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13.09.11, Dailey, The English Martyr from Reformation to Revolution

13.09.11, Dailey, The English Martyr from Reformation to Revolution

"Martyrdom is not a death but a story that gets written about a death" (2), asserts Alice Dailey. She builds upon this fundamental premise an analysis of martyr accounts from the Middle Ages through the Interregnum quite different from the work of historians like Brad S. Gregory and even other literary critics such as Susannah Brietz Monta. By emphasizing the significance of the formal qualities that characterize English Christian martyr narratives, Dailey insightfully demonstrates how attitudes towards martyrdom changed over time, in particular suggesting that medieval hagiographic traditions never entirely disappeared, that the Elizabethan government's labeling of Catholic priests as traitors was polemically powerful, and that John Milton had good reasons to be outraged by representations of the executed Charles I as a Christian martyr.

The first two chapters establish what Dailey sees as the standard elements of martyr narratives. Chapter one, "Medieval Models," shows that the thirteenth-century hagiography The Golden Legend and later cycle plays established different but parallel models of martyrdom. The first text features Christians who actively embrace martyrdom by directly challenging state authority, loudly proclaiming their beliefs, and suffering spectacularly (but often without feeling pain) on their way to their deaths. In contrast, crucifixion plays and Croxton's Play of the Sacrament representation Jesus, the model for all Christian martyrs, as a seemingly passive figure who experiences an almost inconceivable amount of physical and emotional anguish. (Medieval drama specialists will grumble at Dailey's labeling of the N-Town and Wakefield plays as cycles, but this error doesn't affect her observations about the plays that depict the Passion, and it is admirable that she compares so many different texts.) What links these two traditions, however, is that their accounts of suffering and death similarly emphasize transcendence. Golden Legend martyrs surpass bodily limits while the crucified Christ always existed in a context that would see him miraculously resurrected. Both types of document rely on dramatic irony--assuming that readers or spectators know much more than the torturers about the role of a divine plan in their actions--and both established paradigms of Christian martyrdom.

The English Protestants who went to the stake during the reign of Mary Tudor seem aware of earlier models as they craft public performances of suffering and steadfastness in imitation of earlier saints and martyrs, at least according to descriptions of the Marian persecution of true Christians offered by Foxe's Acts and Monuments. Indeed, central to Dailey's argument is the ample evidence of how Foxe relied on earlier conventions when shaping his massive martyrology. Her chapter two, "New Actors in an Old Drama," makes clear that Foxe's tales and images of astounding physical steadfastness would have been familiar to any readers versed in medieval saints' lives. But Dailey also establishes how Foxe's martyrs differ from their predecessors, showing that he presents these so that their most remarkable actions could be interpreted as "miraculous" only in being exceptional, not in breaking the laws of nature. Foxe's work thus established a paradigm of English Protestant martyrology as powerful as what had preceded it in the medieval Catholic tradition.

The heart of Dailey's book reveals how these conventions fail as writers attempted to venerate Catholics who were executed not for heresy or papism but as traitors. Chapter 3, "Secular Law and Catholic Dissidence," establishes the point that it is a significant problem when the individual who suffers and dies is executed for breaking a recognized state law by considering the numerous texts written in response to the trial and execution of the English Jesuit Edmund Campion. Whereas in a martyrology an individual's "persecution itself witnesses to the truth of the victim's cause" (106), in a treason trial and execution the same experience of suffering signifies the justice of the persecutor's perspective. From Thomas Alfield's hagiographic A true report of the death & martyrdome of M. Campion Jesuite and preiste (1582) to William Cecil's legalistic The Execution of Justice in England (1583), a range of treatises argued over whether the same experiences signaled martyrdom or criminality to the point where the discourse of martyrdom could no longer be invoked unproblematically.

Chapter 4 demonstrates how those who wrote about the deaths of the Catholic priest Edmund Gennines and the priest-harboring laywoman Margaret Clitherow attempted to negotiate these choppy interpretative waters by offering accounts of miraculous events in the former case and eschewing all traces of individual agency and supernatural occurrence in the latter. Chapter 5 then considers texts surrounding the Gunpowder Plot, including not just descriptions of the willing assassins of the king as grievous traitors and of their confessor Henry Garnet as an innocent martyr but also related documents about equivocation. Dailey explains that there emerged an unbridgeable gap between declarations of any Catholic sufferer's innocence and the perception that he or she might be a secret, equivocating traitor that made it impossible to situate these individuals in narratives that would make all readers recognize them as martyrs. She thus establishes that the labeling of Catholic priests and their supporters as traitors in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was not just an outgrowth of a debate about religious truth but actually the foundation of a crisis of martyrological narrative conventions even the most devout Catholic writer could not overcome.

In her final chapter, Dailey shows that King Charles I and his devoted mourners managed to come up with a solution of sorts to this set of representational problems in Eikon Basilike. By suggesting that his individual conscience was the only test of the king's Christian piety and true devotion to his people's well-being, and thus of whether he should be considered a martyr, Dailey indicates, this tract removes from the martyrological account evidence that could be evaluated, much less verified, by anyone other than God himself. Milton's response Eikonklastes responds in outrage to this representation of Charles by refusing accounts of the king as having any wholly interior qualities, instead consistently linking his purported emotionality, devotion to his queen, and even his religious faith to matters that affect the state, ranging from perceived privileging of court favorites to documented tolerance for Catholics. Dailey explicates the two texts as permanently linked examples of what martyrdom had become, always contested ground over a truth all sides admitted could not be resolved to everyone's satisfaction through objective means.

It is with this set of ideas in mind that Dailey turns in her "Postscript" to the recent case of Father Mychal Judge, a priest who died while working as a chaplain for the New York City Fire Department when the World Trade Center fell on 11 September 2001 and who has since been claimed as a martyr by the Orthodox Catholic Church of America. Since Judge does not seem to have died specifically for his beliefs but rather because he was living out his faith in ways that others admire, Dailey sees him as an example of what has happened to the tradition of martyrdom in the modern world. Rather than describing a figure whose external manifestation of transcendent religious truth can be publicly perceived and understood, "martyr" serves as a label affixed to a particular individual because of generally imperceptible internal qualities. Dailey links this shift to the move from a sense of the religious that "locates the sacred outside the self--in church doctrine, biblical paradigms, and patristic models--toward a conscientious discourse that sacralizes the interior dictates of a pious conscience" (249). This is as clear an account of the difference between medieval and modern religious experience as one could hope for, so those invested in questions of whether modernism is inevitably linked to secularism will want to take this argument seriously.

That is not to say the long chronological scope of this valuable study, bolstered by the fact that the author turns her attention to both well-known and relatively under-studied texts, comprises yet another story about the rise of modernity. Dailey rightly challenges the idea that the development of martyrological discourses from the Middle Ages to the present can be described with a narrative that tells of "progress from antiquated toward enlightened habits of thought" (250). Her selection of case studies nevertheless risks imposing a different but no less problematic teleological story, a tale that sees medieval texts as more transparent--or at least as less deliberately crafted--and later accounts as more self-consciously aestheticized. The historical formalism at the center of this project convincingly argues that the aesthetic dimensions of a text are not ahistorical but rather that narrative structures and conventional tropes of martyrology are "constitutive" of how individual martyrs behaved and how witnesses to their deaths understood their actions. Her central claim that martyrology is a literary genre and thus must be thought of as an intersection of storytelling and historiography can be productively brought to bear on any discussion of a Christian (and likely also any Jew or Muslim) said to have died for his or her faith. Furthermore, Dailey could be said to stress the formal at the expense of the historical by building her argument on documents that strongly suggest it is only in the wake of the reformation that the perception of martyrs becomes complicated by their entanglement in political as well as religious controversies. Had she considered not just Foxe's accounts of Marian martyrs but also his handling of the stories of those put to death during the reign of Henry VIII--for example, Anne Askew--and Henry V--especially Sir John Oldcastle--she would have seen a supposedly unproblematic martyrologist suppressing details about martyrs' political involvement.

If nothing else, Daily could have made more explicit the historical contexts in which the texts she discusses were produced. The Golden Legend is a medieval martyrology (compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in the thirteenth century but made available to a broad English audience through William Caxton's printed edition in the late fifteenth century), but its contents focus on events from the classical period. Its authors, translators, scribes, and printers could shape the narratives of the lives and suffering of its saints in ways that would be meaningful to medieval preachers and penitents without having to address accounts by those who put them to death. Foxe's first English Acts and Monuments (in 1563) and its subsequent editions came into being after Elizabeth's reign had officially established a Protestant church, so there was little need to engage directly with arguments by Marian authorities. (Foxe does respond to Catholic critics starting with his 1570 second edition, and Robert Persons's 1603 refutation of Acts and Monuments, entitled A Treatise of Three Conversions, provides multiple examples of English Protestant martyrs being characterized as traitors and suicides.) What makes the Counter-Reformation martyrologies and accounts of the execution of Charles I upon which more than half of this book focuses different from The Golden Legend must be in part that these later texts appeared in closer chronological proximity to the events they describe.

None of these limitations within Dailey's argument detract from what is most helpful about this ambitious study of English martyr traditions. The readings of individual texts are both grounded and provocative. Scholars who work on medieval saints lives, cycle plays, counter-reformation polemic, and republican anti-royalist tracts will all find material immediately relevant to their work as well as claims that should spark further study. Additionally, it should not be left unsaid that Dailey brings to her subject matter a lively writing style that even advanced undergraduates should find approachable. A diverse range of readers, even those who want to critique some of its key claims, will be glad to have engaged with this book.