Gradual rise of people's prose

Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640
June 2, 1995

In The Art of Memory, published in 1621, John Willis outlined a visualizing technique to assist the reader's faculties of recollection. This involved mentally picturing buildings in which "ideas" were represented as external characteristics, like pictures hung on walls. Tessa Watt conjures one such imaginary edification to conclude her study of cheap print in England between 1550 and 1640. She argues that the furnishing of the early-modern mind changed only gradually, and that contradictions were reconciled with relative ease.

The argument is thorough and complex throughout the book. This is necessary because of the diffuse and fragmentary nature of the evidence, which Watt handles with great control and ingenuity. By examining the durability of ballads in the Stationers' Register Watt reveals an overall pattern. While the late 16th century saw a rise in the efforts of Protestant reformers to use the ballad medium to disseminate morality to a broad audience, in the early 17th century godly ballads declined in number. Also the musical traces of an oral culture began to fade. Simultaneously a vocabulary of visual images developed, which was broadly Protestant but not fiercely anti-Catholic. Then in the 1620s, partly into a breach left by the godly ballad, and using cheap woodcut images sprang the "penny" chapbook, a new, hybrid genre (defined by content, size and length and therefore cost). These printed books were accessible to a broad audience of barely literate readers.

Watt's argument is impressive but the excellence of her book lies in its breadth of evidence, and her reconstruction of the 17th-century reader's relationship with printed books and pictures: the omnipresence of inexpensive broadside woodcuts; the decorating of walls with broadsides; painted cloths; the psychology of iconophilia; the cost of books and the varieties of publishers and booksellers; the aims of political reformers; the transmission of tunes; the relationship of printed to oral culture and the partial tenacity of oral culture. This detail suggests the whole cloth of reading and looking.

Watt concludes that the Reformation and Civil War, "riot and rebellion" did not change the mental decor as suddenly as others have written. In the main these two events occurred outside the historical span of her study. Yet I remain to be convinced that before 1550 and particularly after 1640 there were not dramatic and short-term changes in the forms and reception of cheap print. None the less Watt's conclusions for 1550-1640 demand a wide consensus.

It is appropriate that this generously illustrated study, received with acclaim when published in 1991, should now be released in paperback. Watt's delicate and balanced handling of evidence and inference deserves the widest attention. Her rejection of conflictual models of social change in favour of slow integration and transformation is compelling. But there should remain some caution. Watt's consensualist conclusions derive in part from her method and what she excludes. John Willis's house of pictures is a static model: and it is hard to conceive how it could be used to describe or explain the Civil War.

Joad Raymond is a fellow by examination, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640

Author - Tessa Watt
ISBN - 0 521 458 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 369

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