Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe

Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe

Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe

Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe


Thousands of men and women were executed for incompatible religious views in sixteenth-century Europe. The meaning and significance of those deaths are studied here comparatively for the first time, providing a compelling argument for the importance of martyrdom as both a window onto religious sensibilities and a crucial component in the formation of divergent Christian traditions and identities.

Gregory explores Protestant, Catholic, and Anabaptist martyrs in a sustained fashion, addressing the similarities and differences in their self-understanding. He traces the processes and impact of their memorialization by co-believers, and he reconstructs the arguments of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities responsible for their deaths. In addition, he assesses the controversy over the meaning of executions for competing views of Christian truth, and the intractable dispute over the distinction between true and false martyrs. He employs a wide range of sources, including pamphlets, martyrologies, theological and devotional treatises, sermons, songs, woodcuts and engravings, correspondence, and legal records. Reconstructing religious motivation, conviction, and behavior in early modern Europe, Gregory shows us the shifting perspectives of authorities willing to kill, martyrs willing to die, martyrologists eager to memorialize, and controversialists keen to dispute.


After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could
count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, stand
ing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm
branches in their hands … Then one of the elders … said to me, “These
are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their
robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”

—REVELATION 7:9, 13–14

God the Almighty grants to all magistrates and judges the grace to pass
judgment on the wicked and to protect the devout. But how does one rec
ognize the devout? They are those who hear God's word and believe it
with their whole hearts, as Christ taught us. Who are the wicked? Those
who despise God's commandment, to which they give public witness be
fore the whole world with their sinful actions.


Modern Western Christianity was forged in a crucible of conflicting convictions and dramatic deaths. In the sixteenth century thousands of men and women with divergent beliefs were executed for refusing to renounce them. This book explores the meaning and significance of Christian martyrdom in the Reformation era among Protestants, Anabaptists, and Roman Catholics. Beginning in July 1523 with the burning of two Augustinian monks in Brussels, the executions continued—with shifting rhythms, with varying intensities, in different towns and countries across Western Europe—into the seventeenth century. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of contemporaries gathered to witness public spectacles of burning, beheading, drowning, or hanging, drawing, and quartering. Sympathizers published pamphlets, wrote poetry, sent letters, sang songs, commissioned paintings, printed prison missives, and compiled collections narrating the martyrs' words and deeds. In combination with the ubiquitous oral communication in a largely preliterate society, these channels of expression meant that the large majority of Western Europeans, from the most to the least educated, must have known about the executions for heterodox Christian views.

I have sought the measure of martyrdom not from a fascination with tales of tortured and dying bodies, but from a desire to plumb the living souls of . . .

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