Susannah Brietz Monta. Martyrdom and Literature in Early Modern England. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. vii+245pp. ISBN: 0 521 84498 3.

Jonathan Wright
Hartlepool, England

Jonathan Wright. "Review of Susannah Brietz Monta, Martyrdom and Literature in Early Modern England."Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 16.1-4 <URL:>.

  1. As Susannah Brietz Monta observes, "persecution is not an unproblematic marker of the true Church in an era in which both Protestants and Catholics suffered." (37) The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a furious contest between those in both Churches trying to prove that their martyrs were authentic while those who were dying for heretical causes were pseudo-martyrs inspired by the devil or, at the very least, by their own vanity and self-delusion. Martyrdom, as Monta ably reveals, offered church leaders and theologians an opportunity to excoriate their confessional foes, to boost the morale of their own congregations, and to hammer out an orthodox vision of what the true Church looked like. Martyrologies, in other words, played a pivotal role in creating distinct religious identities in the early-modern period. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Protestant and Catholic martyrological traditions have tended to be studied independently. Foxe's Acts and Monuments, for instance, is most often analysed for the formative role it played in the development of a non-conformist literary tradition. By perpetuating such narrow analyses, Monta avers, we miss a host of interpretative opportunities.

  2. Her book aims to highlight not just the differences between Catholic and Reformed martyrologies, but also those areas - shared "rhetoric, conventions and assumptions" (2), for instance - where they overlapped. Both Catholic and Protestant writers adopted sophisticated approaches to the arrangement and composition of their texts, striving to make their readers approach and interpret those texts in specific ways. In this work of persuasion the same recurrent themes were deployed time and again: including, by Monta's account, the notion that it was the cause, not the death, that made the martyr (the non poena sed causa principle that had been operative since the early days of the Church); the providential retribution of persecutors; the providential saving of future martyrs and true confessors; the occurrence of wonders and marvels in martyrs' lives (which was not, as Monta points out, exclusive to Catholic martyrologies); and the "cross-confessional elevation of a martyr's conscience." (6) While Catholics and Protestants were manifestly trying to demonstrate that theirs was the only reliable version of Reformation history, their shared and often imitative endeavours helped to create something very close to a common martyrological genre.

  3. Out of this, Monta continues, "cross-confessional reading habits" (3) emerged and these, she opines, had a "more pervasive influence on English literature and religious culture than is usually acknowledged." (1) The remainder of her book consists of a series of case studies which expose how the intermingled Catholic and Protestant martyrological traditions influenced a variety of Tudor and Stuart literary luminaries. Thus, Book I of Spenser's Faerie Queene and Anthony Copley's A Fig for Fortune are paired to show how martyrological ideas influenced early modern interpretations of Revelation's allegory. Next, Monta traces how the poetry and prose of John Donne and Robert Southwell were shaped by the martyrological trope of suffering providing assurance of salvation, and how the association of martyrdom and conscience informed The Book of Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare's Henry VIII. A final section offers an extended analysis of the role played by the cross-confessional martyrological tradition in Dekker and Massinger's The Virgin Martyr of 1620.

  4. There is much to admire here, not least Monta's insistence that we should take seriously the early-modern conviction that martyrs were capable of embodying a set of religious principles: we should not disparage the "role of the individual subject in ascertaining and testifying to religious truth." "My approach to martyrological controversies," she declares, "corrects a tendency in some forms of literary scholarship to gloss passionate commitment to religious belief systems as the effect of political or ideological manipulation." "It is not helpful to impose the effects of twenty-first century scepticism on another culture with quite different methods of reading the world." (4). Wise words indeed. This book is a valuable contribution to the burgeoning study of early-modern martyrdom, and its deft combination of literary interpretation and informed historical analysis is highly commendable.

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