On Friday, one of my fellow tweeters, Early Modern World @EMhistblog, retweeted an image from a 1651 martyrology that I had originally posted last year. Here’s the tweet:
It proved popular, so I wanted to post the full details of the original work and author here (though I make no claim to be an expert on early modern martyrologies). Click on images for enlargements.
The image is one of many graphic illustrations in Samuel Clarke, A generall martyrologie containing a collection of all the greatest persecutions which have befallen the church of Christ from the creation to our present times (London, 1651), Wing / C4513. Clarke’s compilation was first published in 1651. A second edition in 1660, and a third in 1677 suggests that the work was popular. The Martyrology is almost entirely derived from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1563). Indeed, in the preface to the third edition, Clarke defended himself against the claim that his work was a superfluous repetition of Foxe’s monumental work – Clark argued that Foxe’s was a general history of the church, not just a martyrology, and he also claimed that he had ‘turned over many other Authors’ to supply what was wanting in ‘Master Fox’ – although a cursory perusal of the work suggests this claim is false. Probably closer to the truth was Clarke’s assertion that:
in these times many want money to buy, and leasure to read larger Volumes, who yet may find both money, and time to purchase, and to peruse so small a Volume as this is. (Preface, A2r).
Though even this should be taken with a pinch of salt, because later editions of Clarke would have been reasonably expensive – the third edition was more than 700 pages long; and it contained many illustrations, making it an object of prestige as well as a marker of preferred churchmanship. That said, the images are certainly cruder and less sophisticated than in the large, expensive editions of Foxe. The original image that I tweeted can be seen in context here, bottom right (p. 125, 1677 edn.)There were twelve of these plates in the book, each depicting the sufferings of the martyrs in extremely graphic detail. The reader can gaze upon the brutality of religious persecution and be struck by the ingenious capacity of humans to inflict ever more horrible suffering upon their fellows. The enormous variety of types of torture, and the inventiveness of punishments is constantly surprising. For the modern viewer, the crude images probably provoke a variety of conflicting emotions. Organised in (what looks to us) a comic book style, the presentation, and the poses and expressions of the victims and torturers often seem terribly mismatched against the outrageous violence that the images depict. The result is both shocking, but at the same time it can also be humorous – as with the nonchalant chap in the ‘boiling oil’ boots. We are used to a extraordinary level of realism in modern media: high definition reproductions of crime scenes, the aftermath of terrorist attacks, the devastating effects of modern warfare. Early modern efforts can seem basic, stiff and even silly, by comparison.
The images also provoke a sense of disbelief – we would prefer to think that this is religious polemic, on a par with the atrocity propaganda of the First World War. Surely no Catholics actually ate a Protestant heart, and the Hun didn’t really crucify a Canadian soldier in Belgium? Though we accept terrible violence happens, the presumption is often that these acts have been exaggerated for greater effect – though countless atrocities throughout history offer plenty of evidence to the contrary.
At other times, the violence is so absurd or extreme that humour is almost a logical response:
It’s not really possible to ‘plain’ someone’s face off is it?
Being thrown in a cave with some toads and frogs hardly seems comparable to some of these other tortures, does it?
How long did it take them to tie those geese and hens on?
Undoubtedly martyrologies are a form of religious polemic and we shouldn’t assume that the atrocities they depict happened. As with all source material we must recognise the cultural dynamics that have shaped the content and presentation of the material. But of course we mustn’t assume that the viewing experience was the same for the early modern person. Early modernists were used to sub-standard or less accomplished woodcuts, and these visuals would presumably have represented the events they depicted to their imagination as effectively as a photograph does to us today. Early modern readings of these images would also have been informed by their own visceral experiences of religious violence – in the mid-seventeenth century, England had suffered about a 3.7 percent loss of population during the Civil Wars (more than during World War I, around 2 percent) and religious violence was part of everyday existence. Thus in their historical context, these images would perhaps have been just as affecting as Azadeh Akhlaghi recreations of Iran’s most notorious murders are to us today, though in the future they may also be seen as amateurish and slightly absurd.
Samuel Clarke (1599-1682) was born in Warwickshire, the son of a vicar, and he grew up in a notably Puritan parish. He was well educated – first at Coventry school, and then Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In February 1626 he married Katherine Overton, with whom he had six children.
Following his education Clarke had a successful career as a clergyman. He was constantly in trouble for his nonconformity (his refusal to wear the surplice and omitting some of the ceremonies in the Book of Common Prayer), although he was pleased with the reformation that he achieved at Alcester in the 1630s – according to Clarke, as a result of his ministry the town ‘which before was called drunken Alcester, was now exemplary and eminent for religion’.
Clarke campaigned against Laudian innovations in Church government and theology, and witnessed the suffering that the Civil War bought to the Midlands in the 1640s. In 1643 he moved to London, becoming minister at St Benet Fink and getting involved in London Presbyterian circles. In the 1650s he was a more moderate voice, prepared to work with the Cromwellian regime, and he initially welcomed the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. However, the religious settlement of 1662 was too conformist for Clarke’s tastes, and he was ejected from his position in the Church, along with two of his sons.
Excluded from the Church, Clarke then dedicated his time to writing and publishing works that would promote his religious beliefs, including A Generall martyrologie. Clarke specialised in compiling biographies, gathering his material from already published works and the manuscript writings of other godly ministers. His other works included: The Lives of Thirty-Two English Divines, appended to the third edition of A Generall Martyrology (1677) and Lives of Sundry Eminent Persons in this Later Age (1683).
 The information about Samuel Clarke is from: Ann Hughes, ‘S. Clarke (1599-1682)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004); online edn. May 2007 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.lib.exeter.ac.uk/view/article/5528, accessed 12 April 2014].
 S. Clark [S. Clarke], The lives of sundry eminent persons in this later age (1683), quoted in Hughes, ‘S. Clark (1599-1682)’.
I consulted all three editions of Clarke on Early English Books Online.