Comedy and Memory in Foxe's Book of Martyrs

This blog post explores the role of comedy and memory-formation in John Foxe’s Protestant martyrology, Actes and Monuments. The universal image of martyrdom is the body in pain. Both visually and textually, these narratives detail horrific acts of violence against the human body and the various methods of execution, recording the process from beginning to end much like a detached observer watching an experiment unfold. It is not difficult to understand why martyrologies needed to be encyclopedias of painful memories. In commemorating examples of courage and resilience for spiritual heirs, these kinds of narratives had the power to mediate religious identity across family legacies and connect future dissent with past rebellion through a sense of collective suffering.

Foxe: The Burning of John Hooper, Bishop at Gloucester
John Hooper’s horrible burning lasted forty-five minutes. Foxe records gruesome details of his lips shrinking to his gums, one arm falling off, and the other hand dropping blood, water, and fat (1570 ed., p. 1684). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


If physical agony makes up one kind of commemoration in Foxe’s account, another might surprise us: the laughing, joking Protestant on trial or upon the stake. A brief word-search across all four editions online turns up remarkable results.[⁠⁠1] Words like ‘mourning’, ‘sobbing’, ‘bewailing’, ‘wailing’, ‘lamenting’, ‘groaning’, ‘sorrow’, ‘grief’, ‘agony’, ‘dolor’, ‘terror’, ‘afraid’, ‘doleful’, ‘sighing’, ‘sadness’, ‘fear’, and ‘pain’ occur alongside the term ‘laughter’ and the broader semantic fields of ‘joy’,’ rejoice’, ‘mirth’, ‘wit’, ‘blessed’, ‘happy’, ‘glad’, ‘jest’, ‘smile’, ‘delight’, ‘cheerful’, and ‘merry,’ at a ratio of almost 1:1 across all cognates and spelling variations. Only 274 occasions exist when the pathological vocabulary outstrips the positive. It is thus an immensely rich archive of bodily sounds and emissions with a vast emotional range, but critically, one which seems to place the phenomenology of sorrow on almost an equal footing with its counterpart, joy (and very often, joy that comes at the expense of others: think a religiously-endorsed version of Schadenfreude in times of war). To be sure, Foxe’s history retains its emphasis as a record of distressing and disturbing physical experiences in the context of religious persecution. But the high concurrence of gleeful bodily noises in scenes renowned for sighs, sobs, and groans, suggests that the comic is an important dimension in Foxe’s strategies of remembrance and for his idea of historical writing itself.

Why do humour and infectious cases of the giggles feature so strongly across episodes? Sometimes Foxe tells us. At the end of his biography on Luther’s life and teaching, Foxe explains how Lutheran doctrine brought the whole world, and no place more so than England, great trouble and persecution. But before continuing his narration from Henry VIII to the present, he pauses to insert an entertaining anecdote about the grand procession of Thomas Wolsey, the Cardinal of York, and Pope Leo’s legate Laurentius Campeis, through the streets of London to meet the King. Things begin to go horribly wrong in Cheapside.⁠[2] The story is a masterpiece of high farce: a reversal in fortunes, braying mules, tumbling drivers, ruffled skirts, hollow treasure chests stuffed with rubbish, and the vanity of worldly pomp and pretence. It shares all the stock material of wigs accidentally slipping from bald heads.

Wolsey in Procession to Westminster, from George Cavendish's Biography
Wolsey in procession to Westminster from a 1578 version of George Cavendish´s biography of the Cardinal: Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 363, fol. 052v; Source: Wikimedia Commons.


But Foxe has to admit that the story has no real relevance to his overall ‘serious’ project and that it poses a theoretical problem. What justifies light-hearted interludes? One of his answers makes laughter a central reason. ‘First gentle reader,’ he soothes, ‘somewhat to recreate you withall after these longe and tragicall histories we have thought good…to anexe here in this place a mery spectacle or jest which happened in Londō, no lesse to be noted, as also to be laughed at’.[⁠3] Light-hearted stories could function literally as comic-relief, the sugared pill that helps swallow bad-tasting medicine — or in Foxe’s case, the ‘tediousnes of the history’. It could thus sweeten the reading of painful memories and relieve the effects of deep study. But the use of humour serves an even more fundamental purpose. Laughter was widely regarded as the key to producing long-lasting and stable memory. Cicero’s Rhetorica Ad Herennium, one of the most influential manuals of memory techniques in the medieval and Renaissance periods, advised a template for memorable communication that prioritised the whimsical: 

When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them …. But if we see and hear something exceptionally base, dishonourable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable [ridiculum] that we are likely to remember a long time … by assigning certain comic effects [ridiculas] to our images…that too will ensure our remembering them more readily (3.22.35–35).[4]

Horror was one way to encode events in the memory, but humour could also get history to stick in the mind. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs thus participates in a long tradition of ars memoria and offers historians new ways of thinking about the function of comedy in Protestant memorialisation.

Crying Heraclitus and Laughing Democritus, fresco by Bramante Donato, c. 1477
Crying Heraclitus and Laughing Democritus, fresco by Bramante Donato, c. 1477. Democritus, ‘the laughing philosopher’ of antiquity was a literary persona for many authors in early modern Europe, including Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More, John Foxe, and Robert Burton. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Here I offer four observations on hilarious memory in Foxe as preliminary areas of study that I will expand on in a future journal article:

I. Laughter at sin, Laughter as sin

Although laughter is a mode of memory, laughter in memory is another important site for exploration. When do Catholics and Protestants laugh, or attempt to get a laugh out of others? I am not suggesting we will always be able to participate in early modern laughter, nor do I think we can confirm whether Foxe faithfully preserves real, lived chuckles and chortles. Yet literary laughter — both imaginative hearing, as when the word ‘laughter’ appears, and audible tee hees, signalled by the written ‘ha!’ — is integral to shaping how both confessions were remembered. Actes & Monuments bristles with Catholic and Protestant laughter. Both sides excel in the type known as derision. Mocking and scoffing were biblical precedents associated with human righteousness, divine indignation (Ps. 2:4; 59:8) and favour (Ps. 126.2), Satanic disbelief, and human wickedness: only Christ’s enemies laugh during his trial and execution. But in Foxe, this type of laughter behaves in a way we might not expect. If we assume Catholic heresy supplies many occasions that deserve a Protestant snigger, we are wrong. Laughing erupts to a much greater degree from Catholic mouths rather than Protestant. Foxean Reformed martyrs seem very good at creating situations that give rise to chuckles, but their own laughter is less often reproduced textually. I suggest one reason for Foxe’s uneven handling of laughter across the religious divide is because he is conscious of the tradition that sees it as a spontaneous physiological impulse, characterised by the loss of bodily control, and a symptom of human sinfulness. Indeed, Stephen Halliwell’s landmark Greek Laughter surveys the ‘antigelasitc’ attitude towards mirth that runs from early Christianity to Puritanism.[5]

The ethical dangers of laughter come out clearly in the case of Thomas Benet, who might not have become a martyr had he not laughed. While watching a priest curse a heretic in Exeter Cathedral, Benet could not keep it in: ‘[he] fell to great laughter, but within hym self, & for a great space could not cease: by the which thing the poore man was espied’.[⁠6] The emphasis is less about heroic bravery than accidental courage occasioned by a case of uncontrollable giggles. Foxe’s pity makes the situation ambiguous. It is not clear whether his merry fit was the wrong response or merely the right response at the wrong time. It registers a hint of Protestant suspicion regarding laughter. Paradoxically, as a master of comedy, laughter is something to which Foxe cannot entirely reconcile himself.

II. Laughter in the True and False Martyr

If Catholics scoff, and Protestants mock (albeit with more reserve), only Foxean Protestants can use humour properly. This is not the contest over who has the better joke, but what the joke says about the joker. Foxe’s Marian martyrs are especially portrayed as witty pranksters in their final moments of life. Foxe relates how Rowland Taylor, the first Protestant burned under Mary’s reign, wakes up in a good mood on the morning of his execution. His fellow Reformed prisoner, Bradford, opens his eyes to see Taylor hanging by his hands from a wooden beam. ‘What a notable swaye should I give if I were hanged’, Taylor quips, relishing the idea that a different angle and execution would better display his corpulence.[7] Later that same day, en route to the pyre that will end his life, Taylor temporarily tricks one of his Catholic executioners into thinking he will recant. ‘I have been deceived’, he admits, ‘and … I shal deceive a great many’ — referring, of course, to the fact that he will not die in bed but in flames, and that the worms in the graveyard of Hadley Church have been cheated out of their promised feast. Thus Foxe concludes that Taylor ‘made but a jest at the cruell torment, and death now at hand prepared for him’.[8]

The ability to laugh in the face of death aligned Foxe’s Reformers with biblical models of the righteous man (Prov. 1:26; 31:25; 2 Chron. 30:10). Humour in Protestant death records could thus function as evidence of true salvation. But Catholic biographers could exploit the same theme. Thomas More’s infamous witticisms on the way to the scaffold is reworked by Foxe as evidence of moral wickedness. For Taylor, jesting is the sign of spiritual peace and heavenly assurance; for More, joking betrayed his trivial, unstable, heretical mind: ‘Thus with a mocke he ended his life’.⁠[9] The memory of comic martyrs thrived in future Protestant cultures of memory. Thomas Fuller would later describe Rowland Taylor as being ‘merry with the stake’.[⁠10] The use of decorous humour amongst Protestant martyrs also resurfaced in the seventeenth-century controversy over satire and religious ridicule in the writings of Francis Bacon and John Milton.⁠

III. Cracking Jokes and Cracking a Memorial Code?

Foxe also uses humour to encode subversive memory. Catholics in The Book of Martyrs always seem to misunderstand the joke; they frequently ask the Protestant under scrutiny ‘Why did you laugh’? Standing as the odd one out in the room, they experience that awkward moment we have all endured when we hear a pun but fail to understand its meaning. But Catholic laughter at Catholic stupidity can also take a Catholic by surprise. When Weston accidentally speaks against his convictions on the opening day of the Oxford martyr’s trials, the point made is how ‘many’ explode in laughter, not just Cramner. The moment humour backfires, it rearranges confessional boundaries and records a time when a Catholic suddenly takes the side of a Protestant (despite themselves). Or perhaps it reveals a faux Catholic, a Protestant revealed by their laughter. If you get the joke, do you belong to that community? Should the Catholic deliberately misunderstand? 

The potential mismanagement of jesting shows how comedy can unsettle power structures by alienating listeners and readers even as it produces a community through shared understanding. Comedy also provides the opportunity to harbour and transfer forbidden memory hidden from view. Foxe writes this way when he explains how an early memory of Reformed doctrine got smuggled through the medium of jest. It is Chaucer, he says (a mistaken attribution), who ‘seemeth to be a right Wiclevian, or els was never any, and that all his workes almost, if they be throughly advised will testifie (albeit it be done in mirth, & covertly)’.[11] But the Bishops ‘taking his woorkes but for jestes and toys, in condemning other bookes, yet permitted his bookes to be read’. Jokes are communal exchanges that cannot always cross ideological borders. It begs for further research to examine comic literature as a memorial carrier in oppressive regimes.

IV. Caricature and Diminished Memory

Foxean humour operates par excellence through satire. Who can forget the debacle at Oxford with Catholics feeling hot lead drop on their skin, running to exit a church building on fire that was not on fire? This is Foxe at his best, painting the buffoonery. He imagines Democritus sitting above the church roaring with laughter at the ceremonious scene turned to panic. A fat monk who sees all doors closed, decides to break a glass window and squeeze through. Foxe here slows his narrative to mimic the man’s thought-pattern and bodily adjustments. When he ‘was come to the space betwene the grates where he should crepe out,’ Foxe writes, 

first he thrust in his head with the one shoulder, & it went through well enough. Then he laboured to gette the other shoulder after, but there was great labour about that, & long he stucke by the shoulders, but at the last he gat it through with much adoe. For what doth not importune labour ouercome?[⁠12]

Foxe delightedly reports ‘he did sticke fast in the window’ and ‘could neither get out nor in’, insinuating that body parts at both ends were open to roasting.

The Catholic clergyman who breaks a stained-glass window with iconography, only to replace himself and become the image, neatly symbolises the literary device of caricature. He is stuck in our imagination like he is stuck in the window. Hyperbole, exaggeration, and simplification repackage reality to make memorisation easy. But caricature is a diminished memory that works because we recognise it as a half-truth and a half-distortion (Foxe frequently appeals to witnesses who could correct him, but he never names them). It demonstrates how something can be the most memorable when it is the least true. Intentional distortions as shorthands to memory belong to a rich and varied tradition of religious ridicule, and should be counted in the materials used to explore how Protestants remembered and misremembered the Reformation.[13]

[1] SeeThe Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online TAMO (The Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield, 2011). Available from: http// [Accessed: 1.10.19]. Hereafter cited as TAMO. I restricted the search to narrower terms for suffering (omitting only the words ‘suffering’ and ‘suffer’ itself) and to terms with either clear negative or positive connotations (avoiding versions of ‘weep for joy’, or instances that indicate the desirable state of repentance, in addition to variants of ‘cry’ which more often indicate public proclamation than physiological tears).

[2] John Foxe, TAMO (1563 edition), pp. 469–470

[3] Ibid., p. 469.

[4] Marcus Tullius Cicero, Ad C. Herennium Libri IV De Ratione Dicendi, ed. By T. E. Page, Loeb(London: Heinemann, 1954), pp. 219–220.

[5] Stephen Halliwell, Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Christianity (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 472–517.

[6] John Foxe, TAMO (1576 edition), p. 1035.

[7] John Foxe, TAMO (1563 edition), p.1149

[8] John Foxe, TAMO (1570 edition), p. 1740.

[9] John Foxe, TAMO (1583 edition), p. 1093. I owe some thinking in these sentences from the research of Elisha Sircy, ‘“Present Mirth has Present Laughter; What’s to Come is still Unsure”: Death and Humour in Early Modern England’, unpubl. PhD thesis (University of South Carolina, 2017), pp. 5–7.

[10] Thomas Fuller, History of the Worthies of England (London, 1840)Section 164.

[11] Foxe, TAMO (1583 edition), p. 863

[12] Foxe, TAMO (1570 edition), p. 1423.

[13] With many thanks to Alexandra Walsham for her insightful direction and comments.