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‘Dead Houses’ and ‘Sacred Things’
Fools, Martyrs, Traitors by Lacey Baldwin Smith
© 2013 James LaFond
The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World,
1997, Knopf, NY, 431 pages with 14 illustrations and photos
The cover art, with the crazed visage of John Brown in the foreground of a tornado, sets the tone for this strange look into one of humanity’s most militant quirks.
Mister Smith begins with an essay, a discussion of martyrdom as a social phenomenon. He goes on to address the genesis of martyrdom in Chapter 2 with a look at the granddaddy of all martyrs, Socrates. Chapter 3 covers the little known persecution of the Jewish Macabees. Chapter 4 is a discussion of Jesus as a human sacrifice, an angle usually only explored by evangelists and theologians. Where Fools, Martyrs, Traitors shines as a treasury of the obscurely bizarre, is with his detailed exposition of the fate of Perpetua, a Christian martyr, who recounted a fantastical dream in which she fought an Egyptian wrestler in the pankration!
Chapters 6 through 9 find Lacey Smith on his strongest ground, early modern British history, with an examination of political martyrs from Thomas Becket to Charles I. He follows up with John Brown and Gandhi, and finishes with a discussion of the fading of martyrdom. As Mister Smith finished this book in 1996 or 97 I am curious about what his take on our current wave of jihadist activity among European converts to Islam would factor into his thesis. The reader must remind himself that the scope of the book deals with the ‘Western World’ of which Islam has generally been regarded as an Asiatic countercurrent. I am of the opinion that his parting notes on the fading of martyrdom in the Western World stand like an epochal open door to the martyrs of militant Islam.
Fools, Martyrs, Traitors is an intriguing and eye-opening read.
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