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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVII. The Marprelate Controversy

§ 16. Martin’s literary influence

The honour of this battle of the books belongs, so far as literature is concerned, to Martin. The Marprelate tracts are part of English literature, the answers to them little more than materials for literary history. None of the pamphlets written to order on behalf of the bishops were entered at Stationers’ Hall—a fact which seems to imply that, while Whitgift and Aylmer sanctioned them privately, they were ashamed to authorise them publicly. Martins Months Minde and Plaine Percevall are amusing; but the rest are very unprofitable to be read and most unworthy to be regarded, if we may parody a familiar Euphuism. The fact that Lyly and Nashe were responsible, in part, for their production, and the numerous references throwing light upon the whole controversy which they contain have alone rescued them from the oblivion into which they would otherwise have fallen. It is idle to suggest that they did anything to stop Martin’s mouth: his silence was the work of the pursuivants. Doubtless, the growth and final triumph of the cause he advocated did much to secure immortality for the puritan pamphleteer. The opening years of the Long parliament saw a revival of Martinism. Hay any worke was reprinted in 1641 and A Dialogue in 1643, while, in 1645, four tracts appeared by a writer calling himself “Yongue Martin Marpriest.” Qualities of style and not peculiarities of doctrine singled out these from among the countless other puritan tracts that the age produced for the admiration of posterity. Martin’s freakish and audacious personality and his unusual vein were something new and not easily forgotten. He was the great prose satirist of the Elizabethan period and may rightly be considered as the forerunner of that much greater satirist whose Tale of a Tub was a brilliant attack upon all forms of religious controversy. Martin’s style exercised an immediate and appreciable influence upon his contemporaries—a point that has hitherto scarcely been noticed—for Nashe, at this period, was a young writer whose style was hardly formed; and, though he afterwards proudly boasted “that the vaine which I have is of my owne begetting and cals no man father in England but myself,” yet it is impossible not to see that the most modern and most racy prose writer of the Elizabethan age owed a considerable debt to “olde Martin Makebate,” in contest with whom he won his spurs. The famous Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum were some seventy years earlier than the Marprelate tracts and rank much higher as literature. It is not, however, fair to compare the deliberate creation of some of the protagonists of German humanism with hasty and ill-digested attacks upon episcopacy, struck off from a travelling printing press. Much the same may be said of the Satyre Ménippée, which is frequently quoted as a parallel to its English contemporary. It was a curious coincidence that remarkable satires should appear in England and France almost simultaneously, but there was no connection and very little similarity between the two. The Satyre Ménippée was political in intention, the Marprelate tracts religious. The group of politiques who were responsible for the French satire represented the common-sense of France tired of the tyranny of the League and the long unrest of past years. Their work was an epitaph on an already fallen foe and the laugh it elicited was one of relief and of hope. To Martin, on the other hand, it was given to be one of the first to blow the trumpet against the episcopal Jericho which, when at last it fell, involved the monarchy in its ruins. Few, even of those of his own party, sympathised with him or understood him, but, when the hour of victory came, some were found to remember his service in the cause.