The Marprelate Controversy

The Martin Marprelate tracts are a series of six pamphlets and a broadsheet printed on a secret press between October 1588 and September 1589 and distributed with the help of well organized ‘puritan’ social networks. They attack the Elizabethan church, particularly church government by bishops (hence the pseudonym, Mar-prelate), and argue on behalf of an alternative, Presbyterian system. Their author was almost certainly the Warwickshire gentleman Job Throkmorton, probably assisted by the Welsh cleric John Penry, who also managed the press (see Authorship: Job Throkmorton, with John Penry). More than two dozen others are known to have been involved in the tracts’ production and distribution; all risked charges of treason. The tracts sparked immediate outrage: ‘I think the like was never committed to presse or paper, no not against the vilest sort of men, that have lived upon the earth’, exclaimed Thomas Cooper, the bishop of Winchester (Admonition, 35). But the apparent novelty of the tracts did not lie in the substance of Martin’s arguments: the reform agenda he proposed had been honed over almost two decades of Presbyterian opposition. Instead, what seemed unprecedented was Martin’s method of presentation. With his conversational prose, ironic modes of argument, fluid shifts among narrative voices, swaggering persona, playful experiments with the conventions of print controversy, and willingness to tell unflattering personal stories about named opponents, Martin shattered conventions of decorum that had governed debates about the church since the accession of Queen Elizabeth. Many elements of Martinist style had roots in the vehement polemic of the earlier Reformation. But even with these models in mind, nobody in England had read anything quite like these publications. The tracts sparked a nation-wide manhunt, accompanied by a multimedia campaign in which church and state joined forces to counter the influence of what Martin and his opponents both termed “Martinism.” Martinism and anti-Martinism would proceed to engage one another in a complex and mutually informing dialogue. To talk about the literary, cultural, or stylistic impact of the Marprelate controversy is to talk about the combined effects of the Marprelate tracts and this anti-Martinist campaign.

At the time and down the centuries, most commentators on the Marprelate controversy joined Thomas Cooper in denouncing the tracts as base, scurrilous invective. Beginning in the later nineteenth century, however, pioneering research by scholars such as Edward Arber, J. Dover Wilson, R.B. McKerrow, and William Pierce won the tracts a new reputation as some of the finest Elizabethan prose satires, worthy of their own chapter in the literary history of the sixteenth century. Martinist style remains the focus of many studies, particularly the influence of Martin’s wittily colloquial prose on the literature of the Elizabethan Golden Age of the 1590s. But more recent accounts of the Marprelate controversy have also begun to address a broad range of interconnected literary, historical, religious, legal, and social issues. The tracts are increasingly recognized as playing a key role in the history of Renaissance English pamphlet warfare. The Marprelate tracts urged the necessity of public debate on controverted subjects, and sought to create a popularizing polemic that modeled the sound of that debate. Outraged contemporaries responded in ways that crystallize contemporary anxieties concerning satire, libel, and the social uses of print. In addition, Martin’s constructions of polemical genealogy helped create a tradition of oppositional writing that would eventually extend from the early Reformation through the civil wars of the 1640s and into the Restoration. In response, church and state reframed this oppositional tradition as treason, reformulated the foundations for conformity to the established church, and crafted counter-arguments that would become standard weapons for decades to come against religious and political opposition.

The Marprelate controversy also generated unparalleled evidence for the histories of authorship and collaboration, surreptitious book production, and underground reading. Legal and other records detail how the tracts were printed on the run against a backdrop of safehouses, informers, disguises, and codenames, with manuscripts left surreptitiously under hedges and plans made in guarded conversations held in open fields. These are the records that are presented on this website. Documenting the intersections of popular and learned readerships, and print, manuscript, and oral cultures, this important archive illuminates Renaissance reading practices and Renaissance beliefs in the powers, and dangers, of effective prose.

For an extended discussion of the Marprelate controversy in all its aspects, see the Introduction to Joseph L. Black, ed., The Martin Marprelate Tracts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). For a briefer introduction that focuses on Martinist style, see Joseph L. Black, “The Marprelate Controversy,” in the Oxford Handbook of English Prose, ed. Andrew Hadfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 544-59.