Women in The Book Of Martyrs as Models of Behavior in Tudor England

Women in The Book Of Martyrs as Models of Behavior in Tudor England

Levin, Carole (University of Nebraska – Lincoln)

International Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 4, No.2 (March/April 1981), pp. 196-207


John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs had enormous impact in Elizabethan England. His presentation of women was an effective guide to women readers about appropriate behavior patterns. The ideals for women in the Renaissance were basically the passive Christian virtues such as modesty, humility, sweetness and piety. Foxe was certainly concerned with these Christian virtues for women; however, in certain ways his positive examples of strong women not only reinforced, but also modified this point of view.

One book that had enormous impact in the Protestant England of Elizabeth was John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, later known as The Book of Martyrs, first publIshed in 1563. “Englishmen in general in the reign of Elizabeth accepted it as an expression of the national faith second in authority only to the Bible and an unanswerable defence of England’s ideological position.” (1) Historians have in fact suggested that it was nearly as influential as the Bible itself, and indeed was placed next to the Bible in many churches throughout England. It went through five editions in the 16th century. In 1571 the upper house of convvcation at Canterbury ordered that a copy of The Book of Martyrs be installed in every cathedral church, and every member of the hierarchy from archbishop to resident canon should have one in his home available to all who came. The parish churches were not named in this order, but many also had copies of Foxe. And if people could not read the work themselves, they could at least look at the many woodcut illustrations while preachers explained the text. As D.M. Loades puts it, The Book of Martyrs “joined the Bible as a prop of the Anglican establishment.” (2) New editions of Foxe were issued in the 1570’s and ’80’s, and the material in it was even more readily available after 1589 when Dr. Timothy Bright published An Abridgement . .. for such as either through want ofleysure, or abilitie, have not the use ofso necessary an history.

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