Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Conventicle Q&A with Dr. Tom Freeman of the John Foxe Project

Historian John Foxe (1517–1587) was a contemporary of the Elizabethan puritans. He shared many of their sentiments regarding the Church of Rome and the English Church. Foxe's Acts and Monuments was an extremely popular text among the puritans, second only to the Bible. It has been republished over the centuries and is still read today – usually in abridged form, as Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

Dr. Thomas S. Freeman is Research Officer for the John Foxe Project, initiated in 1993 under the auspices of the British Academy, and now also affiliated with the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield. The main objective of the project has been the creation of a new, reliable edition of Foxe's famous history, which he compiled during the reigns of Edward VI (1547–1553) and Elizabeth I (1558–1603).

The fruits of the project can be seen in the online version of Foxe's Acts and Monuments, which is now enhanced by an array of peripheral features to help readers understand the work in its original context. Scholars of Foxe have never had it better, thanks to Dr. Freeman and the other members of the project team.

We met Dr. Freeman at a recent conference, and he kindly agreed to answer a handful of questions about Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the work he and the John Foxe Project team have done.

C: What has been your role as Research Officer for the John Foxe Project?
TF: Essentially it has been to provide the critical annotation and paratext for the online edition of Foxe's Acts and Monuments, being prepared by the British Academy John Foxe Project.

C: What factors led you to study Foxe and his work?
TF: It was largely an interest in how the Reformation era perceived the Middle Ages. This led me to study Polydore Vergil and then John Bale [both sixteenth-century historians] before I decided to concentrate on John Foxe.

C: How would you summarize the place of Foxe's Acts and Monuments within the history of the English Reformation?
TF: It is absolutely crucial. On the one hand, it is the most important narrative history of the English Reformation and its antecedents. On the other hand, it is a work that shaped English attitudes towards the Reformation for centuries.

C: What are the main advantages of the updated, online version of Foxe's Book of Martyrs?
TF: It provides accurate and complete transcriptions of each of the Acts and Monuments printed in Foxe's lifetime. It indicates and collates the very considerable textual transpositions and variations between these editions. It provides IDs for all individuals named in the text. It provides a critical commentary for the entire text. And it indicates what sources Foxe drew on for each section of his text. Finally, it indicates the relationship between the text of the Acts and Monuments and the earlier Latin editions of the martyrology. [Readers should not overlook the introductory essays that accompany the work, as well.]

C: Many readers still draw inspiration from the abridged version of Foxe's Book of Martyrs. How do you account for the work's ongoing popularity?
TF: Some people still read it for religious reasons. Historians read it as a major source and literature scholars as both a major work of literatiure and an influence on other English authors – notably Bunyan and Milton. For generations it was read popularly, largely because of its anecdotally rich and dramatic content. But I don't think that it is read much today on a popular level. Outside of academic circles, I suspect that relatively few people have any familiarity with the book.

Check out the stellar online edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, or purchase a CD-Rom version.

A list of Dr. Freeman's published works:

Tudors and Stuarts on Film: Historical Perspectives

(Coming Nov. 2007, Palgrave McMillan)
Ed. with Susan Doran

Martyrs and Martyrdom in England, c.1400-1700
Ed. with Thomas F. Mayer

“So Much at Stake: Martyrs and Martyrdom in Early Modern England”
Journal of Ecclesiastical History

“Print, Profit and Propaganda: The Elizabethan Privy Council and the 1570 Edition of Foxe's ‘Book of Martyrs’”
English Historical Review

The Myth of Elizabeth (Read a review)
Ed. with Susan Doran

Dr. Freeman contributed an essay to this volume, entitled “Providence and Prescription: The Account of Elizabeth in Foxe's ‘book of Martyrs’”

"As True a Subiect being Prysoner": John Foxe's Notes on the Imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1554-5”
English Historical Review

“Dissenters from a Dissenting Church: The Challenge of the Freewillers, 1550-1558”
The Beginnings of English Protestantism, ed. Peter Marshall, Alex Ryrie

“John Foxe, John Day and the Printing of the ‘book of Martyrs’" (with Elizabeth Evenden)
Lives in Print: Biography and the Book Trade from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-first Century, ed. Robin Myers, Michael Harris, Giles Mandelbrote

“The Prison Writings of the Marian Martyrs”
Europa Sacra: Raccolte agiografiche e identita politiche in Europa fra Medioevo ed Eta moderns, ed. Sofia Boesch Gajano, Raimundo Michetti

“Early Modern Martyrs”
Journal of Ecclesiastical History

“Racking the Body, Shaping the Text: The Account of Anne Askew in Foxe's ‘book of Martyrs’” (with Wall Freeman, Sarah Elizabeth)
Renaissance Quarterly

“Fate, Faction and Fiction in Foxe's book of Martyrs”
Historical Journal

“‘The Good Ministrye of Godlye and Vertuouse Women’: The Elizabethan Martyrologists and the Female Supporters of the Marian Martyrs”
Journal of British Studies

“Texts, Lies and Microfilm: Reading and Misreading Foxe's ‘book of Martyrs’"
Sixteenth Century Journal

“New Perspectives on an Old book: The Creation and Influence of Foxe's book of Martyrs”
Journal of Ecclesiastical History

“John Bales's Books of Martyrs?: The Account of King John in ‘Acts and Monuments’"

“The Importance of Dying Earnestly: The Metamorphosis of the Account of James Bainham in Foxe's book of Martyrs”
Studies in Church History, ed R. N. Swanson

‘The Reformation of the Church in this Parliament’: Thomas Norton, John Foxe and the Parliament of 1571”
Parliamentary History

“‘A Grave and Heinous Incident against our Holy Catholic Faith’: Two Accounts of William Gardiner's Desecration of the Portugese Royal Chapel in 1552” (with M. J. Borges)
Historical Research

"‘The Reik of Maister Patrick Hammyltoun’: John Foxe, John Winram and the Martyrs of the Scottish Reformation
Sixteenth Century Journal

"‘Great Searching Out of bookes and Autours’: John Foxe as an Ecclesiastical Historian”
Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers Univ

“Research, Rumour and Propaganda: Anne Boleyn in Foxe's book of Martyrs”
Historical Journal

“A Library in Three Volumes: Foxe's book of Martyrs in the Writings of John Bunyan”
Bunyan Studies

“Notes on a Source for John Foxe's Account of the Marian Persecution in Kent and Sussex”
Historical Research

"‘A Solemne Contestation of Diverse Popes’: A Work by John Foxe?”
English Language Notes

Illustration from an early version of Foxe's Acts and Monuments


Anonymous said...

What of Roman Catholic scholars who claim that Foxes facts and figures are often completely wrong! They say, what he wrote was propaganda for protestants but not true history.

Anyone else heard this? Is it true?


Chris Ross said...


Thanks for bringing that up. I don't consider myself a Foxe expert, but I believe it is common knowledge that Foxe's history contains inaccuracies. I don't know if they're as glaring as some would have us believe.

Freeman himself is a critical scholar of Foxe -- not a confessional hack, by any means.

I would suggest having a look at the essays that accompany the online edition of the book of Martyrs (here)

I'm sure the inaccuracies of Foxe's historical research are discussed in one of them.

Take care, Chris

Susan A said...


Interesting you should ask this. Yes the Foxe project is certainly worth looking at if you're interested in this issue - the text-comparison features it offers are very helpful, as are the critical essays.

I did my Master's dissertation on Foxe, partly concerned with his historical reliability (I had similar questions to you) and discovered that, while he certainly had a polemical and didactic purpose in writing, he had a critical eye when it came to his sources (if somewhat generous to his own side), corrected himself in later editions when new evidence showed him to be wrong, and was genuinely concerned with 'true history'.

However, lots of the 'historians' who followed him and made later editions in future years based on his work (and often labelling it Foxe's Book of Martyrs) cared less about historical accuracy and even reverted to some things he had corrected himself on. Their work definitely became more propaganda-like.

I think it's quite important to recognise that a historian can have and voice an opinion about something and still write history. Whether historians should do that now is another matter, but it's certain that they did or have tried to do so in the past.

But thanks again for your comment!

Susan A.


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