Joseph Black, ed. The Martin Marprelate Tracts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. cxvi+315pp. ISBN-13  9780521875790.

Joseph Navitsky
University of Southern Mississippi

Joseph Navitsky. "Review of Joseph Black, ed., The Martin Marprelate Tracts." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>.


  1. Of the many timely and clarifying contributions made by Joseph Black’s new edition of the Martin Marprelate Tracts, readers will find none as vital as the straightforward purpose at its heart:  “To encourage more direct familiarity with one of the most remarkable voices of early modern English prose” (cxiii).  In this objective, as even a cursory inspection of the modernized and fully annotated texts suggests, the edition succeeds admirably.  An additional benefit, however, awaits readers in the meticulous, orderly introduction in which Black supplies an apparatus designed not only to review the relevant contexts behind the clandestine Marprelate printing operation but to ruminate over the strikingly wide-ranging effects of Tudor England’s most notorious scandal.

  2. As many readers will recall, Marprelate’s distinctive approach to religious reform married conventional calls for the elimination of the English episcopacy with comic-abusive, ad hominem attacks on Church dignitaries.  Following closely on the heels of the Armada’s defeat, this verbal violence scandalized as much of England as could be scandalized by printed material in 1588-89.  Not surprisingly, Elizabeth was impressed with neither Marprelate’s advocacy of a Presbyterian ecclesiology nor his gleeful willingness to discuss the personal lives of her bishops.  The authorities moved quickly, proscribing the seven Marprelate publications and organizing a national manhunt for the roaming press from which the tracts were issued.  Eventually, most of the operation’s printers, distributors, patrons, and contributors were captured.  All faced examination and fines, and the late-Elizabethan state went on to wage cultural war against Puritanism, all the while keeping vigilant guard against any return of what Richard Hooker called the “scurrilous and more then Satyricall immodestie” of “Martinisme.”[1]

  3. Black prints each of the Marprelate tracts with a brief, two-page introduction, and plentiful notes—236 alone for the first tract, The Epistle—that offer readers a most adept, if not complete, guide to the many topical allusions contained in the tracts.  Those who know the tracts are aware of the thousands of gossipy anecdotes and obscure references that Marprelate’s shifting, colloquial voice tenders in support of his cause.  No major Church official emerges unscathed, and tracking down the specifics, not to mention the accuracy, of the behavior to which Marprelate objects can be daunting, especially across 200 pages of text.  But, to be sure, Black has crafted a sensible and efficient edition that, in presenting “Martinism” in an uncluttered and sturdy format, supplants William Pierce’s century-old edition, which can be difficult to obtain, or the nearly-unreadable 1967 Scolar Press facsimile.  As Black acknowledges, Pierce was no unaccomplished editor, but his texts of the tracts are far from error-free and his anti-episcopal commentary less than impartial.  By contrast, the Scolar edition contains neither preface nor annotations, and its low-quality facsimiles tend to result in exasperation—and depleted vision—instead of edification.  A few on-line versions of the tracts exist as well, but these, too, fall well short of the accuracy and diligence that mark Black's edition.

  4. Since editing the Marprelate pamphlets is not an entirely straightforward task, Black follows practices that, by necessity, reconcile an editor’s expectations for the texts in his charge and a publisher’s discretion about finances and sales.  At issue are not multiple printings of the 1588-89 texts but rather the Marprelate syndicate’s extraordinary use of text and page as a provocative arena of dialogical conflict.  With their arresting lack of punctuation, especially quotation marks, and ingenuous deployment of mocking margins and headers, the tracts experiment with new forms of “polemical aggressiveness” (xix).  In so doing, however, they also present nearly as many challenges to the modern editor as to the Elizabethan Church officials who had difficulty “in learning to read Martin’s text” (lix).  While the choice to modernize the texts was never in doubt, Black wisely preserves the spelling of the many colloquialisms, nonce words, and idiomatic expressions employed by the Martinist persona to simulate a public, street-level debate over religious reform.  He also retains dialogue and some quoted material as it appears in the original texts—without quotation marks and chaotically disorganized.  This way, readers can appreciate the sheer exuberance and taunting elusiveness of Martinist dialogue:
    Whau, whau, but where have I been all this while? Ten to one among some of these puritans. Why Martin? Why Martin I say, hast tow forgotten thyself? Where hast ti been, why man, cha bin a-seeking for a salmon’s nest, and cha vound a whole crew, either of ecclesiastical traitors, or of bishops of the devil, of broken and maimed members of the church: never wink on me good fellow, for I will speak the truth, let the puritans do what they can. (Hay any Work for Cooper 126)
    Thus, the volatile cacophony of dialects offered by Marprelate remains perceptible to readers who may not, at first, sense the polemical sophistication behind such a highly self-reflexive mixture of voices and idioms.

  5. Black, however, could not avoid making alterations to the “mise en page of the original productions” since the “exigencies of modern printing” demanded painful sacrifices (cxv).  For instance, the running heads of the tracts are not printed above the texts and are instead swept to a rear appendix.  This is most disappointing in regard to the second tract, The Epitome, which contains over 40 headings, including such sneers as “John of London, John of Exeter, and Thomas Winchester, hypocrites” and “All beetleheaded ignorance, lieth not in M. Doctor” (210-11). More damaging is the displacement of Marprelate’s compelling marginal comments.  Rather than printing them alongside the text, the edition reproduces them as footnotes.  As a result, readers are deprived of the physical representation of the verbal conflict that so scandalized early modern commentators yet so impresses modern readers.  To get a sense, then, of the tracts’ original formatting of discursive chaos, readers must return to the Scolar facsimile or consult the on-line EEBO versions.  Only then do we actually see the import of such jocular and irreverent comments as “Can bishops face, cog, lie and cozen or no, think you” and “Ha, priests, I’ll bang you, or else never trust me” (33, 19).  This marginalia, as Black admits, contributes much to Marprelate’s innovative take on religious polemic:  “Martin’s critique…extends into all available textual space:  his mockingly discursive titles, facetious imprints, self-reflective and conversational marginal notes, inventive running heads…all become sites for polemical point-scoring” (xxviii-xxix).

  6. While Black may not be able to supply the tracts’ enhanced “point-scoring” space, his 90-page introduction expertly reviews the historical conditions leading up to Marprelate’s emergence.  The introduction is divided into seven segments, ranging from the obligatory (“The Presbyterian background,” “Martinist style,” and “Authorship”) to the refreshingly new (“The Martinist community and the Marprelate press” and “Martinism and anti-Martinism, 1590-1700”).  A genuine scholarly humility orders Black’s approach—a necessity given the enormous reaction the tracts provoked not only in 1589-90 but throughout the next century.  Beyond the style and satirical strategies of the tracts themselves, Black considers dozens of official and non-official responses, and expanding a thesis first spelled out a decade ago, claims that “Martinist and anti-Martinist works participated in a complex dialogue” and “are collaborative discourses” (lxxiii).[2]  Extending this ethos to the authorship question, Black’s final claim about the John Penry-Job Throkmorton rivalry is instructive: “To reduce Martin to an individual author is in many ways to deprive the tracts of the textual and concomitant moral authority he sought to invoke” (xlvii).  At its simplest, the goal of the Marprelate syndicate—of which Penry and Throkmorton were only a part—was to push the issue of religious reform into the public arena.  With the help of a hypersensitive Church, it succeeded, until, as C. S. Lewis has suggested, the Martinist persona  “who first used gas in this war found…that he was repudiated by his own higher command and that the enemy had gases much more deadly than his.” [3]

  7. Surely the most unexpected yet valuable contribution of the introduction is Black’s suggestion for future study of the tracts.  Much has been written on Marprelate, especially of late, but unfortunately, much of it remains derivative and thus limited.  Black outlines several new directions of study in order to push scholarship toward a more demanding and rigorous consideration of Marprelate’s “appeal to a popular audience” (xxxiv).  Chief among them is the suggestion that we view the invitational nature of the tracts as part of a trend that encouraged reading which was “aloud, to communal enjoyment, [and] in a collective act of public ridicule” (lxxxv).  From Black’s perspective, this enticement to participate in a larger dialogue accounts for the extraordinary lasting power of the Martinist persona, which was continually resurrected throughout the seventeenth century “as an exemplary voice of reform-minded opposition” (lxxxv). 

  8. As complete as the introduction is, some minor gaps remain, but none is so pertinent as to obstruct our enhanced investigation of the tracts.  A nineteenth-century history of the tracts by a Catholic priest, William Maskell, goes unmentioned—a shame considering Maskell, for all his partisanship (and cheeky anti-Americanism), was an early advocate of collaborative authorship and acknowledged that the Marprelate scandal “was not only the great controversy of that year, but the controversy of the Elizabethan age.”[4]  (Maskell is listed in the bibliography, however.)  Some attention to Richard Verstegen’s letters would have revealed additional references to Marprelate, whose attacks on the English Church were celebrated by the Catholic opposition on the Continent.  (Black is otherwise very attentive to Catholic responses to Marprelate.)  Finally, perhaps space might have been found for a more substantial consideration of an important letter by Sir Francis Hastings, a key Puritan sympathizer among the aristocracy, an anti-Catholic controversialist in his own right, and an associate of many members of the Marprelate syndicate.  In the 1589 letter, he repudiates the Martinist “veyne of writinge” because “it hathe geven greate offence, and advantage, and done no good at all.”[5]  The introduction breaks off rather abruptly, too, but at 90 pages, it fully covers the first hundred years of Marprelate’s impressive afterlife, rendering further analysis a luxury rather than a necessity.

  9. Ultimately, the glut of allusions to and denunciations of Marprelate merely attests to the popularity of the tracts and the scandal they caused rather than any negligence on Black’s part.  In fact, no one is more skilled at tracking down such references as Black, and the introduction, from start to finish, uncovers many new sixteenth- and seventeenth-century responses to the tracts.  If anything, Black’s tidy and capable edition gives us the tools—and the energy—to redouble our assessments of Marprelate’s influence on the Elizabethan Golden Age of literature and consider, all over again, this most original and extraordinary voice of early modern opposition.



[1] Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 7 vols., ed. Speed Hill (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977), 3:5.  

[2] See Black’s well-known article, “The Rhetoric of Reaction: The Martin Marprelate Tracts (1588-89), Anti-Martinism, and the Uses of Print in Early Modern England,” Sixteenth Century Journal 28 (1997): 707-25. 

[3] C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1954), 409.  

[4] William Maskell, Martin Marprelate Controversy (London, 1845), 221. 

[5] Sir Francis Hastings, The Letters of Sir Francis Hastings, 1574-1609, ed Claire Cross, Somerset Record Series, vol. 69 (Frome, UK: Butler and Tanner, 1969), 46.  Hastings’ letter is dated January 31, 1589.


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