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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.1 (2002) 183-212

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Visible Strings

Howard Marchitello
Texas A&M University

To confirme this opinion their phisitions[,] to excuse their ignorance in curing the disease, would not be ashamed to say, but earnestly make the simple people beleeue, that the strings of blood that they sucked out of the sicke bodies, were the strings wherewithall the inuisble bullets were tied and cast.

—Thomas Harriot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia

The most infamous reference to thomas harriot in his own lifetime arises within the context of a Privy Council investigation into the rumors and allegations surrounding Sir Walter Ralegh and (as the earliest accuser has it) his "Schoole of Atheisme. . . and the Coniuror that is M. thereof." 1 The net cast by this investigation was a wide one and within a few years it drew into suspicion—and in some case into torture—numerous individuals among the court of Elizabeth, the London theaters, and Ralegh's household. 2 One of the chief documents of this investigation, a 1593 spy report by the Council operative Richard Baines, contains 19 accusations against Christopher Marlowe and lists as one of them the claim that Marlowe "affirmeth that Moyses was but a Jugler, & that one Heriots being Sir W. Raleighs man can do more then he." 3 This explicit reference to Harriot in the Baines document may well add credence to the apparently popular assumption in the [End Page 183] period that it was indeed Harriot who was the "M[aster]" of Ralegh's presumed "Schoole of Atheisme"—an assumption so well-known, in fact, that Harriot himself seems to have been not only aware of it but rather proud to note its persistence over time. 4

In his important essay "Invisible Bullets," Stephen Greenblatt makes explicit the Harriot identification in the Baines report and, having named Harriot as the "Heriots" of Baines's reference, offers the following occupational description meant to identify and locate Harriot within his own moment:

The "Heriots" cast for a moment in this lurid light is Thomas Harriot, the most profound Elizabethan mathematician, an expert in cartography, optics, and navigational science, an adherent of atomism, the first Englishman to make a telescope and turn it on the heavens, the author of the first original book about the first English colony in America, and the possessor throughout his career of a dangerous reputation for atheism.5

As this passage makes clear, by the early 1590s Harriot had managed to earn a fairly wide reputation as an atheist (though this is largely discredited today); moreover, as this same passage also intimates and the spy report makes explicit, this reputation was derived from Harriot's status as a practitioner of the new sciences. For many people in early modern England (such as those readers of the Baines report who authorized and conducted interrogations of the report's principals), science seems to have occupied a dangerous because ambiguous position in relation to religious—and political—orthodoxy. It is a concern over the very nature of political orthodoxy and its potential resistance (or, to use Greenblatt's vocabulary, containment and subversion) that leads Greenblatt to Harriot in the first place. Initially it is the Harriot of the Baines document, but then it becomes the Harriot of "the first original book" of the English in the New World that focuses Greenblatt's attention. It is in turn the Harriot of A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia that serves to ground Greenblatt's subsequent discussion of Shakespeare's history plays. As powerful as Greenblatt's reading is, it is not the only interpretive trajectory that is available upon [End Page 184] consideration of Harriot's clearly complicated relation to orthodoxy. Can we conduct a discussion of the issue of Harriot and orthodoxy that is parallel to Greenblatt's political analysis but that will attend to questions of epistemological orthodoxy instead? What precisely is the function of Harriot's "occupation" in Greenblatt's identifying description quoted above that serves to identify Harriot as...


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