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3: Cultural Context: Gender and Religion in 16th-Century England

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    Guiding Questions 

    • How does Anne Askew present herself during her Examinations?
    • What kind of influence do John Bale's and John Foxe's editorial voices have in shaping the reader's perception of Askew?
    • Does gender shape Askew's role as a martyr?

    In this cultural context section, we will examine both 16th-century and contemporary sources to gain a greater understanding of Anne Askew's role and impact as a Protestant martyr, particularly in the ways her gender, intelligence, and outspoken nature arise in the text. 

    The Early Modern Conversation: What do 16th-century sources tell us?

    John Bale

    John Bale was the editor of the first publications of Anne Askew's Examinations in 1546 and 1547. Born in Suffolk in 1495, he was brought up and educated as a Catholic, but later converted to Protestantism (King 482). Bale was a writer known for his scriptural plays that criticised Roman Catholicism and spread reformist ideas (483). As an outspoken Protestant who openly criticized the Church in Rome, Bale was forced to flee England for Germany in 1540, where he started publishing martyrologies, including the Examinations of Anne Askew. He returned to England in 1547, where he continued to publish reformist works (483). When Mary Tudor, a Catholic, took the throne in 1553, John Bale once again fled England, this time to the Netherlands, and returned in 1559 only after Elizabeth I came to power (485). Bale died in Canterbury in 1563 (485).

    Reading the Title Page

    John Bale's Examinations of Anne Askew 1546.jpgJohn Bale’s editorialization of The Examinations of Anne Askew, which was later edited and added to The Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, articulates the defense of Askew’s convictions. Bale traces her genealogy back to John the Baptist and Elijah, positioning Anne Askew a primitive martyr to the proto-Protestant Reformation. The relationship of female authorship and male-authored prefaces, especially in this text, places Bale in the role of a prophet rather than merely a medium between text and reader. Throughout Bale’s preface, he presents one of his many roles as the textual preserver of Anne Askew: "Thus hath not the fire taken Anne Akew all whole from the world, but left her here unto it more pure, perfect and precious than afore" (Bale 143). In Bale’s writings, it is difficult to find the line where he appropriates the death of Anne for his own political purposes and where he truly praises the fiery Askew for her haughty mockery of the Church. This unbalanced binary can be explained by the male-authorship for a female written work; Bale’s contribution suggests the need for mediation of female authorship. Although Bale’s preface presents the struggle between editor and author, he does register the tensions Askew resisted in her martyrdom. This rejection of societal expectations can be seen with the chosen imagery of the title page. Directly beneath the image of Askew is a verse from Proverbs:

    "Favoure is disceytfull | and bewtye is a vayne thynge. But a woman that feareth the lorde | is worthye to be praysed. She open neth her mouthe to wysdome | and in her language is the lawe of grace."

    This verse raises the question regarding the right for Anne Askew to ‘open neth her mouthe’ which resists the law of St. Paul that prohibited women from preaching or teaching the Word of God. The verse, found in Proverbs 31 of the Hebrew Bible, details the advice given by a mother to her son and provides the attributes of the idealized woman. While Bale's framing of Askew's account resists female authorial autonomy, he does position her as the woman of God. The inclusion of this verse is used as a tool, alongside Bale’s commentary, to prepare the reader of Anne Askew’s trials, execution, and martyrdom.

    Illustrating Askew

    In the woodcut illustration found on the title page of John Bale's 1546 edition of Anne Askew's Examinations, Anne seems to be depicted as a saintly figure. The rays of light surrounding her head suggest the formation of a halo, which are often used in depictions of holy figures in Catholic imagery, such as saints, angels, and the holy family. This suggestion of sainthood is important because it demonstrates how Anne's image and story was being used as a monument to Protestant martyrdom even before the publication of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

    This particular image of Anne seems to emphasize her resilience and strength. In the illustration, her brows are furrowed, she has a slight smile, and her eyes are fixed outward, not down toward the beast. Her face appears calm, but determined, which alludes to her composed and assertive tone in the text. Additionally, the illustration highlights Anne's intellect as well as her faith; in one hand she holds a Bible, and in the other, a writing quill. The importance of the quill--and Anne's role as an educated female writer--is particuarly prominent, as the proportions of the quill seem to be enlarged for emphasis. In posing Anne in this way, the artist asserts Anne's importance not only as a Protestant martyr, but as a thinker and writer, which directly conflicted with the accepted gender roles of the period.

    At the bottom of the image is a depiction of a smiling, serpent-like beast. This beast represents the Catholic Church, as evidenced by its ornate papal headdress. In the composition of the image, Anne is positioned in front of the beast, which suggests triumph and glory in her willingness to sacrifice herself for the Protestant faith. However, one might also argue that the beasts' ominous smile and coiling, towering tail represents the lurking threat of persecution and execution protestants faced during the Reformation.


    The Current Conversation: What do scholars say about Askew?


    In a chapter of A Challenge to Authority, author Elaine V. Beilin focuses on Anne Askew and her ability to diverge from the, "learned and virtuous woman as a private, modest, silent being," that society expects Askew to be (Beilin 29). Beilin believes that Anne recognized her status as a woman in 16th-century society, and admires her commitment to breaking her restrictions. One aspect of this chapter is how the Catholic versus the Protestant image of Anne Askew. Beilin believes Catholics recognized Askew as a weak and foolish woman who should have recognized the authority of the Church and State. Protestant reformers, on the other hand, recognize Askew's courage in acting against the Church and believe her strength must have been sent from God; a confirmation on God's approval of the New Faith (Beilin 30). Another aspect of this chapter is the comparison between the way Askew presents herself as a strong woman in her writing, and John Bale's commentary. Beilin believes, "Bale attributes to God all the strength given to a naturally feeble woman, and deduces that her courage must be proof that God is with her and that their mutual cause is divinely sanctioned," (Beilin 34). In saying this, Bale does not believe Askew is a brave and courageous woman by nature alone, and that God must have intervened to provide her the strength she needed to stand up against the Church. Beilin concludes by saying, "wherever she derived her strength, she convinces the reader of her power by a controlled, dignified, assured style that portrays a woman humble before God," (Beilin 42). Askew's writings acknowledge her restraint as a woman of the 16th-century, and influenced a type of writing to be used by women for the next several decades. Click here to read.

    Finding Anne Askew's Voice

    Though the analysis of Elaine Beilin's chapter, she attempts to answer how society's understanding of gender influenced Anne's role as a martyr and how the understanding of gender blocked or hid Anne's voice. By analyzing the traditional roles of gender, we can hope to further understand how Anne Askew showed defiance in her writings and why she became a Protestant martyr in a male-dominated society.

    During the 16th-century, women were seen as weak, frail, and of lower intelligence than men. Though there was an understanding that women were inferior to men in every essence, Anne's writings challenged and defied the gender norms, as well as the hierarchy of the Church and State. Beilin uses John Bale's and John Foxes' publication of Anne's examinations to understand gender and to rationalize why Anne Askew would portray herself as a defiant woman, since this was going against the societal norms of gender at the time. Bale was perplexed by Anne's examinations. He believed in the traditional notions of gender and admired Anne Askew for what she had done, but the strict gender norms in society obscured the reality that Anne was an intelligent and bold woman who fought for what she believed in. The only way that Bale could understand how Anne could be so defiant was that the defiance came not from a woman, but from God directly. Bale admired the "unwomanly power in her words and deeds by attributing them to divine grace," which disregarded how Anne wanted to portray herself in her writings (Beilin 31). Bale tried to interpret Anne's writing, but all he did was conform her to the gender norms that she was fighting to break away from, unlike John Foxes' publication of Anne's examinations, which allows Anne's writings to be read in their true form. Bale used Anne's examinations to be a prophet, rather than being a medium for readers, like Foxe. Beilin states that, "while Anne shared Bale's belief in God's strength and her own human weakness, by the very act of writing down her examinations, Askew created a woman of faith, strength, and purpose," which shows that it was not her gender, but that fact that she had human weakness that caused God to work in her and that she had enough intelligence to enact action of God's work, unlike the belief of Bale. She found her voice through her writing's, which is evident in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

    By also looking at Anne's background, one can understand her boldness and outward defiance of male authority, beginning with her husband and ending with the hierarchy of the Church. She had to conform and obey her father, which resulted in a difficult and loveless marriage. As a way to escape the confinements she had been forced in by all the men in her life, she began to write and be bold especially in matters religion, since she believed that God was working through her to establish the true faith. Her writing shows that Anne was a "God-fearing and honest woman" who told her truth and did not care who she offended (Beilin 36). We see her voice and power in reading her examination in which she, as Beilin states, "consistently presents herself in control of her questioners by throwing their questions back, responding with another question, smiling, or reprimanding them for their poor judgement," meaning that this was a way that Askew was determined, not only to prove that she was doing God's work, but that she was also an intellectual that challenged the gender norms of the time, proving that women are not inferior to men (Beilin 35). She proved to her interrogators and torturers that God was acting through her by using quotes of the Scripture to prove that their beliefs and that of the Church were not true. Through her strength and faith, she was able to withstand torturing on the rack from her interrogators since she knew that God's work needed to be done no matter the dire consequences. John Bale's version of Anne's examination distorted what Anne wanted people to understand, but she was redeemed in John Foxe's publication, which did not try to interpret Anne's words but allowed readers to see Anne's voice, without the patriarchy trying to interpret her words for their own gain.

      3: Cultural Context: Gender and Religion in 16th-Century England is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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