A controversial document in which the playwright Christopher Marlowe reportedly declared that Christ was gay, that the only purpose of religion was to intimidate people, and that “all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools” is to go on show online for the first time.
The so-called “Baines note”, a star item in the British Library’s Renaissance manuscript collection, offers tantalising evidence about the private life of Marlowe, one of the most scandalous and magnetic figures of the Elizabeth period.
Compiled in May 1593 by the police informant and part-time spy Richard Baines, it claims to record a conversation between the two men in which the playwright airs a long list of what Baines describes as “monstrous opinions”.
Among them, Marlowe casts doubt on the existence of God, claims that the New Testament was so “filthily written” that he himself could do a better job, and makes the eyebrow-raising assertion that the Christian communion would be more satisfying if it were smoked “in a tobacco pipe”.
Baines added a personal note, apparently aimed at watching government officials: “All men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped.” A few days later, Marlowe was stabbed to death in Deptford, south London, in circumstances still regarded as suspicious.
The document has been in the collection at the British Library since its founding in 1753 and has often been consulted by scholars, but this is the first time the public will be able to examine it in detail.
Curator Andrea Varney told the Guardian: “There’s nothing quite like being able to look at the real thing, and this will let students and readers from all over the world get close to Baines’s original report. The manuscript itself is over 400 years old and fragile, so digitisation really helps.”
The document and accompanying transcript are being made public in the latest phase of the British Library’s Discovering Literature project, aimed at students, teachers and the general public. Some 2,000 documents are now online, accompanied by 370 background essays and other resources. Four million visitors have visited the site since its launch in 2014.
One of the biggest attractions to date has been a late 16th-century play text calling for tolerance towards refugees. It is seemingly in the handwriting of a man even more famous than Marlowe, albeit somewhat better behaved – William Shakespeare.
In the centuries since his violent death, Marlowe has been celebrated as gay icon whose works explored the realities of homosexual desire while it was still deeply dangerous to do so. Alongside the Baines note, the British Library has uploaded scans of the director Derek Jarman’s notebooks for his avant-garde film of Marlowe’s Edward II (1991). The play focuses on Edward’s love for his favourite male companion, Piers Gaveston; Jarman’s take on the story is nakedly political, featuring references to contemporary battles over gay rights.
The library is also making available resources on other contemporary writers, among them Ben Jonson and the poets John Donne and Emilia Lanier.
Varney said: “So often we focus only on Shakespeare, but there are a whole world of other people out there, many of them just as brilliant. It’s about opening a window on that.”
The Baines document itself is highly contentious, with some scholars arguing that Baines was a fantasist, and that his “note” was a put-up job designed to get Marlowe, who was arrested at almost exactly the same time, in even more trouble with the authorities.
Charles Nicholl, whose 1992 book The Reckoning examines the shady circumstances surrounding the playwright’s death, said: “The one thing you can say for certain about it is that the note was designed to incriminate Marlowe. These are pretty dangerous and wild utterances that he is making.”
Nonetheless, Nicholl added, the document has a rare power: “It does sound like Marlowe; it’s almost as if he walked into the room. After all this time, that’s still rather shocking.”
- The documents are available at bl.uk/discovering-literature