Christopher Marlowe


Pix & notes: Christopher Marlowe's Paris

I was in Paris in May this year, when the City of Light was the City of Flowers. We visited several lovely parks, about which more another time, but spent most of our days in the magnificent museums: the Louvre, the Museum of Man, the Musée de la Préfecture de police, which also deserves its own post. But I did get my traditional early Sunday morning to romp around the Left Bank taking pictures. Little remains of Kit’s Paris beyond the twisty streets and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but what there was, I saw & snapped.


Of course we need a map! Wikipedia, whence cometh this fine map, says that Paris was the largest city in Europe in 1550, having about 350,000 inhabitants. It’s only 2.2 million now, lagging well behind London’s 8.7 million. Everyone said, “Paris is a very compact city,” resting neatly inside its circling highway, the periferique. It’s very easy to get around by means of the excellent metro system — unless the trains are on strike that day!

Paris ca 1550, Olivier Truschet et Germain Hoyau.

The island in the middle is the Île-de-la-Cité. That largish box near the top right corner is the Cathedral of Notre Dame, built between 1163 and 1345. Marlowe would certainly have toured that very famous landmark. He grew up in Canterbury, remember, where the equally famous cathedral was rebuilt in the Gothic style in the twelfth century.

Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre Dame

Today you join a queue of tourists from all over the world to stroll through the vast building, craning your neck to marvel at the wealth of imagery inside. In Marlowe’s day, there would have been tourists from all over Europe, if none from China or Japan, similarly craning their necks — while keeping a hand on their purses! All of today’s tourists are literate; we can only guess at the literacy rates of Kit’s contemporaries. It doesn’t matter. Everything is bent toward teaching you the story of Jesus and the saints. Paintings, stained glass, sculptures, and a series of painted wood carvings all depict important stories from the Bible for those who don’t read and don’t understand the Latin of the songs and sermons. Marlowe had both skills, but only a brute could fail to appreciate the beauty of Notre Dame’s abundant works of art. 


I love gargoyles, but my little camera isn’t up to zooming that far with any kind of focus. (Could be time for a better camera!) So here are two suffering souls from the front facade, doomed to bear a row of church worthies forevermore.



Walking tours of Paris

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of London Walks, the wonderful guided tours of London and environs. I don’t think Paris has anything quite like that, and I wouldn’t have had time for it anyway, since I was with other people, which means lots of screwing around at the beginnings and ends of days. Super Tourist (c’est moi) gets up and gets going!

But before we left I found this cool site with downloadable self-guided tours: History Walks Paris. I printed out the one for the sixteenth century, which didn’t have Marlowe in mind, but it might as well have. But first, a couple of pix of things that he definitely did not see. Cool things!

st-ephrem1733Saint-Ephrem le Syriac was built in 1733. It’s now used for performances of classical music, which I didn’t get to hear, and is filled with fine paintings, which I did not see. Next time, eh?









This magnificent beast is part of the Fontaine St-Michel on the Boulevard Saint Michel near the fontaine-st-michelSeine. It was built in 1858-1860, during the French Second Empire when so much of the grandest parts of grand Paris were built. This really is the City of Grandeur! My Moriartys can see all these fabulous monuments, but this fountain was just a small square in Marlowe’s day; nothing to write home about.









OK. Here’s a street in the Latin Quarter. It would have been more thatch with plaster walls, MUCH more crowded with people in woolen garb and muddy shoes, muddy street with a kennel of crap running down the middle. Kit would have felt very much at home visually, while his sharp eyes tuned in to the Parisian French all around him. I imagine him absolutely loving it. His plays are filled with fabulous place names, suggesting a young man eager to explore the world. At least he got to see Paris!


I walked across the Pont de Neuf, built between 1578 and 1607. So unless they had spanned the river before finishing all the details, Marlowe couldn’t have crossed here! He would have had to use the bridges connecting the Île-de-la-Cité.

pont neuf

The Louvre palace

The walking tour starts at the Louvre. It started out as fortress against English soldiers in Normandy, built by Philip II. Charles V converted it to a residence, then Francis I remodeled it into the palace we see today. Francis Bacon would have spent time here, watching the court with his bright eyes and listening with his sharp ears. This is where he polished his French language skills to a fare-thee-well, as well as his ability to spend his days idling at court.

Marlowe would have entered at least this courtyard, where I took pictures. He served as a messenger, I think, delivering letters from some important English person or persons, probably someone on the Privy Council. I’ve blogged about that. He would have been expected to keep his sharp ears open too, maybe ask a discreet question here and there. He was handsome, articulate, charming, and quick-witted. I think he spent time in this courtyard playing dice with the other messengers, learning whatever he could that might interest his masters, as much for the sport of it as for the extra shillings.

This yard would have been crowded with men old and young, a few women, perhaps, selling food and drink or sexual favors. Maybe a gentlewoman waiting for someone. Horses clattering through. Barrels, maybe, crates, straw littering the ground. Shouts and vendors’ cries echoing off the walls.




According to History Walks, this was “the parish church of the kings of France.” The kings are gone, but they still hold services here, with or without tourists strolling quietly about snapping pictures. (I’m far from the only one doing this.) I give you this view because (a) the square-cut trees of Paris fascinate me and (b) the lofty tops of churches would have stood out above the lesser buildings and thatched-roof houses, helping people orient themselves in the city, as well as in heaven, one supposes.




The Lombard church

I was excited to discover the church of Saint-Merri, the parish church of the wealthy Italian Lombards in Paris. Alone among Marlowe aficionados, perhaps, I think he might have delivered messages for one of my favorite Elizabethans, Sir Horatio Palavicino. He was actually born in Genoa, but they didn’t have a Genovese church in Paris. He was the scion of aristocratic bankers who became a Protestant and moved to England, where he lent Queen Elizabeth several boatloads of money. He bought a house near Cambridge the year after Marlowe graduated, but I like to think they met during a house-hunting trip. Marlowe would have appreciated a wealthy, cosmopolitan master and Sir Horatio would have recognized Marlowe’s exceptional qualifications as a confidential messenger.

So I spent a little time in this church, soaking up the atmosphere. Churches were excellent places for quiet little meetings, in olden days as well as our own. It’s hard to get a picture of this place, because it’s tucked into a district of narrow streets. And my pictures of the narrow streets don’t look like anything much either. You just have to imagine Christopher Marlowe meeting a wealthy Lombard in that aisle, handing him a folded letter and leaning in to murmur the unwritten portion of the message in their common language, Latin. He would have been paid with a silver franc, perhaps, and paid again when he got back to England with the reply.

church of Saint-Merri

church of Saint-Merri

Hôtel de Ville

This fine building has been the headquarters of the municipality of Paris since 1357. Sacre bleu, that’s a long time! History Paris tells us that it was one of the most popular gathering places in medieval and Renaissance Paris,where goods were unloaded, celebrations and executions occurred, and strikes were held. Marlowe would have strolled through the crowds, soaking it all up whilst munching on a sack of roasted chestnuts or a sweet cheese pie. Or perhaps a French breakfast taco, which is what I call a crepe filled with egg, cheese, and bacon.

hotel de ville
Hotel de Ville, 2018
Hotel de Ville, 1583

These sculptures weren’t there. I don’t know who the naked lady is (all sculptures of women must be naked), but Moliere lived from 1622-1673.


Marlowe wouldn’t have wasted his precious francs on books – not while he lived at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge University, which had one of the finest libraries in England in his day. But he would have enjoyed browsing and practicing his French on the bookseller. “I’m Christopher Marlowe,” he might say, after Tamburlaine rocked European theater back on its heels. “Oh, yeah, and I’m the Queen of Sheba,” the bookseller would have scoffed.

Be yourself, unless you can be Christopher Marlowe in Paris, in which case, be Christopher Marlowe.

bookseller, paris

The juggler with words: Thomas Nashe

thomas nasheThomas Nashe played a large role in the Elizabethan  literary world, for a small man. He was renowned in his day as a superlatively witty writer whose verbal barbs pricked inflated egos from the highest court to the darkest alley.

He wrote anything that would sell: bits of government propaganda, plays, accounts of dreams, religious invective, even a picaresque novel (more on this later.) A pamphlet sold for threepence; Nashe got 40 shillings and perhaps a cup of wine. The nascent concept of copyright at this time only applied to publishers, not writers.

(12 shillings in a pound; 40s = £3.3. A blacksmith or a cook might make £6/year, plus meat and drink, in 1588. A gentleman of an Inn of Court would want £60/year to pay his fees and keep up appearances. The schoolmaster at Nashe’s grammar school got £16/year in 1570.)

The printer might sell hundreds of copies of a popular pamphlet and Nashe was a very popular writer. C.S. Lewis called him ‘the perfect literary showman, the juggler with words.” Biographer Charles Nicholl wrote “He was prolific and controversial, the pamphleteer who precisely caught the time’s flavour. He reigned pre-eminent among ‘the riffe-raffe of the scribling rascality.'” If you want to know what sophisticated Elizabethans read (since they couldn’t watch The Daily Show), read some Nashe. If you want to learn about Elizabethans, read Charles Nicholl’s excellent books, referenced below.

The look of a rascal

We have a portrait of Thomas Nashe, or at least a caricature. The woodcut shown above was first printed in a pamphlet written by one of his bitter enemies, yet another victim of his ferocious wit, Richard Lichfield, a barber-surgeon from Trinity College, Cambridge. The pamphlet, published in 1597, was titled The Trimming of Thomas Nashe. Apparently Nashe had written something insulting about barbers and Lichfield felt the need to respond with heat.

The woodcut shows Nashe in chains — wishful thinking, most likely, although he did spend time in prison for debt now and then. It also shows him wearing a doublet and round hose (“Spanish kettledrums”), the garb of a gentleman, although they don’t fit him very well. Note the unbuttoned doublet and the lack of a hat — the sign of a disreputable man. He wore his hair a bit long, which was the fashion in the ’90s, but had no beard, a feature that was remarked upon by his contemporaries. Nashe was fair and probably nearly beardless by nature. He was also apparently on the short side and scrawny. You can’t really tell from this woodcut, but he was also gag-toothed — some of his teeth stood out at odd angles. That’s quite a handicap in a age that considered external appearance to mirror internal qualities.

The briefest of biographies

Nashe was born in Suffolk in November, 1567, making him 3 years younger than Marlowe and Shakespeare. Nashe’s father was a curate, one of the poorer forms of cleric, when Thomas was born. He later was granted the living at All Saints near Thetford, a better position. Nashe went to St. Johns’ College at Cambridge University as a sizar, a student who performs menial labor such as cleaning rooms and waiting at table in exchange for tutelage. He graduated BA in 1586, but stayed on for a few more years, leaving without taking an MA.

Dido seated on a throne

St. John’s was famous for its theatrical productions; perhaps that’s how Thomas met Christopher Marlowe. They did become friends at university. It’s believed they collaborated on Marlowe’s first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage (a fun read, go for it.)

Nashe came down to London around 1589 and joined the University Wits (a Victorian term), a group of poor, but educated, scribblers that included Robert Greene, John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, and of course, Marlowe. Greene and Nashe were among the first men to make a living from writing in the history of English letters; that alone ought to make them notable.

Nashe lived all around London, especially in the suburbs north of the city walls, moving frequently for lack of funds.He knew everyone; literary London was a small world in those days. He played dice with courtiers’ pageboys and drank with the Clerk of the Kitchen, picking up gossip about his betters. He hung out in taverns near the theaters and picked up gossip about his peers. Shakespeare affectionately lampooned him with the character Master Moth in Love’s Labour Lost.

He skipped town in 1597 to avoid arrest for a play he co-wrote with Ben Jonson called The Isle of Dogs, deemed so dangerous by the government that no copies of it remain. His last work was published in 1599. By 1601, a eulogy appeared for him; he had died. How or when we’ll never know.

Nashe vs Martin

In 1589, Thomas Nashe was one of three satirical writers hired by Canon Richard Bancroft to write counter-strikes against the popular and highly illegal works of a radical Presbyterian who called himself Martin Marprelate. (Mar-prelate = mess up a priest. Get it? Elizabethan humor, not always funny.) If this sounds like a stupid move, I agree with you, but Martin was winning the public over to his anti-establishment cause. Canon Bancroft thought a popular appeal might help turn things around. Mostly it just raised the rhetorical temperature in London that summer, but it also succeeded in drawing Martin back out of seeming retirement, so that his pressmen, at least, could finally be caught.

I’ve blogged at length about the Marprelate Controversy (and part II) and am happy to say it’s finally out of my system. So I’ll just give you a couple of excerpts for the flavor of the exchange. Mostly they just slung insults at each other, though Martin was chiefly aiming at the Church.

Martin Junior (a pseudonym of the pseudonymous Martin), July, 1589, Theses Martinianae

“Fire and faggot, bands and blows, railing and reviling, are — and have been hitherto — their common weapons; as for slandering and lying, it is the greatest piece of their holy profession. And these, with their bare assertions, and their wretched cleaving to popish absurdities are, in a manner, the only proofs and tried maxims they offer unto the church in this age.”

Nashe, Aug. 1589, A Countercuffe given to Martin Junior. 

“Pasquill [Nashe] hath taken up your Glove, and desires you to charge your weapon at him like a Man. If you play with him, as your father and your selfe have doone with the Bishops heretofore, if you barke like a Curre and bite behind, he will have a trick with his heele to strick out your teeth.”

Martin, Oct. 1589, The Protestatyon

(This was published after Martin’s printers were captured. Martin, still unidentified, may have printed this himself, with the help of another conspirator.)

“Wherein, notwithstanding the surprising of the printer, he maketh it known unto the world tha the feareth neither proud priest, antichristian pope, tyrannous prelate, nor godless catercap, but defieth all the race of them by these presents, and offereth conditionally, as is farther expressed herein, by open disputation to appear in the defence of his cause against them and theirs.”

Nashe, spring, 1590, An Almond for a Parrot

(You slip the ship’s parrot an almond to get it to regurgitate the latest gossip.)

“Welcome, Master Martin, from the dead, and much good joy may you have of your stage-like resurrection. It was told me by the undaunted pursuivants of your sons… that your grout-headed holiness had turned up your heels like a tired jade in a meadow, and snorted out yourr scornful soul like a measled hog on a muckhill, which, had it not been false (as the devil would have it), that long-tongued doctress, Dame Lawson, must have been fain (in spite of inspiration) to have given over speaking in the congregation, and employ her parrot’s tongue instead of a wind-clapper to scare the crows from thy carrion.”

(No idea who Dame Lawson is. But this is utterly typical Nashe!)

A few words about the works

Nashe’s prose is so aggressively novel in words and imagery, it can be hard to read. Excerpts are nice; there are lots in Nicholl’s book.

The Wikipedia page lists all his works. You can find them for free at places like the Gutenberg Project in a variety of formats, including epub and mobi. I can recommend The Unfortunate Traveller, which I read on the elliptical machine (thus in small doses.) Not being an expert in literature, I don’t know why this isn’t considered the first novel, rather than Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Maybe Nashe’s work is too rambling? I enjoyed it anyway.

Here are some samples of Nashe’s style. Remember that Elizabethans, especially the educated ones, LOVED word play. Extravagant new words and bizarre metaphors tickled them in all the right places.

From Pierce (pronounced ‘purse’) Penniless, pub. 1592:

About the typical gentleman of the Inns of Court: “A young heir or cockney that is his mother’s darling, if he have played the waste-good at the Inns of Court or about London, and that neither his student’s pension nor his unthrift’s credit will serve to maintain his college of whores any longer, falls in a quarrelling humour with his fortune because she made him not King of the Indies, and swears and stares after ten in the hundred that ne’er such a peasant as his father or brother shall keep him under….”

“Envy is a crocodile that weeps when he kills and fights with none but he feeds on.”

And this, describing the eight kinds of drunkard: “Nor have we one or two kind of drunkards only, but eight kinds. The first is ape drunk, and he leaps and sings and hollers and danceth for the heavens. The second is lion drunk, and he flings the pots about the house, calls his hostess whore, breaks the glass windows with his dagger, and is apt to quarrel with any man that speaks to him. The third is swine drunk — heavy, lumpish, and sleepy, and cries for a little more drink and a few more clothes. The fourth is sheep drunk, wise in his own conceit when he cannot bring forth a right word. The fifth is maudlin drunk, when a fellow will weep for kindness in the midst of his ale and kiss you, saying ‘By God, Captain, I love thee; go thy ways, thou dost not think so often of me as I do of thee. I would, if it pleased God, I could not love thee so well as I do’ — and then he puts his finger in his eye and cries. The sixth is martin drunk, when a man is drunk and drinks himself sober ere he stir. The seventh is goat drunk, when in his drunkenness he hath no mind but on lechery. The eighth is fox drunk, when he is crafty drunk as many of the Dutchmen be, that will never bargain but when they are drunk.”

Nashe makes a few brief appearances as Marlowe’s sidekick in Death by Disputation. He plays a more prominent role in the fourth Bacon mystery, Publish and Perish. I love the little squirt, so I’ll bring him back at least one more time in book 6, to be set in 1593, when Tom persuades Francis Bacon to investigate Christopher Marlowe’s death.


(Note: I link to Nicholl’s books in Amazon, but A Cup of News was priced for libraries and it’s now out of print. $66 + shipping from the UK!! The Reckoning can be had, but really all his books are worth the trouble of ordering through Interlibrary Loan.)

The Elizabethan Compendium

Nicholl, Charles. A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1984.

Nicholl, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. The University of Chicago Press. 1995.

Nicholl, Charles. The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street. Viking Adult. 2008.

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