Today is the 450th anniversary of the publication of John Foxes’ Acts and Monuments, better known as ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. Foxe, born 1516/17, went to Oxford, then moved to London in 1547 where he translated a sermon by Martin Luther, as well as other works. By 1554 under Mary I, he lived in exile on the Continent while writing Latin martyrologies. He returned to England in 1559 after the death of Mary I and continued to write pro-Protestant and pro-English Reformation works, culminating in the 20 March 1563 publication of the first edition of Acts and Monument, a folio volume of 1800 pages. (Thomas S. Freeman, ‘Foxe, John (1516/17–1587)’)
The book took on a life of its own after Foxe’s death: ‘The malleability of the Book of Martyrs is apparent in the many different ways that publicists adapted it in favor of radically different religio-political arguments’. (King, p. 314) For example, the text could be used as a weapon against Catholicism through selective editing of the text. Its reach was far and wide, as it travelled to the American British colonies, perhaps with William Bradford, John Cotton, Roger Williams or Richard Mather, all of whom had read the book. (p. 315) Interestingly, the various editions of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs ‘catered to readers who included both supporters of the church establishment and dissenters, as well as royalists and republicans’. (pp. 317-318)
Senate House Library has a number of versions in Special Collections, from a 1576 third edition, a 1583 fourth edition with additions such as ‘Discourse of the Bloody Massacre In France’, to a 1632 version, a 1741 version and an 1811 version, each with textual changes. You can learn more from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments Online from the University of Sheffield and the Humanities Research Institute. There are a number of books on Foxe’s Acts and Monuments in Senate House Library, as well.
Acts and Monuments was a hugely important book in its time. However, being London town mice, can’t we be touched by another work by Foxe, published the same year? The Black Death flared up in London in 1563 and John Foxe responded by writing a book to comfort the dying and ask the City’s elite for aid. To London’s elite, Foxe wrote ‘And as you know the grace of God in Christ his sonne to be greate and comfortable, so now labour to applye the same’. (p. 4) To the afflicted, he wrote ‘And thys bethered that I have layd for putting of the feare of death may serve in like force to the putting away of the peace of livne. For he, which hath delivered us from the one, hath also delivered us from the other. So that one pryce payeth for both’. (p. 11) You can read the entire piece, A brief exhortation fruitfull and meete to be read, to this heauy tyme of Gods visitation in London, to suche as be sicke, where the ministers do lacke, or otherwise cannot be present to comfort them, on Early English Books Online.
(And the Plague is back in the news with the discovery of a mid-14th-century burial ground!)