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Material Witnesses

May 17, 2013

Authored by Andrew Zurcher, Fellow and Director of Studies at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge

When officers of the Privy Council searched the London rooms of the playwright Thomas Kyd on 12 May 1593, they were looking for papers relating to the Dutch Church Libel – a vicious and xenophobic poem, recently posted on the door of the Dutch Church at Austin Friars in London, threatening to massacre members of the capital's foreign immigrant communities. The government's reason for targeting Kyd appears to have been guilt by association; the libel (at least as recorded in the surviving copy now in the Bodleian Library, in Oxford) was signed 'Tamberlaine' – a clear reference to the famous author of a recent play about Tamburlaine, Kyd's former flatmate Christopher Marlowe. These days, those suspected of planning hate crimes are likely to lose their USB memory sticks or their laptops; in 1593, the authorities went straight for Kyd's looseleaf papers, the material witnesses of his ideas, his prejudices, his intentions. These were quickly shown to contain heretical writings apparently questioning Christ's godhead, and Kyd was immediately arrested and probably tortured.

The offending papers – 'vile heretical Conceiptes denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christe o[ur] Savio[ur]' – recorded an opinion often associated with the heretic Arian, that the son of God is not one with God the father, but is subordinate to him. In this vein, the papers cite from Paul, James, and Timothy the conventional epithets of the Christian God: everlasting, invisible, incommutable, incomprehensible, and immortal. By contrast, the son of God, a man called Jesus, was clearly mortal, divisible, comprehensible.  When charged with the possession of these writings, Kyd protested; in a letter to the Lord Keeper, Sir John Puckering, he claimed that the papers were 'some fragments of a disputation' that had belonged to Marlowe, and had been 'shufled w[ith] some of myne (unknown to me) by some occasion of wrytinge in one chamber twoe yeares synce'. (Kyd's autograph letter is in the British Library, Harleian MS 6849) According to Kyd, the 'opinion' contained in the papers was 'affirmd by Marlowe to be his', but was not one that Kyd himself shared.

By the time Kyd wrote this letter – four hundred and twenty years ago this month – Marlowe was dead, the victim of that infamous brawl in a Deptford tavern. Perhaps struggling to exonerate himself, Kyd not only foisted the papers themselves on Marlowe, but offered dignified intimations of Marlowe's loose life and unsound opinions: "That I shold loue or be familer frend, w[ith] one so irreligious, were verie rare [...] he was intemperate & of a cruel hart, the verie contraries to w[hich], my greatest enemies will saie by me." Kyd doesn't even admit to knowing Marlowe's friends, but informs on some men whom he is "geven to vnderstand" consorted with him, among them the mathematician and scientist Thomas Harriot.

Kyd's letter informing on Marlowe, and his associates, was not written until after Marlowe's death; but Kyd may well have implicated Marlowe during his verbal testimony, given under torture in the preceding month, information that might well have led to Marlowe's own arrest (on 20 May) and later death – we cannot know. All we do know, finally, is what we find in the material witnesses, the papers, letters, and books that have preserved the story for over four hundred years. This paper trail is surprising, as much for what it doesn't say as for what it does. For starters, none of the events of May 1593 would have taken place had not an anonymous hand tacked up a poorly written but venomous libel on a church door in London (this was almost certainly not Kyd, who told Sir John Puckering that he was ready to take the sacrament to disavow his authorship). When his room was searched, the Privy Council's officers took bundles of papers, among which, looseleaf, they found Marlowe's heretical transcripts. These, in turn, Marlowe (or an associate) had copied from an old book, John Proctor's The Fal of the Late Arrian (London: William Powell, 1549) – a confutation, not an endorsement, of Arian's heresy. What the officers searching Kyd's rooms in 1593 probably failed to appreciate, then, was that neither Kyd, nor Marlowe, was the author of these 'fragments of a disputation', but instead they came from a legitimate book that had been printed over forty years earlier. Unfortunately the copyist had not noted on his transcript the source of the passages. Had the officers recognized the origin of the extracted fragments, Kyd might never have been arrested; had Kyd never been arrested, the allegations of Marlowe's atheism might never have come to the attention of the Lord Keeper.

Accidents with paper and the carelessness of copyists represent only two of the many means by which simple stories may be contorted into deadly confusions. At about the same time as Kyd's written informations against Marlowe, Puckering also secured through one of his agents the testimony against Marlowe of the infamous Richard Baines. Baines related to Puckering the most lurid and sensational account imaginable of Marlowe's atheism, which the Lord Keeper naturally caused immediately to be copied for the Queen's own perusal. Among these allegations Baines attributed to Marlowe the claims that Jesus was Mary's bastard, that he took his disciple John to his bed and "used him as the sinners of Sodoma", and that the sacrament might be better administed in a tobacco pipe. (British Library, Harleian MS 6848, fols 185-86) In 1901 Frederick Boas produced for Oxford University Press his landmark edition of The Works of Thomas Kyd Edited from the Original Texts – not only an important edition of Kyd's extant works, but an influential exemplar of scrupulous attention to early manuscript and printed sources. In this edition Boas produced a fold-out facsimile of Kyd's letter to Puckering, and a page from the Proctor passages on Arian's heresy, as well as transcripts of all the known manuscript materials relating to Kyd's and Marlowe's arrests. Moral sensibilities, however, prevented Boas from including absolutely everything he found in the Baines note, and there are conspicuous gaps, such as:

"That the woman of Samaria and her sister ..."
"That all thei that loue not Tobacco ... were fooles."

What Baines actually wrote, of course, was "that the woman of Samaria and her sister were whores & that Christ knew them dishonestly", and "that all thei that loue not Tobacco & Boies were fooles". Boas' reluctance to print Baines' accusations in full reflects standards of decency in the Press at the time that his edition was produced. When his edition of Kyd's Works was digitised for the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online project, the decision was taken not to expand his omissions, supplying the suppressed material, but to preserve the evidence of his moral-editorial censorship. More than four hundred years later, as the manuscript and print texts relating to Marlowe's atheism and Kyd's arrest and torture make the jump online, they do so – once again – in fragments. Naturally the full story exists in the originals, and can be found elsewhere in print and online, but it is fitting, too, that the ongoing record of Kyd's and Marlowe's last collaboration should take the form of a layered, problematic text – one materially marked by the fears, qualms, and cross-purposes of the many men and women who have handled it.


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