VERSTEGAN, Richard Theatre des cruautez des hereticques de nostre temps

Antwerp, chez Adrien Hubert, 1588


FIRST EDITION Thus. 4to. pp. [lxxii], 95 [i]; A-H4, A-M44, (the two parts bound in inverse order, except for title, and H4 (avertissement) placed after title, but complete). Roman and Italic letter. Engraved title with twenty nine engravings in text, grotesque woodcut initials and head-pieces, typographical and metal-cut ornaments. Light age yellowing, very expert repair to blank lower and upper gutter of title and blank lower outer corner of following leaf. A fine copy, crisp and clean, with good margins, in fine dark brown french crushed morocco ‘Janseniste’ by Chambolle-Duru, spine with raised bands, title and date gilt lettered, edges double gilt ruled, inner dentelles richly gilt, combed marbled endpapers, a.e.g First edition of the French translation, published the year after the first edition (Latin) of this important and finely illustrated martyrology, a work of Counter-Reformation propaganda, culminating with the beheading of Mary Stewart in 1587. The scenes evoked are of rare violence: monks gutted or castrated, a captain wearing a necklace made of priests’ ears, children cut to pieces by sadistic soldiers – a transposition of the massacre of the Innocents. Richard Verstegan (aka Richard Rowlands) (?1548-?1636) was a Catholic Anglo-Dutch antiquarian, goldsmith and publisher. The first half of his life was spent in England, but he was prevented from obtaining a degree from Oxford University because of his religion. Following the prejudice he suffered at Oxford and as a response to the incarceration and treatment of Mary Queen of Scots, Verstegan published the first edition of his martyrologium, ‘Theatrum Crudelitatum’, in 1583. The book may also have been conceived as a Catholic reply to the famous Protestant Book of Martyrs by John Foxe. Verstegan’s book attempted to record, in gruesome detail, the cruelty, torture and murder of Catholic martyrs in Europe – especially English and Irish victims under Elizabeth I, at the hands of Protestants. On publication he was arrested and imprisoned for libel against the Crown and all copies were confiscated and destroyed, a single page has survived. Verstegan was able to secure his release and fled the country, ultimately settling in Antwerp where he became a prolific and influential author and publisher. One of his first works there was the expanded and definitive version of the ‘Theatrum Crudelitatum’ published in 1587. Some of the 29 engravings were produced by the author, including an illustration of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The Theatrum is in five sections: an introduction and illustrated accounts of the persecution of Catholics during the reign of Henry VIII, during the French wars of Religion, in the early years of the Dutch revolt, and under Elizabeth. “It was a seminal work of hagiology, but it was not only an important devotional work, it was also, if only indirectly, propaganda for the Spanish Armada. The book ends with a depiction of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots on the 8th of February 1587, and a call to the Catholic princes of Europe to avenge this Calvanist regicide, while the introduction devotes considerable space to demonstrating that Elizabeth had broken her coronation oath and violated reason and justice with her various statutes and proclamations against Catholics. Details of the atrocities against priests and religious committed under Henry VIII and by Huguenot and Gueux soldiery in the fifteen-sixties and seventies may have borne an incidental implication that Mary Tudor’s forceful suppression of heresy in the fifteen-fifties and the actions of the Guisards and Alva in the late fifteen fifties were provoked by the aggression of the heretics. A stated purpose was to show that Calvinists, unlike any other Christian group since the Munster Anabaptists, viewed the forcible overthrow of the established order as a necessary precondition to religious reform in the creation of a ‘godly commonwealth’. Both as a devotional work and as propaganda the Theatrum far surpassed the immediate purpose of the moment and continued to be printed into the C17. As polemic it provided a historical argument against Calvinism which was to be picked up in a number of influential historical works. In its emphasis on reason, nature and justice as the standards against which the cruelties committed should be judged, it is a work significant of the late-Aristotelian development of the concept of natural rights. Almost a century later, Anthony à Wood was to write of the Theatrum that “Tis very scarce, and sells for any money”. Paul Arblaster. ‘Antwerp & the world, Richard Verstegan and the international Culture of Catholic Reformation.’ A fine copy of this extraordinarily illustrated work; Brunet notes that though it is the second edition of the plates it is more sought after than the first as it is enlarged. 

USTC 6948. Allison & Rogers, vol.1, 1300. Milward 267 (first edition). Brunet V 773-4. Shaaber. Gillow V 567. “This work gave great offense to Q. Elizabeth, who complained to the King of France, by whom he was imprisoned for a time.”

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