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In this video we look at bestselling books during the Early Modern Period.
What type of books become bestsellers? Usually, when we think of bestsellers in the early modern period, we think about books that have been reprinted many times. We’re going to have a look at some examples of bestsellers, and why they became so popular. Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Castel of helthe, which was first published at London in 1534 and subsequently ran to 17 editions before 1660, is a good example of an early modern bestseller. Trinity College Dublin’s copies date from 1547 and 1610, and show us some of the reasons why this book became so popular.
As we can see from Elyot’s reference to the four humours, the book followed the dominant medical philosophy of the period, the Galenic philosophy, which viewed illness as an imbalance of four humours– blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. What Elyot was offering his readers was a method of balancing the humours– how to avoid illness and stay healthy in 16th century London. This type of popular medical text could easily become a bestseller in early modern Europe, just like the rows of popular self-help books in bookshops today. Other types of bestsellers were more ephemeral. That is, they lasted only for a short time, but they sold well.
Typical examples of this type of short-term bestseller are broadsheets, ballads, newspapers, pamphlets, and of course, chap books– cheap books. All had four things in common. They were cheap to produce because they used so little paper, they were small and portable, they were sold unbound, and finally, they were ultimately disposable. A good example of this type of cheap product, which was produced in great numbers, was the almanac. By the mid 17th century, it has been estimated that one in three households had a copy of a yearly almanac, which included not only the calendar and religious festivals, but also included the predictions of the future. Then, as now, the astrological element in almanacks ensured them a wide market.
As this example of The Bloudy Almanack of 1651 shows, almanacks sold particularly well in times of war and uncertainty. The greatest best seller of all was, of course, the Bible. Editions were produced in all shapes and sizes because printers knew that the Bible was a guaranteed best seller. Religion dominated the early modern book trade. In England, before 1660, nearly half of the total press output was devoted to sermons, primers, and prayer books. This religious dominance in the book trade mirrored the central role of religion in early modern society. Another staple of the print trade were school books and other children’s books.
And sometimes, of course, a clever bookseller might decide to combine two markets, as in this example of a children’s Bible, printed in Dublin in 1763. And finally, not all bestsellers came in small parcels. One of the most famous and intriguing bestsellers of all time is the beautiful 15th century book known as The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. The success of The Nuremberg Chronicle is intriguing because it seems such an unlikely bestseller. Huge, heavily illustrated books do not usually sell so well. But like all the best sellers I’ve mentioned, it responded to a contemporary concern.

We are going to start this week by looking at some of the bestselling books of this period and explain why they became so popular. In the next step, find out more about the famous Nuremberg Chronicle Elizabethanne mentions in the video.

Many bestsellers don’t survive because they were ephemeral productions such as ballads and broadsheets.

  • Take a look at the Bodleian Library’s Ballads Online, a database containing images and catalogue records of printed ballads from Bodleian and other collections.
  • Click on any of the ballad titles on the Browse list
  • Read some of the lyrics from the ballads
  • Having explored some of these ballads, consider in the comments section below, the reasons why you think ballads were printed so cheaply.
Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian, The Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
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The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: 1450 to 1800

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