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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XII. University Plays

§ 15. Club-Law

So incensed were the civic dignitaries at the insult, that they complained to the privy council, which, however, made little of the matter, merely sending some “slight and private check to the principal actors.”

Fuller’s narrative is scarcely to be accepted as authentic in all its details, and it is noticeable that no mention of the incident is found in the register of the privy council. But the play to which he alludes, and which was thought to be no longer extant, has recently been rediscovered in manuscript in the library of St. John’s college, Cambridge, by G.C. Moore Smith. The manuscript is imperfect, lacking the title and the first three scenes of act I and scene 3 and parts of scenes 2 and 4 of act IV. But that the play is the Club Law acted at Clare is proved by the constant introduction of the phrase, and by the general character of comedy.

In an unconventional dramatic framework, wherein “Commike rules,” as confessed in the epilogue, are not observed, the playwright gives an animated though bitterly partisan picture of the relations between university and town in the closing years of the sixteenth century. The chronic hostility between them acrose from the peculiar privileges granted to the university by a series of royal charters and by parliamentary enactment. These privileges included powers of interference with the trade of the town, of searching the houses of citizens and of punishing them in the university courts. Every mayor on his accession to office had to take an oath to preserve the privileges of the university—an obligation which aroused the keenest resentment.

Of all these circumstances, the Clare hall dramatist makes skilful use. Two graduates of Athens (Cambridge), Musonious and Philenius, egged on by a waggish younger scholar, Cricket, determine to make the “muddy slaves,” the rebellious citizens, “feele our stripes for their disobedience and renewe the ancient Club-lawe.” At the same time, the newly chosen burgomaster (mayor) Niphle announces to the electors that he “will rout out the whole generation” of academicians, “they shall not nestle with us in our streets, nor out brave us in our owne dunghills.” And he afterwards arranges a plan of campaign against them, including the retaliation of “their owne Clublawe.” There are traitors, however, in the citizens’ camp; Mrs. Niphle and Mrs. Colby, wife of a leading “headsman,” to win the good graces of Musonius and Philenius, reveal the plot, and give the scholars directions for appropriating reveal the clubs which were to be used against them. Meanwhile, the burgomaster has been caught out in a midnight visit to a courtesan at the house of his sergeant, the Welshman Tavie; and Colby has been detected in the act of carrying away corn in sacks supposed to contain coal. Both are sent to jail by virtue of the rector’s (vice-chancellor’s) authority, and bills of “discommoning” are issued, prohibiting scholars from having any dealings with prominent members of the corporation. It is this measure, whereby their means of livelihood are cut off, that brings the citizens to their knees, even more than their rout in a street skirmish by the “gentle Athenians” armed with the purloined clubs. A deputation headed by Niphle, who has been released from jail, comes to proffer submission to Musonius and Philenius.

  • Wee crave pardon, and craving pardon we tender our supplication, that it may please you to letts live by you, and recover our old estats, that is, to reape what benefits we may by you, which if it please you to grant, I being the mouth of the rest doe promise for the rest hereafter to be obedient to you any reasonable demand.
  • But it is not till the promise is confirmed by an oath that the scholars hold out to the suppliants a prospect of the renewal of their former privileges. The play hangs loosely together, and the satire is so acid and unrelieved throughout that it goes beyond the limits of dramatic plausibility. The author’s knock-down blows are themselves a species of “club law.” But he has a remarkable command of idiomatic and racy vocabulary, which gives pungency to the dialogue. The broken English of Tavie, the Welshman, and of Mounsier Grand Combatant, a French braggadocio, and the north-country dialect of Rumford, one of the corporation, give further evidence of the writer’s quick ear for characteristic modes of speech.