In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Persecution and Martyrdom

  • Introduction
  • Encyclopedias and References
  • Journals
  • Medieval Antecedents to Persecution
  • Inquisitions
  • Martyrdom
  • Punishment and the Spectacle of Martyrdom
  • Martyrologists and Martyrologies
  • Martyrdom and Literature

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Renaissance and Reformation Persecution and Martyrdom
Sarah Covington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0142


The fragmentation of western Christianity in the wake of the reformation ended the monolithic power of the Roman Catholic Church, only to bring a new age of persecution in its wake. Princes, magistrates, and reformers sought to enforce their official religion as the only one, equating religious dissent with political and moral disorder; the result was that thousands of martyrs were made, from Protestants during the reign of Mary to Catholics under Elizabeth, from Low Country Calvinists under Charles V to Huguenots under France, and Anabaptists under everyone. But Christians were not the only ones affected by the disruptions of the reformation. Historians still debate the causes, but most agree that the upsurge of witchcraft persecutions in the 16th century was at least partly related to the changes wrought by the reformation; meanwhile, the persecution of Jews was given renewed vigor by the sentiments of many reformers, and Luther above all, even though their own history in the period was marked by the onslaught of the inquisitors, and the earlier, catastrophic expulsion from Spain in 1492. While historians have long been interested in the story of persecution and martyrdom in the early modern period, however, recent decades have witnessed new approaches that overturn traditional assumptions. The Spanish and Italian inquisitions, for example, can no longer be viewed as oppressive mechanisms of arbitrary power that many historians of the past maintained. Nor can the late 17th and 18th centuries be described as ushering in an “age of toleration,” when figures such as Sebastian Castellio, writing in the 16th century, and others before that, have been given more attention for their tolerationist treatises. In the realm of practice, coexistence and boundaries are now the keywords that drive much analysis of relations between conflicting faiths, just as the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism, at least on the ground, may not be as severe as once supposed. While lines of demarcation were important, the reality was more fluid than that postulated by the term “persecuting society.” The following bibliography is intended to provide a representative sample of works relating to the enormous historiographical field of religious persecution, martyrdom, and toleration; while it is by no means comprehensive—and English titles are privileged—these studies are chosen in part for the manner in which they represent new approaches to their respective subjects, as well as their capacity to lead students into further directions of research.

General Overviews

Though scholars continue to be drawn into the violent and persecutory aspects of early modern religious history, recent years have witnessed an enormous surge of scholarly interest in evidence of religious coexistence before toleration supposedly “triumphed” with modernity. Influenced by the penal histories of Michel Foucault or studies in ritual and violence, historians once wrote of the workings of a “persecutory society” or an “anthropology of violence” in official workings of power or popular religious riots respectively; even scholars who write about martyrdom and martyrologies today tend to work from a set of presuppositions in which “intolerant” religious policies inevitably led to executions on grounds of faith. But many of the following works complicate this picture by emphasizing the boundaries that could be crossed between faiths in daily interactions, or the contingent acts of indulgence or refrain from persecution on the part of the state. Toleration, in other words, existed before Locke or Voltaire, even if it interacted with intolerant policies and practices.

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