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The Book as Print Culture: The 17th Century

The 17th century is often called the "Age of Grandeur". It includes exploration, emergent capitalism, and scientific discovery. In his book Print, Manuscript, and the Search for Order: 1450-1830, McKitterick (2003, 8) provided an overview of print culture during this time period including

"a period of anxiety: at inaccuracy in the printed book, and at the apparently unstemmable increase in the number of publications, with their tendency for ill as well as for religious or scholarly good."

The output of printed books grew enormously over the next few centuries. The printing press and resulting explosion of books contributed to many societal changes (Love, 2006). However, much of the book production was aimed at royalty and the upper classes including specialist books like the festival book.

The image shows a wedding festival book from 1582.


Democratization of Knowledge

No longer were scholars and clergy the only people with access to ideas. Anyone with access to books could acquire knowledge. This "democratization of knowledge" was a major benefit of the printing press (Love, 2006). More access to knowledge encouraged discussion of books and creation of new works. Unfortunately, the easy dissemination of information also provided opportunities for intentional as well as unintentional misinformation.


Rise in Literacy

chapThe wide availability of books for all economic levels caused an increase in the adult literacy rate throughout Europe. In addition, many books were now being printed in the vernacular language of the region rather than the traditional Latin. This also allowed more standardization of language.

According to Cochrane (1964, x), the seventeenth century had "a lively tradition of the expression and circulation of general ideas."

During the 17th centuries, a growing market emerged for inexpensive books such as chapbooks and broadsides on popular topics. However it's difficult to know who bought and read particular books. According to Tessa Watt (1994),

"We may be frustrated with the inability of printed artefacts to help us differentiate between the views of the gentry, the 'middling sort' and the labouring poor. But this idea that the broadsides and chapbooks were aimed at and consumed by a definable social group may be a myth. The audience presupposed within the cheap print itself appears to be inclusive rather than exclusive, addressed both as 'readers' and as 'hearers'; as substantial householders expected to employe labourers, and as couples 'whose whole stocke could hardly purchase a wedding ring'.

Of course, this cheap print is not homogenous: some items like the copper engravings and plague broadsides appear to have been produced for a market of middling Londoners, while other ballads and chapbooks inhabit the world of (the) poor."

Circulating Libraries

The term "circulating library" was used to describe commercial library enterprises that charged a fee for users. These libraries often carried a wider range of materials including fiction. This met the need of members of the community that could not meet the exclusive requirements of a society or subscription library (Lamb, 2013).

According to Jacobs (2006, 5),

"circulating libraries played a major role in creating the modern popular culture of reading, in part by making books affordable to a wider spectrum of the public, but more importantly by increasing the number of books any single reader could afford to read."

Learn more at The History of Libraries.

Read Jacobs, Edward H. (2003). Eighteenth-century British circulating libraries and cultural book history. Book History, 6, 1-22. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Grenby, M. O. (2002). Adults only? children and children's books in British circulating libraries, 1748-1848. Book History, 5, 19-38. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Charity Schools

The rise of "charity schools" in the late 17th century, dramatically increased literacy throughout Europe. These schools taught poor children to read and write. Often organized by religious organizations, they often provided clothing and education free. The students were often assisted with a trade.

Oral to Silent Reading Experiences

As books became increasingly commonplace, people relied less on oral reading and more on independent, silent reading for entertainment and education.


However, plays continued to be a popular form of entertainment in both the live and printed form. The Book of the Play: Playwrights, Stationers, and Readers in Early Modern England (2006, 34-35) edited by Marta Straznicky explored the connection between plays and book history. In her chapter, Clegg notes that there was a wide play-reading audience. She notes that readers of plays were

"seen as well-educated gentlemen, occasionally as guild members, women, and men about town. They read plays as pastimes, as a pleasurable activity, but also they read for edification. For the playwrights and printers who thought of readers at all (and not all of them did), the reader of plays was someone to be delighted and taught - like the readers of any other English Renaissance literature."

The Beginnings of the Novel

miguelPublished in two parts in 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) became the first novel to the published. Poking fun at the chivalric romance and folk heroes of the past, its use of satire reflected the increasingly literate society. To understand the connection with earlier works like Le Morte d'Arthur, readers needed access to the earlier body of works that well-stocked private and public libraries provided. Without the availability of printed books, readers wouldn't understand the references made in the Don Quixote.

The image on the right shows Miguel de Cervantes.

Other early novelists like John Bunyan (1628-1688), Daniel Defoe (c1660-1731), and Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) laid the foundation for future novelists. Ian Watt (2001, 13) in The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, states that

"Previous literary forms had reflected the general tendency of their cultures to make conformity to traditional practice the major test of truth: the plots of classical and renaissance epic, for example, were based on past history or fable, and the merits of the author's treatment were judged largely according to a view of literary decorum derived from the accepted models in the genre. This literary traditionalism was first and most fully challenged by the novel, whose primary criterion was truth to individual experience - individual experience which is always unique and therefore new. The novel is thus the logical literary vehicle of a culture which, in the last few centuries, has set an unprecedented value on originality, on the novel; and it is therefore well named."

In The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740, Michael McKeon (1987, 133) explains that

"the novel emerged in early modern England as a new literary fiction designed to engage the social and ethical problems that established literary fictions could no longer mediate - which is to say, both represent and conceal - with conviction."

In France, the 18th century was the age of the Baroque adventure novel. Harthan (1981) notes that French novel reading was becoming popular in cultured circles. However it had yet reached the general public. The characters were aristocratic and the settings were fictionalized classical or medieval settings. The adventures included love affairs, combat, and magicians.

The Scientific Revolution

keplerAlthough some historians dislike the term "scientific revolution", the term describes the growth of knowledge and rapid dissemination of ideas during this century. Joseph Ben-David (1991) noted that rapid scientific developments occurred in those areas where information was being distributed and shared.

While many scientific scholars remained devout in their faith, they also embraced the quest for reason and knowledge. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) introduced the laws of planetary motion in books like Astronomia nova (1609), Harmonices Mundi (shown on left) (1619), and Epitome of Copernican Astronomy (1618-21). Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) introduced works associated with astronomy and physics. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) in the area of mathematics.

Work done in the early part of the scientific revolution, laid the foundation for new fields of study. Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) wrote a textbook titled Institutiones Medicae (1708) based on his lifetime of work in the new area of physiology. The roots of this field come from the work of others in the 17th century.

Dissemination of scientific achievements in the natural sciences led to the creation of many applied sciences during this time. For instance, French physician Pierre Fauchard (1678-1761) began the field of dentistry. In his book published in 1728 Le Chirurgien Dentiste, or The Surgeon Dentist, Fauchard denounced "quackery" and advised students to follow scientifically-based practices.

Authorship and Status

galGalileo Galilei's experiences with book publishing in the first part of the seventeenth century provide a more complex look at print culture.

The image on the right shows Galileo Galilei.

Throughout Galileo's career, he was able to publish the right book at the right time for the right audience.

Whether naming Jovian satellites for the royal family or gaining support for a new position by debating with other scholars, he used books as a vehicle to demonstrate his authority as a scientist and author. Through these publications, he was able to gain status.

Johns (1998, 27) notes that

"sudden and irrevocable, Galileo's fall has remained one the most resonant incidents in history, let alone in the history of science. Here, as throughout Galileo's life, the uses of a book had proved crucial to the transformation.. his fortunes... rested on the way in which his book would be read."

Book Promotion and Advertising

title pagBookstores used a wide range of techniques to entice buyers. They arranged books in bookstall displays, posted lists, and distributed catalogs. Christine Ferdinand (1999, 158) notes that "strategies for promoting (books depended on)... the actual market and the potential market for reading materials - both of which were naturally connected with levels of literacy - the drive and the means to expand the market, and the technologies available."

Ferdinand (1999, 158) notes that "as proper title pages for books developed, and certainly by the end of the sixteenth century, it became common to print extra copies that could double as advertisements, a logical refinement on the handwritten notice posted on the bookseller's doorpost."

Word of mouth was also a common advertising strategy. Hawkers were used to cry out and book fairs attracted buyers.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, a primary means of advertising was the newspaper. Later, advertisements were often found in the front and back of books.

Transatlantic Publishing

Publishing in England and the American colonies presented special problems for both authors and printers. The publishing cultures, religious controls, and other restrictions in both locations causes many authors to move between locations in order to accomplish their goals. What could or could not be printed and shipped across the Atlantic causes additional problems.

To learn more about one authors problems with censorship and publishing, read Glover, Jeffrey (2007). Thomas Lechford's Plain Dealing: censorship and cosmopolitan print culture in the English Atlantic. Book History, 10, 29-46.


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