By Charles Matthews

Friday, July 16, 2010

2. The World of Christopher Marlowe, by David Riggs, pp. 25-44

The World of Christopher 
MarloweChapter Two: Lessons Learned in Childhood
At the age of six, Marlowe started attending petty school, which taught children to read and write. Instruction largely consisted of learning the ABC's and memorizing religious texts, including a Catechism that contained the Apostle's Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Parents whose children, eight years and older, who could not say the Catechism were subject to a fine of ten shillings. The petty schools had been founded by Henry VIII: "He and Elizabeth viewed the instruction of children in English as a way of fashioning obedient subjects." The aim was to wean Englishmen off of Catholic iconography by instructing them in the Scriptures, but the method was not particularly successful. In one of the charges of atheism leveled against Marlowe by Richard Baines, Marlowe was said to have proclaimed, "if there be any god or any good Religion," it would be found in Catholicism because of its ritualistic and ceremonial character -- its theatricality. "The reformers overestimated the capacity of words to impose uniform meanings on the impressionable minds of young readers."

Moreover, because the method of instruction relied on memory of the text and not on examination of the ideas within the text, those who actually did think about what they had memorized began to question it. "The Tudor programme of popular religious instruction created the agnostic reaction that it was meant to pre-empt." The doctrine of the Trinity was a particular stumbling block, partly because it was not specifically based in the Scriptures. "During Marlowe's lifetime, atheism, a category unknown to the pre-Reformation world, became the 'sin of sins.'" Early "atheists" also questioned the doctrine of eternal damnation. "The fear of God was the bedrock of moral order in Marlowe's England." Contributing to the burgeoning unbelief was the instability of the church: "As the state church changed back and forth between Protestant and Catholic regimes, the dubious assertion that God upheld princely rule had the unintended consequence of compromising divine authority."

Meanwhile, young Marlowe also learned about the world on the streets of Canterbury, which because of its location on the way between Dover and London "attracted a steady stream of diplomats, soldiers, merchants and messengers going to and from France." The event that caused the greatest stir was the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in Paris on August 24, 1572, when Catholics led by the Duke of Guise murdered three thousand Protestants. Then, with the encouragement of Charles IX, another ten thousand were killed in other French cities. Refugees fleeing to England told the grisly stories, and bought the word massacre to England. In French the word originally referred to a slaughterhouse, but it now came to mean "mass murder." In Lyons, the soldiers had refused to carry out the execution of Protestants, so the authorities sent butchers into the prisons to do the killing. Two of Marlowe's early plays, Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta contain scenes of massacre, and the last of his plays to be performed was The Massacre at Paris.

In 1573, when Marlowe was nine years old, Queen Elizabeth visited Canterbury and on September 7 celebrated her fortieth birthday.
The queen had a genius for incorporating the rejected symbols of the Catholic faith into her own self-image.Trading on the discarded cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Elizabeth would fashion herself into the secular counterpart of the virgin queen.... Marlowe shared the queen's fascination with theatrical constructions of sovereignty. His early masterpiece Tamburlaine the Great considers monarchical self-fashioning from the standpoint of a young playwright at the outset of a stunning career. 
The record of Marlowe's education has a gap from the age of eight, which is when tradesmen's children usually left petty school, to the winter of 1578-79, when he won a scholarship to the King's School. During those six years, his father may have paid for his education at the King's School, but given the expense and his family's low income it's likely that he attended a free grammar school that Archbishop Matthew Parker had founded when Marlowe was five. "Since candidates for the Parker scholarship that sent Marlowe to Cambridge had to read music at sight, Christopher doubtless acquired this facility in the schoolhouse across the street from the Eastbridge Hospital."

The usual grammar school texts were William Lyly's Short Introduction of Grammar and A Catechism or First Instruction of Christian Religion by Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. Henry VIII and Elizabeth mandated Lyly's grammar because it was based on classical Latin texts and not on medieval church Latin: "It prepared Marlowe and his schoolfellows to think like Ovid and Cicero rather than St Thomas Aquinas." The Catechism instilled in students the basics of Calvinism: "bondage of the will, predestination, election and reprobation." The aim was to teach students obedience. Students copied these texts by hand and then repeated what they had transcribed under questioning. The entire system depended on "rote memorization and repetition." The Grammar involved learning "page after page of Latin verb forms and syntactical constructions with no overarching system to guide them through the maze." When they did begin to read Latin texts they were "actively discouraged from thinking about what they meant." It was, Lyly explained, "a discipline for governing boys by teaching, admonishing, rebuking, punishing and on all occasions." The whole system was designed to inculcate, as Riggs puts it, "a generalized attitude of deference to authority that suited the needs of Renaissance princes."

Classes were typically from six or seven in the morning to seven at night, six days a week, with religious instruction on Sundays and holidays. Meanwhile, boys who had left school at the age of eight and had not yet become apprentices, as they would in their teens, were left to run free. Even apprentices had the late afternoon, Sundays and holidays free. "Learning Latin was the labour-intensive alternative to indigenous youth culture."

The emphasis on classical Latin over medieval led to a contempt for the vernacular. "Medieval Latin incorporated the English word order; classical Latin dissolved it. Marlowe's introductory work on prose translation emphasized style at the expense of piety. It implied that the Holy Scriptures were inferior to the work of classical Roman authors." So when in one of his reported "blasphemies" Marlowe said that the New Testament was "filthily written," he was saying what "He had been taught to think ... since the age of ten." His dismissal of Christ's apostles as "base fellows" was also a consequence of his teaching.
The irony of these "damnable" opinions is that the apostles were supposed  to be base fellows. That was why Jesus chose them for his ministry; they spread the Word to all who had ears to hear in language that anyone could understand.
Marlowe also imbibed some of the contradictory messages of Calvinism. "Under Elizabeth I, external conformity became the master principle of church discipline." Even if you were not of the elect, those with a "true and lively faith," you were expected to behave as if you were. "In the Calvinist theology of the Catechism, only two or three of Marlowe's schoolfellows were presumed to speak from the heart, and God alone knew who they were." The rest were expected to go through the motions. "Queen Elizabeth, Archbishop Parker and Lord Burghley sought outward compliance with the state church, rather than inner assent to its doctrinal content," which Riggs aptly describes as a "'don't ask, don't tell' approach."
The tacit acceptance of hypocrites, commonly known as "close" or "inward" atheists, explains why unbelievers rarely came out of the closet.... Closet atheists were part of the social order; open atheists cried out for swift and violent retribution."

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