Samuel Clarke’s Martyrology: images of religious violence

Laura Sangha

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:

Original tweetIt 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.

Clarke’s Martyrology

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.)Original pic in contextThere 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. Page 18Page 18bpage 52 hung and animal clawsFor 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.

page 74 full page

ATROCITY PROPAGANDApage 242 papist hearts




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:

page 220 face plainedIt’s not really possible to ‘plain’ someone’s face off is it?

page 220 frogs and toadsBeing thrown in a cave with some toads and frogs hardly seems comparable to some of these other tortures, does it?

page 180 geeseHow 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.

The Author[1]

Samuel Clarke (1599-1682) was born in Sam Clarke headshotWarwickshire, 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’.[2]

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).

[1] The information about Samuel Clarke is from: Ann Hughes, ‘S. Clarke (1599-1682)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004); online edn. May 2007 [, accessed 12 April 2014].

[2] 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.

7 thoughts on “Samuel Clarke’s Martyrology: images of religious violence

  1. Fascinating pictures! Regarding the eaten hearts, there’s an obvious element of anti-Catholic propaganda going on. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if such things had actually happened, too. In the aftermath of a savage political murder in The Hague on 20 August 1672, for instance, rioters completely tore apart the bodies of the brothers Johan and Cornelis de Witt. Eyewitness reports also mention cannibalism involving cut-off body parts. If you add religious symbolism to the equation, people could model their violence on rituals or elements of sacred history. During the early Reformation in Zurich, Anabaptists were drowned in a river: baptized again, as it were, and more thoroughly than they had bargained for. A classic paper on France mentions many more examples: Davis, Natalie Zemon. “The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France.” Past & Present 59: 1 (1973), 51-91. We shouldn’t forget that early-modern folks cared about religion/confessional identity to an extent that we can hardly imagine.

    • Many thanks for your useful comments Mike – absolutely, anti-Catholicism is the one thing that all English Protestants agreed on, whatever else they were arguing about! And your other examples are all very pertinent, a reminder that most people in the past were perfectly happy to use ritual violence to make their point, whether they were Romans, Catholics or Protestants – ascribing your power into the flesh of your opponents was a means to exhibit authority. The symbolism of using an adult ‘baptism’ to put Anabaptists to death encapsulates the principle of ‘poetic justice’ that underpins much symbolic violence – once again a sense of irony, uncomfortably close to humour can be found there. Natalie Zemon Davis is indeed an excellent place to start for those who want to know more!

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  4. We have a copy of this in our Library (3rd Edition with the “Great Lives” appended) at Belton House. When I show the public the title page everyone misses the glaring error in the rubic – that is the ‘a collection of the greatest persecutions which have befallen the Church of Christ from the Creation to the present times’. There was a church of Christ at the creation?

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