Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy

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Reading Material in Early Modern England rediscovers the practices and representations of a wide range of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English readers. Heidi Brayman Hackel argues for a history of reading centred on the traces left by merchants and maidens, gentlewomen and servants, adolescents and matrons - precisely those readers whose entry into the print marketplace provoked debate and changed the definition of literacy. By telling their stories and insisting upon their variety, Brayman Hackel displaces both the singular 'ideal' reader of literacy theory and the elite male reader of literacy history. This interdisciplinary study draws upon portraiture, prefaces, marginalia, commonplace books, inventories, diaries, letters and literature (Spenser, Shakespeare, Sidney, Greene, Dekker, Lyly, Jonson and others). A contribution to literary studies, the history of the book, cultural history and feminist criticism, this accessible book will also appeal to readers interested in our continuing engagement with print and the evolution of reading material.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Thoroughly researched, carefully crafted and lucidly written, this fine study reviews and extends our knowledge and understanding of the materialities and rhetorics of books and the conditions and practices of readers —- especially female readers —- in early modern England."
Kevin Sharpe, author of Reading Revolutions and editor with Steven N. Zwicker of Reading, Society and Politics, Queen Mary, University of London

" impressive study focusing on the material traces left by actual readers in books... Hackel's book significantly advances our knowledge of the reading practices by women and ordinary readers."
SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900

"With Reading Material, Brayman Hackel makes a major contribution to our knowledge of the reading and writing practices of many forgotten, underrepresented, or misunderstood book owners. [Hackel] has produced a study that is essential to our understanding of early modern reading and writing practices."
Early Modern Literary Studies

"Heidi Brayman Hackel's book is ambitious and wide ranging in scope, elegantly conceived, and lucidly written."
Andrew Cambers, Oxford Brookes University, Sixteenth Century Journal

"This is a book that early modern studies has needed and been struggling toward since at least the early 1980s. As scholarly inquiry has moved toward a more material understanding of Shakespearean and Jacobean England, we have been frustrated and stymied by simple questions...Hackel's extremely well-researched and comprehensive study attempts to answer some of these questions..." - Constance C. Relihan, Auburn U.

"In this study of early modern manuscripts and printed books and their readers, Heidi Brayman Hackel shifts the parameters of reader-response criticism to include the material artifacts of book production. her discussion of what constitutes literacy in the period is especially illuminating...Hackel's book offers a considerable contribution to the emerging fields of New Textualism and the more established theories of reader-response criticism. Her analysis is thoughtful and often inclined to original insights with regard to reading evidence as a genre of literature in itself." - Seventeenth-Century News, Lissa Beauchamp, St. Francis Xavier University

"Especially valuable features of Brayman Hackel's book are the illustrations, appendix, extensive bibliographic notes and bibliography, and index" Phyllis R. Brown, Santa Clara University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521842518
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2005
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Heidi Brayman Hackel is Assistant Professor of English at Oregon State University and author of several essays on early modern readers, literacy, and libraries.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521842514 - Reading Material in Early Modern England - Print, Gender, and Literacy - by Heidi Brayman Hackel


Towards a material history of reading

This book was written over a decade that brought electronic communication and literacy into the offices and homes of a great variety of readers, fundamentally altering the material form of much of their reading and writing. Companies now circulate memos electronically, families keep in touch through email, consumers shop online, travelers plan itineraries on the web, acquaintances "google" one another before a first date. As email supplants air mail, as websites displace storefronts, electronic formats, it would follow, will replace printed books. Within the academy, research libraries have pushed readers towards electronic versions of scholarly journals, and leaders of major professional organizations have called for modifications to the tenure process to recognize the electronic publication of monographs. And yet this seemingly irreversible proliferation of electronic media and its displacement of print have prompted a range of questions about the materiality and the survival of printed books: what practices does the codex encourage and allow? What should be preserved of this medium? What is extraneous? What might an electronic book look like? What would it make possible? Further, readers' continued attachment to printed books begins to suggest the extent to which the very materiality of the book matters to them. To devoted readers of print, the codex seems at once wonderfully portable, hefty, durable, and destructible. As a child, I perched atop a stack of books on a chair to reach the dinner table at a holiday meal. As a college student, I ascended a fog-shrouded mountainside once I'd torn pages from a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and placed them under rocks to guide my descent. As a graduate student, I learned how to read books not just in the bath but in the shower as well. As the mother of two small children, I have discovered anew the force that books can hold as objects and occasions for rituals. To earmark a page, to remember a passage by its placement midway down a left opening, to scribble a name on a flyleaf: all these acts depend upon the spines, bindings, and pages of printed books, which at once make and hold impressions for their readers.

As our own culture grapples with the anxieties and the promise attendant upon a new medium, the historicity and materiality of reading are brought into sharp relief. For all its seeming ethereality, privacy, and idiosyncrasy, the act of reading is finally rooted in the material facts and circumstances of a specific culture and historical moment. Virginia Woolf anticipated recent scholars' claims for the historicity of reading when she conjured "the ghosts of those old readers" as she gazed at the handwritten names on the flyleaves of her copy of The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia: "Each has read differently, with the insight and the blindness of his own generation."1 Such insight and blindness, the fascinations and habits of several generations of early modern readers, are the objects of this present inquiry. As Woolf observed, these "ghosts" have left traces in the flyleaves and margins of their books. But many readers did not leave even such ghostly traces, and the phantasmagoria of many others has long since vanished. While both of Woolf's texts here - Sidney's Arcadia and the manuscript marks on the flyleaves - are central to this study, material evidence of past readers survives as well in the preliminaries of their books and the records of their consumption. My investigation into all these material traces recovers actual readers rather than the phantom idealized readers of recent critical theory.


This book belongs to the emerging field of the history of early modern reading, and it both complements and challenges the pioneering work of Anthony Grafton, Lisa Jardine, and William Sherman.2 Whereas their work takes as its focus the "goal-orientated" reading of professional scholars, this project centers on less extraordinary readers.3 Shifting the attention from men of letters to men and women at leisure, this study examines the recreational reading of the "trifles" and "riffe-raffe" books - prose romances, poetic miscellanies, playbooks, chapbooks - that now constitute the literature of the period. The reading of these texts is central to the period's own self-definition and crucial to our understanding of the period and its literature. As John Heminge and Henry Condell addressed the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays "To the great Variety of Readers," defining this "Variety" as encompassing readers "From the most able, to him that can but spell," Reading Material examines the acts and habits of a "great Variety" of early modern readers. None, perhaps, is ordinary, for to have survived in the historical record at all is to beat the odds, but the readers glimpsed in the following chapters are, at least, more various and less extraordinary than those described in earlier studies.4

The history of reading is a highly interdisciplinary and necessarily collaborative field, and it will take many studies to map out the multiple histories of early modern reading.5 This study contributes to this growing conversation with its full inclusion of women in this history and with its attention to actions on both sides of the printing press. While several scholars have skillfully documented the constructions of female readers, that important work attends more closely to representation than to practice.6 Recent work in several other closely related fields informs my study and lays the groundwork for some of the issues explored here. Harold Love, Arthur Marotti, Steven May, H. R. Woudhuysen, and Ian Moulton have uncovered many of the material practices of manuscript circulation in early modern England, while other scholars have advanced our understanding of the role of printed books in both reflecting and producing social anxiety.7 Juliet Fleming's work on wall-writing and graffiti challenges understandings of the relationship between writing, reading, and domesticity by arguing that the whitewashed domestic wall may have been "the primary scene of writing in early modern England." Although they work on different periods and cultures, leading historians of the book (most notably Roger Chartier, Robert Darnton, Cathy Davidson, and David Hall) have defined a set of concerns and methodologies that can be transferred to early modern England.8

While it is deeply informed by this historical work, my study of reading belongs to the larger framework of literary inquiry from which it emerged. Among the most significant contributions of literary theory in the past three decades has been the opening up of the category of the text. Post-structuralism undermined the stability of the text itself while feminism, New Historicism, and cultural studies have expanded the set of texts deemed appropriate for literary study. Critiques of the New Bibliography have drawn attention to the multiple agencies that produce a text, and the New Textualism has focused on the "materiality" of the text.9 Post-structuralist proclamations of the "death of the author" and textual bibliographers' attention to multiple agency have prompted important questions about authorship. Just as notions of the text and of authorship have been interrogated and revised, the other member of the trio - the reader - also demands rigorous theorization and historicization. Reader-response critics have ably foregrounded the role of the reader, developing theories of reading and establishing the reader as central to the construction of textual meaning. The power attributed to the reader varies from critic to critic, as these theorists are united not so much by a coherent, consistent doctrine as by their efforts to bring the reader back into the center of literary understanding.10 Feminist criticism, too, attends to the reader, specifically the female reader and the ways in which her reading experience is gendered and has been obscured by male critics, who have shaped a literary canon around the reading experiences that they have found pleasurable.11

Reader-response and feminist criticism have done much to focus attention on the reader; both approaches, however, tend to theorize, rather than adequately historicize, the position of this reader. Reader-response critics often ignore actual readers in favor of theoretical constructs, variously described as "mock," "ideal," "model," "implied," "encoded," "informed," and "super" readers.12 Even the tendency to refer in the singular to "the reader" obscures the diversity of individual readers and the range of reading practices available at any one historical moment. Though feminist criticism emphasizes that readers are performing a learned activity that is deeply embedded in the ideologies of their culture, it still threatens to slide into transhistorical notions of an essentialized female reader.13 While reader-response and feminist critics have theorized the role of the reader in literary production, the necessary historical work has only begun. "Theory has now brought us to the point where we must begin to respond to its significant challenges," David Kastan argues, "not by producing more theory but more facts, however value-laden they will necessarily be, that will reveal the specific historical conditions that have determined the reading and writing of literature."14 Scholars, therefore, need now to return to the archives with the questions that literary theory has raised but cannot fully answer. This study responds to these questions by tracking historical readers, who linger in material traces in early modern books and in other documentary records. By historicizing the experiences of various readers, we may hope to understand more fully the ways in which gender shapes reading and the forms in which readers and authors contest and create meaning.

Certainly, scholars have long been studying how great writers made use of their reading: how Spenser read Chaucer, how Shakespeare read Holinshed, how Milton read Spenser. All source studies, after all, are ultimately investigations into the procedures of extraordinary readers. Recent work has been conducted as well on material records of these great readers' habits: interpreting famous readers' handwritten annotations, scholars catch Ben Jonson reading Spenser, Gabriel Harvey mulling over Livy.15 This study attends instead to the constructions and practices of less extraordinary readers, who often remain visible in the historical record only because of their occasional traces in books. For it is these readers, not the celebrated poets or career scholars, whose entry into the print marketplace provoked debate and changed the definition of literacy in early modern England. By telling their stories, Reading Material displaces both the singular "ideal" or transhistorical reader and the extraordinary male reader.


This book seeks to historicize, rather than idealize or merely theorize, the various experiences of early modern readers. But such work presents many challenges: much of the information that would be valuable to the recovery of their reading habits was never recorded or even articulated, and much surely has been lost. It is hard enough to work with living readers, as Norman Holland and Janice Radway have shown.16 For readers rarely articulate their assumptions, and the historian of reading is trapped within her own reading strategies and habits of interpretation. Roger Chartier pinpoints this primary challenge when he describes reading as a practice "that only rarely leaves traces, that is scattered in an infinity of singular acts, and that easily shakes off all constraints." Yet for all its elusiveness, reading is always a material practice "embodied in acts, spaces, and habits."17 Accordingly, the work for a history of reading must be done piecemeal, with an alertness to particulars and attention to anecdote.

This study examines the intellectual and material activities on both sides of the early modern printing press in order to reconstruct both the strategies recommended to readers and the practices in which they then engaged. Throughout, constructions and representations of readers are balanced against their practices. Most broadly, the book moves from the question "What did books tell readers to do?" to its counterpart, "What did readers do with their books?" Owen Feltham, leaving room in his book "for the Comments of the man that reades," expressed a willingness to share the page with his readers and recognized textual meaning as constructed by both authors and readers.18 Accordingly, a study of early modern reading needs to explore the activities on both sides of the press. Robert Darnton has charted a model of a communications circuit, in which the "life cycle" of a printed book progresses from author to publisher to printers, shippers, booksellers, and on to readers. Yet, too often, other historians of the book and of reading analyze only one segment of this circuit, thus losing the necessary sense of the relationships between authors, publishers, and readers.19 Even reader-response critics tend to focus on the text as it is received by the reader, overlooking the ways in which the text-reader relationship is a reciprocal one. As Radway shrewdly observes, these theories are well and tellingly named: for most of these theorists, the priority still rests with the text, which the reader responds to or receives.20 And yet, for the early modern period at least, the acknowledged reciprocity between authors and publishers and readers shaped the ways in which texts were presented and then read.

In his Apologie (1596), Sir John Harington imagines this reciprocity gone awry when a group of hostile readers - "M. Zoilus, M. Momus, and three or foure good natured Gentlemen more of the same crew" - assemble at a dinner party. Casting about for something to do after dinner on a rainy night, they begin discussing recently published books, among them Lipsius' de Cruce, Rainolds's "booke againste Bellarmine," and two editions of The Faerie Queene, until "at last one of them pulled out of his bosome a booke that was not to be sold in Paules Churchyard, but onely that he had borrowed it of his friend."21 The book is Harington's own Metamorphosis of Ajax, of course. Hostile and bored, these quintessentially bad readers proceed systematically through Harington's book, assessing first the title page and then the prefatory letters, printed annotations, and illustrations, before collectively annotating its pages. Maddened by the prefatory verses addressed to them ("Ad Zoilum & Momum") and having already located the dirty bits by following marginal citations to Rabelais, Harington's readers "vowed a solemne reuenge, and taking penne and inke," they annotate his Metamorphosis of Ajax page by page.22 Though these readers misconstrue the work, they nevertheless engage in a range of practices familiar to early modern readers: they have access to books through informal networks, they attend to preliminaries, they read sociably aloud, they use printed marginalia as a finding aid, and they scribble nastily in the margins. (To be fair, their recourse to "fiftie pipes of Tabacco betweene fiue of them" after reading the offending verses is probably atypical.)23 A real but similarly angry reader, for instance, recorded a frustrating reading experience in his copy of John Hayward's Edward the Sixt: "I am a ffoolle for Reding this and hee that Reades itt may kis the Righters Ass."24

This study follows the lead of Harington's mock readers in its organization, first setting the scenes of reading, then examining preliminaries, printed marginalia, and readers' annotations, and finally turning to readers excluded from this crew of gentlemen readers. Chapter 2 explores several literary representations of readers and readings, articulating the practices and assumptions that make such scenes of reading possible and plausible. Chapter 3 then establishes the qualities of both "Gentle Readers" and their counterparts, the Zoili, in order to define an ideal reader historically by attending to the instructions and guides most routinely produced by authors, publishers, and printers: preliminary materials and printed annotations.25 These conventional prescriptions figure "gentle reading" as friendly, compliant, and thorough, and they set a standard by which to measure actual readers' behavior. Chapter 4 responds to these historicized prescriptions by tracking readers through their scribblings in margins and commonplace books and by catching readers fragmenting and applying the texts they have read. From these records emerge scenes of individual readers engaging texts, personalizing their books, making them useful, and, on occasion, rendering them nearly unrecognizable. Like the companion chapters 3 and 4, chapter 5 balances construction and practice by juxtaposing ideals of feminine literacy with portraits of women's book consumption. Excluded from Harington's scene of convivial reading and rarely caught so aggressively marking their books, female readers enter fully into the story of early modern reading only when we expand the category of readers beyond those discovered writing and when we embrace consumption as an important clue about reading practices. For the conditions of access to books and the circumstances of acquisition reveal much about an early modern reader's place in the culture; they also locate the book in a hierarchy of literary and social values. Pamphlets passed out along the roadside bear a very different valence, for instance, from a Great Bible chained in a parish library, and the imagined circumstances of Master Zoilus' possession of Harington's Metamorphosis - borrowed from a friend, not available at St. Paul's, hidden in his cloak until the last moment - mark it as a piece of ephemera moving among a network of surreptitious readers.26 As a group, women represent the single largest category of new and various readers during the period, and they present a heightened example of both the anxieties and the opportunities surrounding print literacy during the early modern period. For, as I discuss in the chapters that follow, female readers are at once disproportionately invisible as readers in the historical record and overwhelmingly the subjects of contemporary polemics about literacy.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. Towards a material history of reading; 2. Impressions from a 'scribbling age': Gestures and habits of reading; 3. Framing 'gentle readers' in preliminaries and margins; 4. Noting readers of the Arcadia in marginalia and commonplace books; 5. Consuming readers: Ladies, lapdogs and libraries; Epilogue; Appendix; Bibliography; Index.

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