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Martyrs, Mystics, and Muslims in the Medieval World

The place of martyrdom within late medieval Latin Christianity has received relatively little attention. Scholars such as James Ryan have generally contextualized the phenomenon of the Franciscan martyrs within the larger context of missions to the non-Christian world; the death of missionaries has largely been discussed as a byproduct of such missions, rather than as a discrete phenomenon. Individual groups of martyrs, particularly the martyrs who died in Morocco in 1220 and those who died in Ceuta in 1227, have received more sustained attention. Paolo Evangelisti has examined voluntary martyrdom and the Franciscans in the context of the crusades, and Randolph Daniels’s influential 1972 article on martyrdom in the work of Bonaventure has shaped the understanding of the place of martyrdom, both real and rhetorical, within the spiritual discourse of the thirteenth century, but the fourteenth century received has received relatively little attention. In general, most monographs on martyrdom focus on either the Roman period or on eastern Christian martyrologies written under Islamic rule. No monograph has tackled the topic of Franciscan martyrdom specifically or martyrdom in the larger late medieval world.

Beginning in 1220, bands of Franciscans began travelling to Muslim lands to die as martyrs. My book, the first to discuss either the martyrs or the larger topic of martyrdom in late medieval culture and religion, argues that the martyrs embarked on their missions believing that the power of the word of God, and the dramatic testimony of their own deaths would convert many Muslims and eradicate Islam. The stories that preserve their deaths, however, emphasize the failure of their preaching missions and testify that even their patient endurance of death won no adherents to Christianity. The stories of the martyrs instead valorized the desire for martyrdom rather than its accomplishment, discouraged the notion that Muslims could be converted, and served to unify a fractured Franciscan order. Martyrdom was one of the defining characteristics of early Christianity, and the stories and shrines of the martyrs were the backbone of many Christian communities. Martyrs and martyrdom continued to be a vital part of Christian belief, liturgy, and language in the later medieval period, but the topic has received little attention; my book will be first to tackle the subject. The Franciscan martyrs allow me to address several topics that are engaging for both scholars and the reading public. The martyrs died in an effort to eradicate Islam; in doing so, they drew on a language of martyrdom common to both Christians and Muslims. The stories of the martyrs thus record a pivotal moment in the history between Christianity and Islam, and the stories about the martyrs shaped Christian attitudes towards Muslims in the later Middle Ages, and shed light on the often contentious use of the term “martyr” in interactions between the two religions. They were also pivotal in debates over what it meant to live a life following Jesus; did one need to follow Jesus to death to follow him perfectly? The friars who died likely believed that martyrdom was the most perfect imitation of Christ. Paradoxically, the stories of the martyrs were preserved in a larger body of literature that promoted the desire for martyrdom over the reality of dying for God, and that suggested that mystical contemplation was a truer path to God than martyrdom.

The project will thus accomplish two goals. It will first examine the rise of the Franciscan martyrs as a distinct phenomenon, which, while connected to Franciscan missionary efforts, rested on strikingly different assumptions about the world. In particular, the project will explore the ways in which Franciscan authors used narratives about martyrdom to assert the values of the Franciscan order, to characterize confrontation with Islam, and to delineate the relationship of the secular world with Second, the project will build a narrative covering martyrdom within the wider world of late medieval Christianity. This narrative will place martyrdom, both real and rhetorical, within the spectrum of spiritual achievements of the late medieval world.