Numbering Martyrs: Numerology, Encyclopedism, and the Invention of Immanent Events in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments

Non poena sed causa: the cause, not the penalty, makes the martyr. All early-modern martyrologies, Protestant and Roman Catholic, at least pay lip service to this notion. Readers and even witnesses must discover—and ultimately approve— the cause for which someone dies before enrolling him or her in the ranks of the faithful. The problem with this imperative, of course, resides in the fundamentally inaccessible nature of interior motivations; which, as Milton famously notes, run the risk of authorizing any obstinate heretic as a martyr. "If to die for the testimony of his own conscience be anough to make him Martyr," Milton writes, "what Heretic dying for direct blasphemie, as som have don constantly, may not boast a Martyrdom?"1 In other words, it is not just that the deaths of martyrs and heretics look similar. Their internal commitments and consciences are also analogous. To tell the difference between them, one would need a notion of cause that is not secreted in the psychic recesses of individuals.

Luckily, early-modern martyrology includes just such a notion. "Cause," in this register, denotes an immediately apprehensible—and, as it were, already discovered—testament to the truth of one’s faith. After all, in classical rhetoric, martyria (from the Greek marturion, or testimony) is a figure of speech in which a witness "confirms something by virtue of his/her own experience."2 In other words, to be a true martyr, one must possess a discoverable cause, true faith, but must also manifest this faith; so that its unearthing becomes, at least on one level, unnecessary. Martyrologies like John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1583) hold out the promise of and demand for discovery—of discerning precisely the true faith behind the suffering and death of individual martyrs. Yet they can also insist that the martyrological discovery has already occurred, because it has been made manifest in the world precisely as and via testimony. Thus Foxe’s encyclopedic catalogue of Protestant and proto-Protestant martyrs (not just of the Marian persecutions, but throughout church history) is not an investigation into the truthfulness of the martyrs’s faiths: that determination occurs before, or as a precondition of, any given martyr’s inclusion in the volume. Foxe is not revealing the valid causes behind his martyrs’s deaths. Rather, he is listing the valid deaths that follow from such causes.

The resulting problem, obviously, is a potential violation of the principle with which martyrology begins: non poena sed causa. If we are not reading martyrological narratives for ethical or intentional proof that a given martyr truly was one, what are we reading them for? A mere enumeration or listing of martyrs, catalogued for their similar and grisly deaths, runs the risk of producing a readership sitting in awe or terror of the spectacular death itself, instead of attempting to discern aright the cause for which a given martyr died. Nicholas Harpsfield, Foxe’s chief Roman Catholic antagonist, uses non poena sed causa as a means of criticizing Foxe’s compendious, paratactic inclusiveness: "We oppose Foxe, not with the number of martyrs, but rather with their weight, not with their deaths, but with the causes of there deaths."3 Foxe, of course, would insist that all of the martyrs included in the Actes and Monuments carry such weight. Yet Harpsfield’s condemnation is interesting insofar as it implies that the size of the topic might actually detract from an attention to the cause for which the martyrs died. That his critique of Foxe remains couched in metaphors of measurement—weight instead of enumeration— only highlights the pivotal role that number seems to play in martyrologies and martyrological debates.

This topic seeks to explore Foxe’s uneasy combination of discovery and transparent manifestation: of martyrdom conceived as the discovery of the truth of a given martyr’s intentional cause, and martyria conceived as confirmation via transparent witness. It also attempts to take seriously Harpsfield’s critique, and to consider, more broadly, the ways in which number, chronology, and the encyclopedic ambitions of the Actes and Monuments interact with notions of invention and discovery. Foxe’s impulse to comprehensiveness, and the propensity for repetition, if not repetitiveness, that goes along with it, may actually be how this massive tome functions as a text. As Mark Breitenberg notes:

The Acts and Monuments cannot have been read or heard as a linear narrative progressively imparting new information or events; the outcome of these stories was probably already known through other sources, and certainly known to anyone who had read at least one of Foxe’s accounts before. Thus, it is not so much what happens or what is said, but how often it is repeated … repetition enables Foxe to heap his stories and documents on top of each other in an effort to amass an entire Protestant "state" of texts in his topic, from royal proclamations to village conversations.4

Foxe does not offer us revelation or discovery at the end of each martyr’s narrative, or the topic as a whole. Neither does the Actes and Monuments simply accumulate evidence—all of those documents, letters, proclamations, and narratives—for a partisan debate about the legitimacy of the Protestant church. Instead, the aim of Foxe’s compendium, and of the numerical, numerological, and chronological machinations that go along with it, is precisely to avoid debates about the relationship between determinism and freedom, discovery and invention. The force of the form—the comprehensive Protestant topic—transforms what we can mean by a cause or commitment: it is no longer a reason or motivation hidden in the secret recesses of a martyr’s soul, but an explicitly manifest, textual event. The point I wish to emphasize is that repetition and the impulse to comprehensiveness, in Foxe’s martyrology, produces an interest in number that fundamentally changes how we imagine the relationship between events, even traumatic events, and topics. This relationship, it turns out, revolves around a host of invented numbers, and the manner in which they mean.

Inventing Numbers

On the very first page of the text proper of the Actes and Monuments, Foxe lays out a chronology of five ecclesiastical epochs: (1) 300 years of suffering, including the time of the apostles; (2) 300 years of flourishing, amongst the early church fathers; (3) another 300 years of backsliding; (4) 400 years of the time of Antichrist; (5) 280 years of reformation. It is this last era, and Foxe’s reticence about determining its endpoint, that matters most for us initially: "The durance of which tyme [the time of reformation] hath continued hetherto about the space of 280. yeres, and how long shall continue more, the Lord and gouernour of all tymes, he onely knoweth."5 Despite this avowed reticence to appoint the time of the apocalypse, Foxe has already done so in one of the topic’s prefatory sections, "Foure Questions

Propounded to the Papists." Here, he hints at a much more specific dating of the end of this fifth age—294 years—and attempts to identify the two beasts of Revelation with the papacy by highlighting a historical parallel between the duration of the early and recent persecutions:

Thirdly, where the sayd beast had power to make 42. monethes and to fight against the Saintes, and to ouercome them, &c. therby most manifestly is declared the Empyre of Rome, with the heathen persecuting Emperours, whiche had power geue the space of so many monthes, (that is, from Titherius to Licinius. 294. yeares) to persecute Christs Church as in the Table of the primitiue hereafter following is discoursed more at large.6

Yet Foxe also defers explanation of this equation for over 100 pages. Both in the text and in the margin, Foxe alerts readers that the link between 42 and 294 will be "discoursed more at large"; the marginal note points readers to the page on which this later exposition occurs.8 What is important about this moment is that the numbers that one might expect to be an explanatory device become an excuse for discovery and mystery in Foxe’s text—which is otherwise committed to the repetition of similar, even tiresome, narratives that always lead to the same point: the martyrs’s deaths.

Foxe invents the number 294 by multiplying 42 months—the time period allotted to the beast to speak blasphemies (Revelation 11:2 and 13:5)—by seven, what he dubs "counting by Sabbots." 42 x 7 = 294. Yet the invention does not stop there: he must also change "months" to "years" to fit the historical periodization that he is attempting. Strangely, Foxe then reports verifying the basic calculation of 42 times seven with several merchant friends: "Yet not satisfied herewith, to have the matter more sure, eftsoones I repaired to certain Merchants, of myne acquaintance … To whom the number of these foresaid 42 monethes, being propounded and examined by Sabbots of yeares, the whole summe was found to surmount to 294 yeres, conteining the full and just tyme of these foresaid persecutions neither more nor lesse."11

This text includes a table identifying the Pope and the Antichrist via the numerological values of both Hebrew and Greek letters, and the number of the beast, 666.13 As Firth notes, such a table is not unique to Foxe’s apocalypse commentary, but it does hint that his silence on the subject of the numerological significance of 294 is not the result of mere ignorance. His invented number, arguably, comes to have not only the exoteric meaning of a countdown to the end of the church’s persecution, but also an esoteric meaning to be discovered by more thorough, wide-ranging, and astute readers. Foxe’s discussion of a calculation explicitly forbidden—appointing the end of persecution and the Second Coming of Christ—asks readers to imagine the world as possessing a pattern that is "discoverable" by the transparent manipulation and invention of numbers.

Foxe insists that the autobiographical account of his oneiric inspiration for multiplying 42 and seven, as well as his verification of the calculation with third parties, should demonstrate to readers that he does not "follow any private interpretation of mine own."14 Yet his narrative avoids the readily available numerological evidence that would most concisely serve to buttress this defense. In short, this admittedly brief episode in Foxe’s massive volume—but one that is central to the organizational plan and historical theology of the entire martyrological project—does not present discovery as the ground or norm from which invention deviates. If anything, this personal narrative treats individual inspiration, and the imaginative inventions that flow from it, as an entirely sufficient ground for determining historical periodization, if not the generally conceived "truth of things."

This silent use of Kabalistic numerology is not a one-off event in the Actes and Monuments. The Rose Allin episode, "Tenne Martyrs condemned and burned at Colchester," closes with an arithmetical tally of the ages of the 10 martyrs, including Allin, who die at the stake: "Thus ended all these glorious x. soules that day, their happy liues vnto the Lord, whose ages all did growe to ^e summe of 406. yeares or thereabouts."15 This discovery is apparently important enough to be repeated in a marginal gloss: "The age of these Tenne made the summe of 406." The topic’s brief obsessive repetition of this number seems completely inexplicable until we recognize the numerological value of 406: it is the value of atah, or "thou." Or it is the numerical equivalent of tav, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, spelled out (i.e., since tav = 400 and vav = six, when one spells out tav—tav-vav—the sum that results is 406).16 It is probably this latter significance that Foxe’s evocation is designed to produce, although the absence of commentary in the Actes and Monuments on this score makes such claims necessarily speculative. At the very least, if 406 signifies nothing more than this last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it would highlight not only the finality of this martyrdom, but, simultaneously,its status as something more than a mere terminus—a significant concluding event with a meaning. Yet as Chanita Goodblatt explains, tav possesses such a variety of meanings that even this relatively full explanation does not exhaust its potential numerological significance. One of these meanings stems from the original orthography of the letter itself: "the original form of the letter ‘tav’ is a cross turned on its side." Even more likely in the context of the Allin episode is the meaning imagined by Calvin and John Donne, both of whom think it is the "protective marking of the righteous against their destroyers" mentioned in Ezekiel 9:4.17

As we saw with 294, in this instance the full weight of 406 is the result of extensive Kabalistic and semiotic study; yet the number itself is the apparently arbitrary invention of Foxe’s imagination. The only difference is that this time it’s not an oneiric vision that provides the invented number, but rather Foxe’s careful observation and summation of the martyrs’s ages.Rather, what matters here is how these different numerical inventions collude with numerology to produce a conflation of discovery and invention; and a commitment to, if not faith in, a very specific type of historical and even ontological pattern, one that is immanently and immediately knowable and present in texts.

Foxe’s evocation of 406 in the Rose Allin episode is not just a means of tempting readers to interpret and decode numerological signs, of postulating an esoteric mystery that an initiated elite might discover. By dotting the page with this number, Foxe’s text also bows to the imperative of its encyclopedic recording apparatus. Thus, it is not just a matter of discovering what 406 means, but rather of recording and repeating 406, of reaffirming the invention and discovery of this number and its importance for a broader pattern of available truth. After all, this number does not just appear briefly in the text and disappear as a minor detail: the marginal gloss reaffirms its mysterious importance—"The age of these Tenne made the summe of 406."18 294 receives similar treatment, but to a much greater extent, in the Actes and Monuments.19 The more important table, though, "A Table containing the time of the persecution both of the primitive, and of the latter Church, with the count of yeares from the first binding up of Sathan, to his loosing againe, after the minde of the Apocalyps," appears intent on populating the page with the numbers 294 and 1294.20 In other words, the table is less interested in recounting an accurate history than in discovering, producing, or recording the number 294. Moreover, Foxe’s topic has increasingly obliterated the distinctions between these activities.

As we will see, the approach here is nothing so banal as "recording makes it so," or the sheer performativity of inclusion and exclusion. Rather, the impulse of the Actes and Monuments to totality must promise, even if it cannot deliver, a world and a text in which the dialectic between inclusion and exclusion—and, for that matter, invention and discovery—no longer operates.

"An Universall History of the Same"

Foxe’s compendium poses a special sort of problem because it is not just any old Protestant topic, but rather an attempt, in Breitenberg’s phrase, "to amass an entire Protestant ‘state’ of texts."21 That is, the martyrological project demands that this total topic not just represent events, or use them to debate the merits of various confessional allegiances; but also that it perform the sort of immanent manifestation of true faith embedded in the rhetorical notion of martyria. Thus while Foxe’s encyclopedic impulses and chronicling procedures are certainly not unique, his project’s attempt to produce a totally recorded world, where mystery is not discovered and yet the martyr’s meaning is not retroactively invented, poses a basic problem for any readership: viz., what does the Actes and Monuments ask of us, if it removes both suspense and retroactive interpretation from our repertoire of activities?

Of course, the answer to these questions revolves, at least in part, around the burgeoning size and ambition of the Actes and Monuments over Foxe’s lifetime, its transformation from a history with very specific types of evidence to a "universal history." Even the title changes register this propensity. The 1563 edition promises a very narrow recent history with a particular focus on England and Scotland:

Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous dayes, touching matters of the Church, wherein are comprehended and described the great persecutions & horrible troubles, that have bene wrought and practiced by the Romishe Prelates, speciallye in this realme of England and Scotlande, from the yeare of our Lorde a thousande, unto the tyme nowe present.

By 1583, the topic has expanded to include the early persecutions, but it is not just this historical extension that differentiates the final edition. As several critics have noted, not only does the 1583 title dispense with a description of the types of evidence used to support its historical claims; it also arrogates to itself the project of a "universal history," one in which there is not so much a special focus on England and Scotland, as there is an identical repetition of earlier persecutions:22

Actes and Monuments of matters most speciall and memorable, happenying in the Church, with an Universall history of the same, wherein is set forth at large the whole race and course of the Church, from the primitive age to these latter tymes of ours, with the bloudy times, horrible troubles, and great persecutions agaynst the true Martyrs of Christ, sought and wrought as well by Heathen Emperours, as nowe lately practiced by Romish Prelates, especially in this Realme of England and Scotland.

Yet what would it mean to write, much less read, "an universal history" of the church? Would not "an Universall history of the same" not be a history, strictly speaking, at all?

There is more to Foxe’s copiousness than the mere accumulation of ever more evidence, documentation, and repetitive stories. At some point, the very nature of the martyrology changes, and it seeks to accomplish something other than the mediated representation of events. As Breitenberg notes:

By a variety of narrative strategies, Foxe seeks to collapse the inevitable mediation between the event and its textual depiction in the Acts and Monuments. This desire to reproduce the original event imitates the larger design of Foxe’s history, which is, in part to reproduce the original purity of the apostolic church before its corruption by Rome … Reproductions of the Word, the apostolic church and, in the case of the scene at the stake, the crucifixion, consequently possess a great investment in understanding their representations as unmediated reproductions. In the case of the Word, language is understood as plain and open rather than allegorical; as for Foxe’s depictions of martyrdom, the strategy is that his own text fully reproduces the event.23

Yet the rhetorical aim that Breitenberg ascribes to Foxe’s "reproductions" reintroduces mediation at precisely the point where the text most stridently seeks to overcome it: after all, an event reproduced in a text has its primary existence somewhere else.The Actes and Monuments is not a conglomeration of events outside in the world, discovered or invented, but rather precisely what its title maintains: not just a monument to these events, but the acts that constitute these events themselves. In short, Foxe’s topic fancies itself both the story and the meaning, the sign and its significance.

The function of repetition and encyclopedic inclusiveness in Foxe is to assure us that there is only sameness in the world: there are no irreconcilable debates, differences, or others. Narrative cannot accomplish this, insofar as it reaffirms the basic difference between story and meaning, between past and present and future. In contrast, number, particularly chronology, appears as a pivotal, if multifarious, aspect of Foxe’s drive toward homology. That is, unlike the numerological temptations that this topic has already addressed, chronological numbers promise to manifest sameness without resorting to a necessarily self-undermining or absent meaning. Chronos and chronology then promise what numerology cannot: a notion of manifestation that does not depend on a secret and retroactive interpretative process. As even the organization of Foxe’s text demonstrates, the explanation of 294 requires not only an esoteric intertextuality, but also, quite simply, delay, in this case a delay of 100 pages. Numerology depends upon a hermeneutic practice that distributes meaning after the fact, even if it ultimately asserts that it’s always been there, all along, inside of the numbers. A meaningful chronos appears attractive precisely because it holds out the fantasy of an immanent fullness, the witness and testimony that martyria demands.

As Alison Chapman notes, Foxe’s Kalendar seems so obsessed with maintaining chronological sequence that the accuracy of death dates bow to this imperative.24 Yet this is not just the function of the introductory Kalendar, but also a result of an episodic chronicle structure that presents the date of death, the sheer terminus of a martyr’s life, as the principle of organization for the entire volume. As John King notes, instead of unfolding through a full chronological sequence, all narrative material appears appended to the date of martyrdom.25 By arranging the individual martyrs’s lives according to the dates of death, rather than a chronological narration of their participation in Reformation debates or events, the volume’s organization actually implies that it is neither the death nor the cause that makes the martyr, but the temporal sequence itself.

These notations occur all the way up to page 2121, three pages before Foxe transitions into his appendices. Earlier topics of the Actes have similar chronological finding aids, but these appear more sporadically. The dates involved frequently do not match, as a result of the volume’s organization of documents and narratives around death dates. Thus, as just one example, "Anno. 1555 February" appears in the margin of an account of one of Hooper’s examinations that occurs in January 1555. "THe xxij. of Ianuary followyng, 1555" is the first phrase on the page, right beside the incorrect marginal notation.26 Even more ill-fitting is Foxe’s history of the invention of the Catholic mass: this polemic recitation of over 1200 years of liturgical history occurs on pages marked "Anno 1553."27 Dates even appear on pages where there are no events to date. Thus, "Anno 1555" appears in the margin of topic 10′s reproduction and refutation of the mass.28 In sum: always haunting this text from the margin, regardless of what’s in the text itself, is a reaffirmation of an organizational system based on the mere march of time— chronos—not what happens in it.

A notation that looks to be nothing more than an indexing and cataloguing instrument offers an order that competes with the narratives contained in the topic. Even the conclusion of the account of a pivotal martyr like Thomas Cranmer cannot avoid mentioning his mere temporal position in the broader historical drift of the Marian persecutions:

And thus haue you the full story concernyng the lyfe and death of this reuerend Archbish. and Martyr of God, Thomas Cranmer, and also of diuers other the learned sort of Christs Martyrs burned in Queene Maries time, of whom this Archb. was the last, beyng burnt about the very middle tyme of the raign of that Queene, and almost the very middle man of all the Martyrs which were burned in all her raigne besides.29

"Almost the very middle man." The passage does not insist that this approximate median status means anything: it merely places Cranmer in a chronological sequence. Readers might certainly conclude that the detail has significance, that being in the middle means being the fulcrum or pivot of events. Yet this is to read story, drama, and climax into a topic that concludes its account of Cranmer not with his dramatic death, but with his letters.


The point of this admittedly hasty tour through the manifold ways that Foxe deploys chronology is not simply that chronos (the sheer march of numbers) rather than kairos (a special opportunity seized) organizes the topic.30 Rather, what matters for us here is what sort of world chronos produces for readers: like 294 and 406, a sequence of dates is not really discovered, but neither is it a sheer act of invention. Chapman describes Foxe’s Kalendar and the version of time it embodies as "a relentlessly sequential unfolding of historical time." For Hayden White, the chronological unfolding of annals is similarly "relentless": "There is no scarcity of the years: they descend regularly from their origin, the year of the Incarnation, and roll relentlessly on to their potential end, the Last Judgment."31 However, framing Foxe’s use of numbers and chronology as an inexorable march assumes the very sort of dialectical fight between determinism and human agency—and discovery and invention, for that matter—that Foxe’s encyclopedic inclusiveness seeks to evade: i.e., the march of time is only relentless if one fears the Second Coming or if one imagines such a march as necessarily at odds with one’s own desires.

Andrew Escobedo’s account of the conflict between apocalyptic and national histories nicely encapsulates the need for a non-dialectical account of invention and discovery if one is ever going to imagine providential history as something more than a fatalistic determinism. "Modernity, like progress," Escobedo writes, "requires an effort of self-definition (an ‘accomplishment’) that dramatically, if unrealistically, leaves the past behind. Human effort thus seems to produce a break in time, contrary to the notion of historical progress as inevitable, gradual, and continuous."32 Foxe’s topic, as I have attempted to show throughout this topic, does not accept this basic dialectic, but rather attempts to render the world both flatly and immanently homologous: no dramatic eruptions of accomplishment or inevitable bows to fatalistic forces here.

Number and chronology have a pivotal function in such an account. Unlike kairotic opportunities, chronology is neither invented nor discovered, and offers no opportunities for tension, dialectical or otherwise. There is no problem of summing up, or subordinating events to a broader teleological end. The turn to chronos does not simply reject meaning, but rather transforms what we mean by signification and meaning. The notion that one would uncover a secreted meaning in the simple march of time is belied by our earlier discussion of numerology: the significant numbers are not the object of discovery, but rather invention. Yet neither does the Actes and Monuments unleash the capricious desires of readers, providing them with the freedom to invent at will. What both of these gestures share is the notion that meaning resides somewhere else, in the reality or secret unearthed, or in the interior recesses of the inventing subject, or the beneficial consequences of the invention. There is certainly that aspect to martyrdom, the uncovering of the true cause; but it ignores, as Foxe’s use of numbers repeatedly emphasizes, the notion of a readily apparent and available manifestation. Number, both in its numerological and chronological capacities, becomes the engine for overcoming this particular conundrum within Foxe’s martyrology.

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