recent publication produced by a Protestant colleague first for evidence, argument, and references, and then check those references himself, sometimes adding more details and occasionally inserting a more detailed citation to the original text.

Thus, for the Roman history, when describing the contradictions between different authors on who was Pope during the fourth persecution, Foxe cites a variety of authorities but only actually uses the citations and form of words from the second volume of the Centuries.[3]


Especially when listing in short summary those martyrs who had died during a persecution but of whom little information had survived, Foxe tended to translate nearly word-for-word from an entire section of the Centuries.[4] He does this in several places. For instance, during the fourth persecution, the Centuriators wrote an entire section on the martyrs of Lyons. This Foxe copies and translates in its entirety and almost word-for-word. Later, when listing the martyrs caused by Julian, Foxe copies precisely the text of the Centuries, only deviating once by placing the second item at the end. The reason was one of effect. The second item described the persecution of virgin Christian girls at the Heliopolis. The horrific treatment of innocent women that this story told was a much more effective ending to the sequence than that of a martyred scholar.


For the Roman history, Foxe only used the first five volumes and mainly focused his attention on a few of the thematical sections, using the detailed indices and thematic structure to guide him through each volume. Foxe generally begins his account of any one of the ten persecutions with the relevant section on persecution and peace and then selects material largely from the section on ‘leading bishops’. It is this section that appears to be of most interest to Foxe. He generally only deviates to other sections when they have more to offer about a subject that he has already found in brief in either of the other two sections. At those points, the material is usually found in the section on martyrs, discipline and government, or rites and ceremonies. Foxe rarely borrows from the sections on miracles, about the Jews and other non-Christian religions, political changes, councils, heresies, or schisms.


Foxe not only made use of the thematic structure of the Centuries but also the detailed indices at the end of each volume. This can be assumed at various points in the account. For instance, in describing Emperor Hadrian, Foxe relied almost entirely on the narrative provided by the Centuriators in the section on persecution and added a few extra details from the section on martyrs and a small amount from the section on Jews. These portions of text all correspond to the index entry for Hadrian, except for the sections on heresies and miracles which Foxe chose to ignore.



At its heart, the Roman history in the Acts and Monuments is a product of how Eusebius understood the role of his emperor as a saviour from persecution. However, it is not generally Eusebius’ history that Foxe uses, but rather Eusebius and other classical writers as mediated by the Magdeburg Centuries. This is an important distinction, as what Foxe compiles for the ancient Roman empire, and thus for those early martyrs upon whom he later compares to the martyrs of his own day, are not created from Foxe’s own research, but were pre-prepared for him by other Protestant scholars. Whilst the material is selected and reordered by Foxe, the arguments, in general, are those prepared by the Centuriators, not by Foxe himself. In this portion of his work at least Foxe selected, reordered, occasionally inserted extra or contrary information from elsewhere, but generally relied on one source and thus upon the arguments of others.

In summary, then, Foxe took on the mantle of ecclesiastical history in England as a means of furnishing his own country with its own version of the Magdeburg Centuries. The structure of his book was admittedly different in that it was formed around a linear and chronological order, and focused more on the English story within the wider context of Christian history, but it was very much based on the same idea and genre. Although very little of the entire work was derived directly from the Centuriators their ideas are constantly present, and the story of ten persecutions during the first three hundred years of Christianity almost entirely taken from their work.

The Magdeburg Centuries also had a direct impact on Matthew Parker, directing English scholarship back to the question of its past and the complexities of its manuscript heritage.  The transformation of Parker into a ‘great collector’ was therefore propelled by inspiration from the Magdeburg Centuriators.

The influence from there goes further, as the work of Parker and Foxe integrated itself into wider English scholarship and continued to have a significant impact on English history-writing and on England’s theology and religious policy right up until at least the nineteenth century.


[1] Norman L. Jones, ‘Matthew Parker, John Bale, and the Magdeburg Centuriators’, SCJ, 12:3 (1981), pp. 35-49.  G&W, pp. 4-5 agree with Jones and have further shown how this letter fits into the development of Parker’s ‘circle’.

[2] Discussed by Strype, The Life and Acts of Matthew Parker, vol. 4, pp. 110-111 and published in his appendix, pp. 31-2.

[3] Compare A&M, 1570, bk. 1, p. 75 with Cent I.II cols 626-8.

[4] Cent II cols 24-31.