Jean Crespin’s Book of Martyrs

IN 1546, 14 men of Meaux, France, were found guilty of heresy and condemned to be burned alive. Their crimes? They met in private homes, prayed, sang psalms, observed the Lord’s Supper, and declared that they would never accept “Papistical idolatries.”

On execution day, the Roman Catholic teacher François Picard challenged the condemned men about their beliefs regarding the Lord’s Supper. They answered by questioning him about the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, which claims that the bread and the wine used during that observance change miraculously into Jesus’ flesh and blood. ‘Does the bread,’ the condemned men asked, ‘taste like meat? Or the wine like blood?’

Despite the lack of response, the 14 were tied to stakes and burned alive. The ones who had not had their tongues removed sang psalms. Priests who stood around the execution site attempted to drown them out by singing louder than they did. The next day, on the same spot, Picard proclaimed that the 14 were condemned to hell forever.

In the 1500’s, Europe was a dangerous place for religious dissenters. Many who challenged the accepted church doctrines underwent horrific experiences at the hands of their religious opposers. One source of information about such sufferings is Jean Crespin’s Le Livre des martyrs (Book of Martyrs), published in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1554. It is also known as Histoire des martyrs. *

A Lawyer Joins the Reformation

Born about 1520, in Arras, in what is now northern France, Crespin studied law at Louvain, Belgium. It was likely while he was there that he was for the first time exposed to Reformist ideas. In 1541, Crespin went to Paris to work as the secretary of a noted jurist. About the same time, he witnessed in Place Maubert, Paris, the burning of Claude Le Painctre, who had been condemned as a heretic. Crespin was deeply impressed by the faith of this young goldsmith, who was executed for what Crespin called “announcing the truth to his parents and friends.”

About this time, Crespin began practicing law in Arras. Soon, however, his newfound beliefs led to his being accused of heresy. To escape prosecution, he fled to Strasbourg, France, and later settled in Geneva, Switzerland. There, Crespin associated with supporters of the Reformation. He gave up his legal career and became a printer.

Crespin published religious works of Reformers, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther,  John Knox, and Theodore Beza. He printed the Greek text of the part of the Bible commonly called the New Testament and the Bible​—in whole or in part—​in English, French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish. Crespin became famous, however, for his Book of Martyrs. In it he listed many who had been executed for heresy between 1415 and 1554.

The Purpose of a Martyrology

Much of the literature produced by Reformers denounced the brutality of the Catholic authorities. It encouraged the people by presenting the “heroism” of Protestant martyrs as a continuation of the sufferings faced by God’s servants in earlier times, including Christians in the first century. To provide fellow Protestants with examples to be imitated, Crespin compiled a catalog of those who had suffered death for their faith. *

Crespin’s book is a compilation of records of trials, inquisitorial proceedings, and eyewitness accounts, as well as testimonies written by the accused while they were in prison. Included, too, were letters of encouragement written to those in prison, some of which are filled with quotations from the Bible. The faith of the writers, Crespin believed, was “worthy of perpetual memory.”

Much of the doctrinal material covered in Crespin’s book centers on well-known disputes between Catholics and Protestants. The persecutors and the persecuted argued, for example, over such issues as the use of images in worship, purgatory, and prayers for the dead, as well as whether Jesus’ sacrifice was repeated during the Catholic Mass and whether the pope was God’s representative.

The Book of Martyrs is a testimony to the controversy and intolerance that characterized those violent times. While Crespin focused on the Catholic persecution of Protestants, it should not be forgotten that Protestants have at times also persecuted Catholics with much the same ferocity.

Throughout history, false religion has stained itself with “the blood of prophets and of holy ones and of all those who have been slaughtered on the earth.” Certainly, the blood of those whom God recognizes as his faithful martyrs cries out for vengeance. (Revelation 6:9, 10; 18:24) Likely some of those who suffered and died for their faith back in Jean Crespin’s day were searching in all sincerity for religious truth.

[Footnotes]

^ par. 5 A translation of one title of Crespin’s work is Book of Martyrs, That Is, a Collection of Several Martyrs Who Endured Death in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, From Jan Hus Until This Year, 1554. Several revised and enlarged editions with various titles and content were published during Crespin’s lifetime; and others, after his death.

^ par. 11 Two other martyrologies were published in 1554​—the same year that Crespin published his Book of Martyrs—​one in German, by Ludwig Rabus, and the other in Latin, by John Foxe.

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Title page of Crespin’s Book of Martyrs (1564 Edition)

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Execution of Protestants before the French King Henry II and his court

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Images, both pages: © Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français, Paris