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3 - Truth, lies, and fiction in sixteenth-century Protestant historiography

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 August 2010

Donald R. Kelley
Affiliation:
Rutgers University, New Jersey
David Harris Sacks
Affiliation:
Reed College, Oregon
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Summary

John Foxe (and notwithstanding some glancing references to John Bale and Miles Coverdale, Foxe will serve on this occasion as shorthand for “sixteenth-century historiography”) had a great deal to say on the subject of “truth.” In a sense he wrote about nothing else. But he was accused by his religious opponents of telling lies on an unprecedented scale. And if he did not deliberately propagate fictions, in the sense of inventing his stories, he wove his material into forms that were as fictive as they were factual. Like his friend and mentor, Bale, he was a mythmaker, even, it has been said, “the prince of English historical mythmakers,” which is not to say that he was not also a great historian. Jane Austen wondered why history was so dull, considering that so much of it was made up. One could say that what makes Foxe's history so arresting is that it is partly made up, or, given his models and materials, makes itself up.

In introducing a section of his Acts and Monuments that consists of little more than a collection of original documents of the early German and Swiss Reformations (presented with a minimum of commentary), Foxe wrote that he was giving readers “a sight thereof,” so that they would not believe the “smooth talk or pretensed persuasions of men,” especially in church matters, “unless they carry with them the simplicity of plain truth.” That was to denigrate rhetoric and to equate “plain truth,” like some sixteenth-century Ranke, with unadorned documents, to tell the story as it actually (or evidently) was. The anachronism is obvious and intentional.

Type
Chapter
Information
The Historical Imagination in Early Modern Britain
History, Rhetoric, and Fiction, 1500–1800
, pp. 37 - 68
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1997

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