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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

§ 4. The style and character of the tracts

Of the extant Marprelate tracts there are seven. Others, we know from contemporary evidence, had found their way into print or had been circulated in manuscript, but, unfortunately, they have not survived. Those we have, however, are quite sufficient to give a clear idea of Martin’s methods and style. His chief aim was to cover the bishops with ridicule, but the first two tracts were, ostensibly, written in reply to a recent apologetic for the episcopal cause, entitled A Defence of the Government established in the Church of England for ecclesiastical matters, and “very briefly comprehended,” as Martin puts it, “in a portable book, if your horse be not too weake, of an hundred threescore and twelve sheets of good Demie paper,” running, that is, into more than fourteen hundred quarto pages of text. Written by the laborious, but worthy, John Bridges, dean of Sarum, in hope of preferment, as Martin asserts, it was a thorough and well-intentioned attempt to stem the flood of puritan discipline tracts by flinging a huge boulder into the stream. The rock-hurling Goliath from Salisbury was too ponderous for the ordinary carving process, and the only possible weapon to use against him was the stone and sling of ridicule. For such warfare, Martin was eminently qualified. A puritan who had been born a stage clown, he was a disciple both of Calvin and Dick Tarleton. His style is that of a stage monologue. It flows with charming spontaneity and naturalness. Now, with a great show of mock logic, he is proving that the bishops are petty popes; now, he is telling stories to their discredit; now, he is rallying “masse Deane Bridges” on his “sweet learning,” his arguments and his interminable sentences. All this is carried on with the utmost vivacity and embroidered with asides to the audience and variety of “patter” in the form of puns, ejaculations and references to current events and persons of popular rumour. Whether Martin were blasphemous or not, must be decided by each reader in the light of his own particular tenets. Certainly, he must be exculpated from any intention of the sort, the very nature of his plea precluding such a possibility. Personal, he undoubtedly was. He sets out with the object of lampooning the bishops of the day and frankly admits that such is his rôle in the general puritan campaign: “you defend your legges against Martins strokes, while the Puritans by their Demonstration crushe the very braine of your Bishopdomes”—a remark which seems to indicate that the publication of Udall’s Demonstration of Discipline, simultaneously with The Epistle, was no mere accident. Yet there is nothing that can be called definitely scurrilous in his treatment of the bishops, with the exception of his cruel reference to bishop Cooper’s domestic misfortunes. They are “pernicious,” “pestilent,” “wainscot-faced,” “tyrannical,” sometimes “beasts,” “patches” and “dunces,” occasionally, even, “bishops of the devil,” but all this is part of the usual polemical vocabulary of the day; indeed, Barrow the separatist did not hesitate to use such expressions to Whitgift’s very face. Martin’s wit is a little coarse and homely, but never indecent, as the anti-Martinist pamphlets were. Speaking of the argumentative methods of Bridges, he says: “He can now and then without any noyse alledge an author clean against himself, and I warrant you wipe his mouth cleanly and look another way as though it had not been he”—which may stand as a type of his peculiar vein of humour. His shafts are winged with zest, not with bitterness. “Have at you!” he shouts, as he is about to make a sally, and, again, “Hold my cloake there somebody that I may go roundly to worke”; for he evinces, throughout, the keenest delight in his sport among the “catercaps.” This effect of boisterousness is enhanced by various tricks of expression and arrangement. The tracts present no appearance of any set plan, they are reeled off with the utmost volubility, at the top of the voice, as it were, and are scattered up and down with quaint marginal notes and parentheses. All this reveals a whimsical and original literary personality utterly unlike anything we find in the attested writings of Penry or Udall. Yet, it must not be supposed that the tracts are nothing but “quips and quidities.” These are only baits to catch the reader and lure him on into the net of puritan argument. Most of them contain serious passages, sometimes of great length, expounding the new discipline.