The Symbolic Violence of Books: Review of How to Make an Atrocity at Durham Book Festival

Nadia Terki
Nadia Terki

The archival collections at Durham’s Palace Green Library include many historic books which, though beautifully designed and presented, can be used to tell a story of brutal violence, religious conflict, and propaganda. Nadia Terki took a tour with Professor Alec Ryrie as part of Durham Book Festival.

Professor Ryrie started with an enlightening introduction to the symbiotic relation between bloodshed, violence, and the way propaganda makes a strategic use of these for certain political agendas. According to him, violence, either imagined or genuine, can be used for ‘polemical purposes’. The books present a kind of propaganda, and not only represent real events, but also exaggerated violence with the aim of justifying counter-violence. This talk was entitled How to Make an Atrocity, yet atrocity as Professor Ryrie uses it does not necessarily mean a horrid action, but rather the propaganda element, the fact of using a story for political agendas: atrocity in the sense of the symbolic message it sends, violence that does not target specific people.

After the introduction to the wider sense of violence, atrocity and propaganda, we moved to a historical exploration of propagandist violence during the 16th century, the first age of such printed material. Professor Ryrie excelled in providing an exciting exploration and explanation of the intertwinement of religious identity, political identity, and violence. Conflicting religious views, mainly those of Catholics and Protestants, have been a principal component of the formation of the political identity. These conflicting identities were reinforced by the printed propaganda of violence, such as a wide range of books of martyrs who were celebrated for having suffered for their faith.

Professor Ryrie guided us through the magnificent, and rather lengthy (2 million words), John Foxe’s 4th edition of The Book of Martyrs which explores the violence that was supposedly inflicted on the Protestants. The title page summarizes the book’s intentions. It tells a parallel story where the former are represented through woodcut illustrations as the true Church with symbols of angels, martyrs, crowns and preacher prayers in peaceful surroundings, while the latter, the false Church, is illustrated with images of burning martyrs, demons tormenting the damned, Mass worship, and a preacher whose prayers are ignored.

The Book of Martyrs
The Book of Martyrs. Photo credit: Nadia Terki.

The Book of Martyrs is a kind of printed propaganda that aimed essentially at demonizing the Roman Catholic Church because of its tyranny. It is in a way a book about, as Professor Ryrie puts it, the ‘myth of Catholic cruelty’.

The Theatre of Cruelty is among the fewer books that tell the opposite story: the suffering of Catholics from the violence of Protestants. Destined for an international audience, it tells the story of those who were massacred by the English Protestants, giving examples of victims, such as John Fisher and, most dreadful and shocking of all, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. This book stimulated a significant reaction from the European community due to its accessibility and affordability.

Other books give examples of violence related to religious and political identity as it extended from Europe to the world. We saw the legends around the brutality of Catholic Spain in the New World against the natives, or the ways in which the imperial ambitions of Europe drove the Japanese to adopt harsh laws, and later executions, to suppress the Japanese Christian community concentrated in places like Nagasaki.

Collection of Certain Horrid Murders in Certain Counties of Ireland is another fascinating publication which we had the pleasure of going through. Alec Ryrie took us though the captivating structure of the book, which lists the names of the people killed following the Irish rising against King Henry VIII and the imposition of Protestantism in Ireland, as well as the importation of the Protestant population into the most Catholic regions of Ireland.

A collection of certain horrid murders in several counties in ireland 1641
A Collection of Certain Horrid Murders in Several Counties of Ireland. Committed Since 23rd of October 1641. Photo credit: Nadia Terki.

The book also explores the violence used to put down the Irish rebellion and its justification as self-defence against the danger coming from the north. These historic publications served as the means by which the Protestants justified their violence in response to the ‘barbarously exquisite’ viciousness of the Catholics towards the Protestants.

The propaganda moved a step further into the use of imaginary atrocities that did not actually happen. There was an atmosphere of projection into a future where these imagined ‘gun powder’ plots might happen, as a way of justifying what is referred to today as retaliation. There is, for example, an Act of Parliament for a celebration of the fifth day of November of every year, commemorating Catholic gun powder plots that did not actually take place.

The event was a great opportunity to have a look at the magnificent collection of books about the violence of Catholics, both imagined and real, and the atrocious use of propaganda with the aim of justifying Protestant violence against the Catholics. It is fascinating how an archive can offer us a glance at a world that has been – but even more fascinating that it also tells us about our own time dominated by violence and propaganda, that is proliferated by media and communication technologies in our global village.

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