The English Common Reader from 1500 to 1800

I have started reading The English Common Reader by the late Richard D. Altick, a landmark study in its field. A chapter-by-chapter summary is available here. Altick outlined his project thus:

This volume is an attempt to study, from the historian’s viewpoint, the place of reading in an industrial and increasingly democratic society. It is the story of how, through numberless tribulations, and against what sometimes appeared to be hopeless odds, there took root and eventually flourished in nineteenth-century England a revolutionary social concept: that of the democracy of print. (1)

In my next post, I hope to comment briefly on  the ideology underlying the notion of the “common reader”, but for now I would simply like to recapitulate Altick’s account of English common readers from Tudor England to the beginning of the 19th century.

To make a long story short: except for a brief decline following the Commonwealth (1649-1660), the English reading public, though always a minority, steadily increased, but its rise was by no means as easy and smooth as one would think.

The obstacles were both material and ideological. Chief among the material difficulties were the lack of printing presses and the prices for books. The spread of printing presses and published material were hold in check by the Star Chamber, who in 1586 prohibited the founding of new presses and limited new editions to 1,500 copies. Despite the Chamber’s abolition in 1641, which ended the regulation of the number of presses, book prices remained high. During the 16th and 17th century, the price of a book amounted to a decent monthly salary. By the end of the 18th century, little had changed:

Books […] except for pirated works and, especially after 1774, reprints of standard authors, could seldom be purchased except by the relatively well-to-do. If a man in the lower bracket of white-neckcloth class–an usher at a school, for instance, or a merchant’s clerk–had a taste for owning books, he would have had to choose between buying a newly published quarto volume and a good pair of breeches (each cost from 10s. to 12s.), or between a volume of essays and a month’s supply of tea and sugar for his family of six (2s.6d.). (Altick, 52-53)

This excluded books that were considered useful (Bibles, religious books, grammar books, and so on), which could be published in greater number and sold much cheaper. The “reprints of standard authors” refers to, amongst others, John Bell‘s 109-volume editions of Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill, begun in 1776, at the bargain price of 1s. 6d. per volume. Similar endeavours were launched by John Harrison and John Cooke. Leigh Hunt wrote about Cooke’s editions: “When the master tormented me, when I used to hate and loathe the sight of Homer, and Demosthenes, and Cicero, I would comfort myself with thinking of the sixpence in my pocket, with which I should go out to Paternoster-row, when the school was over, and buy another number of an English poet.” (qtd. in Altick, 54-55).

Surprisingly, lack of education was far less of a problem than getting your hands on a book. The 15th and 16th centuries saw a significant number of new schools as the teaching of reading and writing was steadily removed from the monopoly of the Church and laid in the hands of laymen. Spoils from the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1541) were used to endow grammar schools, allowing men from all strata of society to achieve literacy (famous examples of lower-class readers of the time are Marlowe, son to a cobbler, Donne, son to an ironmonger, and Herrick, son to a goldsmith). Younger children earned an elementary knowledge of reading and writing from the petty schools (probably from French “petit”). These schools fostered the use of the written vernacular and contributed to the demise of Latin.

Reading received another boost from the Reformation. Protestants, and in England especially the Puritans, promoted the individual study of the Bible. For the Puritans, religious reading went hand in hand with practical, business-oriented reading:

Reading was inextricably associated with ‘improvement,’ with cultivation of the prudential virtues and the more easily acquired amenities of conduct. The books most in request were those which either showed the way to a morality acceptable in the eyes both of God and of Mammon or brought the ideals of humanistic conduct down to the level of the common man. (Altick, 26)

At the same time, the Puritans denounced books of a lascivious and idle nature such as chivalric tales or ballads (these genres nonetheless thrived in chapbooks, and sometimes, as in the case of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, under the pretense of moral instruction).

All in all, learning how to read, whether you were a nobleman, member of the clergy or of a more humble origin, was less of a problem than getting your hands on a book. The pamphlets of the Civil War remedied this lack of reading material to some extent. The writing of the Civil war period also drew attention to the role of reading in politics and government (arguably the most famous of the polemics on reading is Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), a powerful rebuke of censorship). But after the Commonwealth, positive attitudes to the teaching of reading came under attack:

During the Tudor period educational opportunity had been reasonably democratic, for the medieval belief persisted that all men, regardless of worldly station, were bound together in one society under God. Its social status bulwarked by feudal privileges, the upper class could afford to tolerate a certain amount of ambition on the part of the inferior. But with altering economic conditions, with the rise of the mercantile middle class, which forced the extremes of society farther apart, and with the gradual weakening of feudal privileges, the upper class urgently needed to shore up its own position. The essential tolerance that had eased its relations with the lower class gave way to condescension and even contempt. […] Soame Jenyns spoke for many men of his century when he maintained in 1757 that ignorance was “the appointed lot of all born to poverty and the drudgeries of life, … the only opiate capable of infusing that sensibility, which can enable them to endure their miseries of the one and the fatigues of the other .. a cordial, administered by the gracious hand of providence, of which they ought never to be deprived by an ill-judged and improper education.” (Altick, 30-32)

As a result, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1699 established schools for the masses that kept the syllabus to a minimum, teaching the pupils nothing beyond what were considered proper Christian principles and duties. Fortunately, the reactionaries of the Restoration period were not able to slow down the rise of reading for long. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, argued that “Reading Christians […] will be knowing Christians” and established a thriving book trade among his followers that did a great deal towards popularising literature.

Another important step was the rise of a newspaper and coffeehouse culture. Just as books, newspapers were too expensive for most readers, but they enjoyed great popularity in the coffeehouses, even among members of the lower classes. The bulk of public reading remained in the hands of the upper and middle classes, however. The Spectator by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, whose aim was “bringing philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses” (qtd. in Altick, 46), diffused the interest in periodicals and books and thus paved the way for establishing a solid middle class readership.

James Lackingtons Temple of Muses

A breakthrough in book publishing as well as the reading of fiction, which up to this point was looked upon with disdain, occurred with the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. First published in 1740, Pamela sold five editions (ca. 20,000 copies) in a year, a bestseller in an age when buying books was still an exception. The success of early novels such as Richardson’s revealed the potential of the book market (in particular, the potential of the female readership) and consequently helped to expand the book and library trade, which up to that point had been confined to stationaries and books sold ‘on the side’. James Lackington (1746-1815) revolutionized the book trade when he set up the “Temple of the Muses” in London. “Over the main entrance appeared the sign, whose proud claim no one evidently challenged, CHEAPEST BOOKSELLERS IN THE WORLD” (Altick, 58). Besides Lackington’s temple and the stalls of secondhand booksellers, the demand for cheap books was met by circulating libraries, the first of which is attributed to Allan Rasmay in 1725.

The rising amount of reading material reached its apex in the publication of Thomas Paine’s (1737-1809) The Rights of Man in 1791, following the aftermath of the French Revolution. Similarly successful were the publications trying to countervail the impact of Paine’s writings, notably the Cheap Repository Tracts by Hannah More (1745-1833). They taught publishers how to produce and distribute reading matter on a mass scale, ushering in the age of commercial cheap publishing. But likewise, they renewed the upper classes’  concern over the common reader and the reading public. Although the success of Paine’s and More’s publications was tied to the years of the revolution, their “astounding circulation figures […] had enabled the ruling class of England for the first time to grasp in concrete terms the size of the existing public” (Altick, 76):

Thus, in the turbulence of the 1790’s, the emergence of a reading public among the humble brought England face to face with a major social problem, a problem destined to be shadowed for several decades by the threat, real or imaginary, of a revived Jacobinism. Tom Paine and Hannah More between them had opened the book to the common English reader. But was it merely a book — or a Pandora’s box of infinite trouble? (Altick, 77)

Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader. A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900. [1957] Chicago and London: Phoenix Books, 1963.


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