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Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard Historical Studies) Paperback – 2 Oct 2001

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More About the Author

Brad S. Gregory is the Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University (1996) and was a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows (1994-96). Before joining the faculty at Notre Dame in 2003, Gregory taught at Stanford University, where he received early tenure in 2001. Gregory has two degrees in philosophy as well, both earned at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. He has received teaching awards at Stanford and Notre Dame, and in 2005 was named the inaugural winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture as the outstanding mid-career humanities scholar in the United States. Gregory's research focuses on Christianity in the Reformation era, the long-term effects of the Reformation, secularization in early modern and modern Western history, and methodology in the study of religion.

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"Although [Gregory] often allows the martyrs to speak for themselves, he also assists us in understanding these people without judging them by our current cultural or psychological theories. This extensive, well-written, and gripping book is highly recommended." - --George Westerlund, Library Journal

About the Author

Brad S. Gregory is Assistant Professor of History, Stanford University.

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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Impressive Read about What Is Really at Stake 28 Feb. 2005
By rodboomboom - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This quote makes the point of this fine historical investigation into 16thC martyrdom: "Eternal salvation was at stake even without martyrdom." 21stC culture (even those who would identify "themselves" as Christian) cannot idenity with this at all. Neither could 16thC saints with ours, as Gregory writes: "The prospect of doctrinal pluralism horrified and disgusted them. They preferred a world in which truth did battle, come what may, to one swarming with ever-proliferating heresies."

This very fine written account of Protestant, Anabaptist and Roman martyology in the early modern period gives one great insight into this very different world of committed believers in a time when governing rulers held orthodox vs. heterodox seriously, even at times serious to the point of captial punishment for non-repudiation of false doctrine. What strikes the careful reader is the amazing research and documentation that is here presented at a reasonable price for such a record. Thanks to the publisher for the notes tied to page number for those of us who like to see the documentation as we're reading easily, conveniently.

His introduction and challenges to modern mind and academia is outstanding and worthwhile just for this beginning which this reviewer amens!

One will grasp much more about this time by this read. Neat to learn that Luther wrote first hymn in honor of martyr.

One of the best reads for me in quite some time.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Impressive analysis of martyrological source material 19 Oct. 2004
By C. Jenkins - Published on
Format: Paperback
Brad Gregory argues that the collective dynamic of martyrdom helped shape the character of early modern Christianity (Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 6). Therefore, Gregory attempts to explore the meaning and significance of Christian martyrdom among Protestants, Anabaptists, and Roman Catholics during the Reformation era. Gregory's book aims at analyzing (utilizing both nominalist and essentialist categories) martyrdom during the Reform era (cross-confessionally) in order to arrive at a better understanding of early modern Christianity.

Gregory begins by examining the conceptual prerequisites which provide the framework for the significance of martyrdom in the early modern era, beginning with the idea of martyrdom itself in late medieval Europe. Although the Western church was essentially free from the opportunity for martyrdom during this period, Gregory argues that the concept had been preserved especially through the canonization of the more ancient martyrs and the popular devotion to the passion of Christ (in addition to the execution of those deemed heterodox by the institutional church).

Gregory next turns to examine the readiness of authorities to kill those they deemed heretical. He argues that the civic and ecclesiastical authorities viewed religious heterodoxy as a danger not only to the soul of the individual, but a serious threat to the eternal destinies of others as well. Therefore, although Gregory argues that the goal of the enforcement of orthodoxy was corrective, the danger was viewed as substantive enough to warrant the death penalty for the recalcitrant (and Scripture itself was brought to bear to justify this extreme penalty).

Why were people willing to suffer death for their beliefs? Gregory analyzes the motivation of Catholic, Protestant, and Anabaptist martyrdom by carefully examining both the words and deeds of the martyrs (Gregory, p. 97). How does Gregory reconstruct the religious sentiments of the martyrs he examines? Gregory turns to the published prison letters, songs, and confessions of faith authored by the martyrs. He concludes that these people suffered death willingly because they believed in the ultimate veracity of their beliefs (i.e., they believed they were divinely revealed). Further, because they were truths with eternal ramifications, the temporal consequences (including the penalty of execution) for holding them were relativized by the martyrs (Gregory, p. 105). The martyrs of all three traditions saw themselves in historical continuity with the martyrs of the biblical record and the early church, and they identified with the plight of the unjustly persecuted, and most especially with Christ. The social context for the readiness to die was formed by friends, family members, and fellow partisans who encouraged the condemned and exhorted them to steadfastness.

Gregory then examines the final conceptual prerequisite for martyrdom by examining the way in which the various ecclesiastical traditions interpreted, memorialized, and publicized their martyrs. Although there were some differences among the different Protestant traditions (especially among the mid-century martyrologists), the Protestant traditions closely associated martyrdom with the doctrinal beliefs of the persecuted. They also interpreted their afflictions as one of the principle marks of the true church, which flowed from their conviction that preaching the true Gospel attracted persecution (and they offered an alternative reading of the Christian past in this regard). The Protestant martyrologies were the primary means of memorialization, and they effectively "put a human face on doctrinal controversy," and thus, they integrated abstract theological debates into the popular arena (Gregory, p. 176). The various Anabaptists groups interpreted martyrdom as the expected result of one's commitment to Christian discipleship (Gregory, p. 249). Unlike the widespread Protestant tendency to memorialize through the written publication, Anabaptist groups memorialized their martyrs principally through lyrical verse (although their tradition is not devoid of published martyrologies - but even in these, songs were often central). In contrast to both of the previous ecclesiastical traditions, Roman Catholics tended to interpret their martyrs (Gregory primarily examines the Henrician Catholic martyrs) as defenders of what early Christian martyrs had helped to establish (Gregory, p. 267). Additionally, they looked to these recent and "unofficial" saints for intercession and moral guidance. Roman Catholics memorializations also tended to emphasize visual representations of their martyrs more so than their Protestant or Anabaptist counterparts.

Gregory concludes his book with an examination of the controversialists - those who concerned themselves with the denunciation of rival martyrological claims (although this phenomena was limited primarily to the Catholic and Protestant communities). Because there was such a close connection between doctrine and death, the criteria employed by the Controversialists to discern true from false martyrs was fidelity to Christian truth.

Gregory's book represents an impressive achievement in bringing together the martyrological source material of the Reform era for an extensive analysis. He does not shirk the difficult problem of the competing martyrological claims of the era, but rather analyses each on its own terms, in its own context, and as each developed. Additionally, he offers an able (if somewhat limited) refutation of poststructuralist metaphysical and epistemological theories, and he rightly dismisses reductionistic historical methodologies that vitiate the very possibility of understanding historical difference - lucid insights that were much appreciated from his introduction. On the other hand, this reviewer would like to suggest that Gregory's optimism concerning the general historical reliability of highly charged ideological documents may be unwarranted. This reviewer was not convinced of the general historical reliability of these highly partisan sources - although Gregory's argumentation was clever (if ultimately unpersuasive) in this regard. It seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that early modern martyrologists did, in fact, use religion in deliberately manipulative ways, especially since there are contradictory accounts of martyrdom from divergent traditions (and this seems true even if Gregory's claim is true that this is the exception rather than the rule). It seems to this reviewer that the only time the reliability of these documents can be taken for granted is when divergent traditions agree in their accounts - and Gregory admits that documentation of this type of agreement is scarce (Gregory, pp. 20-21).
22 of 31 people found the following review helpful
martyrs and history 27 April 2000
By Katherine R Harris - Published on
Format: Hardcover
First rate analysis of martyrdom in early modern Europe. One of the few historians who are comfortable with issues of faith. A welcome breath of fresh air in the academy that often just doesn't get it when it comes to relgion.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
No Hermeneutic of Suspicion Here 25 May 2012
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Unlike Anne Dillon's study, "The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community", Brad S. Gregory's "Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe" takes the martyrs of the Reformation period seriously and without what he calls "the hermeneutic of suspicion", which undercuts the reality of the martyr's devotion and belief. He dedicates the first chapter, "A Complex of Martyrs" to explaining why and how he has done so, at one point stating:

My depiction of sixteenth-century Christians is intended to be one in which they would have recognized themselves, not puzzled over modern or postmodern configurations of who they were. I have sought to reconstruct, not deconstruct, their commitments and experiences as far as the evidence permits. This holds not only for the martyrs, but also for fellow believers who encouraged them, authorities who tried to dissuage them, and those who responded to their deaths both positively and negatively. Several objectives can be achieved by telling a story of embattled convictions in action not from an external perspective based on explanatory theory, but rather through an exploration of the relevant traditions in turn, one that is sensitive to their emphases, nuances, and changes over time.

I think Gregory achieved his goals: he balances the three groups of martyrs (Protestant, Anabaptist, and Catholic) well; acknowledges their different understanding of the martyrs' impact on their communities; notes the reluctance of the officials (except for Richard Topcliffe, torturer and executioner extraordinaire) to condemn the accused, as they hoped for conversion and public recantation; and the crucial distinctions each group made between their martyrs and the others condemned for false religion.

I was most interested in the chapter on the Catholic martyrs, in which Gregory explores the rather muted reaction to St. Thomas More's and St. John Fisher's martyrdoms (Francois I of France planned some demonstration of his disapproval but then deferred to Emperor Charles V since it was his Aunt Catherine who was treated so badly by Henry VIII). He refers to the Catholic martyrs under Henry VIII as "defensive" martyrs who died to protect the unity of the Church under the Vicar of Christ.

While describing those whom I call the Recusant Martyrs he notes how the "emphasis on the glory of martyrdom spurred the zeal to die for Christ" and yet "how the virtue of humility bridled the same desire." This certainly reminded me of St. Robert Southwell, who called himself a mere "worm" while acknowledging that he was in his thirty-third year, the same age as Jesus when He suffered and died. Gregory notes a pattern of the martyrs imitating Christ through their suffering and death, while they became the pattern for others (like St. Henry Walpole and St. Philip Howard following St. Edmund Campion to the Church and to martyrdom). Indeed, William Allen and others emphasized the potential for conversions when the stories of the martyrs were told and offered as examples of this intense and complete imitation of Christ.

Gregory notes that 203 editions of 50 works recounting the suffering and execution of the English Catholic martyrs were published between 1580 and 1640--and 95 of those editions appeared in the 1580's alone. These books, illustrations of the executions at Tyburn Tree were disseminated to the Catholic world, where the majority of Catholics had no opportunity for such sacrifice, thus spurring the interest in relics, praying to the martyrs as saints for intercession for miracles, and, generally, to devotion to the martyrs as saints, even though no cause for canonization was started until the mid seventeenth century and later.

This is an effective and well-balanced history of martyrdom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Pathos without prejudice 23 Jan. 2009
By Stratiotes Doxha Theon - Published on
Format: Paperback
Prof. Gregory has given us all the pathos required of such a volatile topic without the religious or secular prejudices of so many before. Prof. Gregory, despite his Catholic background, does not attempt to justify a Catholic prejudice to the history of the reformation in any way. Instead, he gives a moving description of all three major Christian traditions of the times: Protestant, Anabaptist, and Catholic. And he accomplishes these descriptions in a way that draws us in so that we relate to each of the traditions and gain respect for the commitments they demonstrated to their beliefs.

Prof. Gregory begins his work decrying the reductionist approach to history that so many histories seem to apply in order to marginalize the people they describe all the while judging the people outside the context of their times. Then Prof. Gregory describes the times and culture immediately preceding the reformation. In so doing, he gives us the context of understanding the willingness of those in power to kill and the willingness of the non-conformists to die which are the obvious yet overlooked prerequisites to martyrdom. In addition, Prof. Gregory challenges the theories that fail to take into account the importance of beliefs. Those who fail to understand the cultural importance of convictions of the past because they cannot (or will not) think outside the relativism box of our own day, make the mistake of viewing martyrs as outsiders even going so far as to attribute mental illness as their cause. Those who were willing to die for their cause were not insane nor ignorant of the full consequences of their actions. They were truly devoted to a cause that demanded no compromise and to explain such convictions away is to fail to understand the relevance of their actions to our own time.

The concluding chapters condense the importance of understanding the martyrs and their stories in the context of their times in order to perceive their relevance to our own time. Prof. Gregory demonstrates his ability as an historian to think outside the cultural box in order to identify the appropriate points of contact needed to understand and analyze the past. It is no small feat in this modern age of relativism and indifference. This is a thorough and scholarly study with the emotion required to keep the interest of the professional historian as well as the casual reader. It is an historical work that has been needed for some time and a worthy addition to any historian - but church historians in particular.

We would also highly recommend Prof. Gregory's lectures, The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era [18 audiocassettes and 3 course guidebooks] (Great Courses).
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