Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: Salvation at Stake

Unlike Anne Dillon's study, The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, reviewed here by Anne Barbeau Gardiner, Brad S. Gregory's Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe takes the martyrs of the Reformation period seriously and without what he calls "the hermeneutic of suspicion", which undercuts the reality of the martyr's devotion and belief. He dedicates the first chapter, "A Complex of Martyrs" to explaining why and how he has done so, at one point stating:

My depiction of sixteenth-century Christians is intended to be one in which they would have recognized themselves, not puzzled over modern or postmodern configurations of who they were. I have sought to reconstruct, not deconstruct, their commitments and experiences as far as the evidence permits. This holds not only for the martyrs, but also for fellow believers who encouraged them, authorities who tried to dissuage them, and those who responded to their deaths both positively and negatively. Several objectives can be achieved by telling a story of embattled convictions in action not from an external perspective based on explanatory theory, but rather through an exploration of the relevant traditions in turn, one that is sensitive to their emphases, nuances, and changes over time.

I think Gregory achieved his goals: he balances the three groups of martyrs (Protestant, Anabaptist, and Catholic) well; acknowledges their different understanding of the martyrs' impact on their communities; notes the reluctance of the officials (except for Richard Topcliffe, torturer and executioner extraordinaire) to condemn the accused, as they hoped for conversion and public recantation; and the crucial distinctions each group made between their martyrs and the others condemned for false religion.

Of course, I was most interested in the chapter on the Catholic martyrs, in which Gregory explores the rather muted reaction to St. Thomas More's and St. John Fisher's martyrdoms (Francois I of France planned some demonstration of his disapproval but then deferred to Emperor Charles V since it was his Aunt Catherine who was treated so badly by Henry VIII). He refers to the Catholic martyrs under Henry VIII as "defensive" martyrs who died to protect the unity of the Church under the Vicar of Christ.

While describing those whom I call the Recusant Martyrs he notes how the "emphasis on the glory of martyrdom spurred the zeal to die for Christ" and yet "how the virtue of humility bridled the same desire." This certainly reminded me of St. Robert Southwell, who called himself a mere "worm" while acknowledging that he was in his thirty-third year, the same age as Jesus when He suffered and died. Gregory notes a pattern of the martyrs imitating Christ through their suffering and death, while they became the pattern for others (like St. Henry Walpole and St. Philip Howard following St. Edmund Campion to the Church and to martyrdom). Indeed, William Allen and others emphasized the potential for conversions when the stories of the martyrs were told and offered as examples of this intense and complete imitation of Christ.

Gregory notes that 203 editions of 50 works recounting the suffering and execution of the English Catholic martyrs were published between 1580 and 1640--and 95 of those editions appeared in the 1580's alone. These books, illustrations of the executions at Tyburn Tree were disseminated to the Catholic world, where the majority of Catholics had no opportunity for such sacrifice, thus spurring the interest in relics, praying to the martyrs as saints for intercession for miracles, and, generally, to devotion to the martyrs as saints, even though no cause for canonization was started until the mid seventeenth century and later.

Book description from Harvard University Press:

Thousands of men and women were executed for incompatible religious views in sixteenth-century Europe. The meaning and significance of those deaths are studied here comparatively for the first time, providing a compelling argument for the importance of martyrdom as both a window onto religious sensibilities and a crucial component in the formation of divergent Christian traditions and identities.

Gregory explores Protestant, Catholic, and Anabaptist martyrs in a sustained fashion, addressing the similarities and differences in their self-understanding. He traces the processes and impact of their memorialization by co-believers, and he reconstructs the arguments of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities responsible for their deaths. In addition, he assesses the controversy over the meaning of executions for competing views of Christian truth, and the intractable dispute over the distinction between true and false martyrs. He employs a wide range of sources, including pamphlets, martyrologies, theological and devotional treatises, sermons, songs, woodcuts and engravings, correspondence, and legal records. Reconstructing religious motivation, conviction, and behavior in early modern Europe, Gregory shows us the shifting perspectives of authorities willing to kill, martyrs willing to die, martyrologists eager to memorialize, and controversialists keen to dispute.

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1. A Complex of Martyrs
On Understanding Early Modern Christianity
The Nature of the Martyrological Sources
The Course of Exposition

Chapter 2. The Late Medieval Inheritance
The Absence and Presence of Martyrs in the Late Middle Ages
Suffering Patiently, Dying Well, and the Passion of Christ
Christian Martyrs outside the Church in the Late Middle Ages

Chapter 3. The Willingness to Kill
Prosecuting Religious Criminals
The Duty of Intolerance
The Trajectory of Argumentation
Laws, Institutions, and the Contingencies of Practice

Chapter 4. The Willingness to Die
The Poverty of Theory
Foundations: Faith and Scripture
Contemporary Communities: Social Support and Sustenance
Historical Communities: Pedigrees of the Persecuted
Prison Activities: Practicing the Beliefs
The Art of Dying Well

Chapter 5. Witnesses for the Gospel: Protestants and Martyrdom
The Early Evangelical Martyrs and Emergent Protestant Identity
Avoiding Idolatry, Following Christ: Convictions to Die For
The Midcentury Martyrologies
The Protestant Martyrologies in National Contexts

Chapter 6. Nachfolge Christi: Anabaptists and Martyrdom
Müntzer to Münster: Forging an Anabaptist
Martyrological Mentality
Anabaptist Martyrs in the Low Countries
The Transformation of the Dutch Mennonite Martyrological Tradition

Chapter 7. The New Saints: Roman Catholics and Martyrdom
Defensive Martyrdom: The Henrician Catholics
The Passion for Passion in Post-Tridentine Catholicism
The Role of the Martyrs in Catholic Devotional Life

Chapter 8. The Conflict of Interpretations
The Weaknesses of Nondoctrinal Criteria
"Not the Punishment, but the Cause, Makes a Martyr"
Implications and Conclusions

Conclusion: A Shared and Shattered Worldview


Please note that I purchased this book.

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