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Books and readers

In this video we look at books and readers.
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At this point in the course, we’ve talked about how books were made and sold in the early modern period. Today, I’m going to talk about how books were read. This may seem like a simple topic. But while the names of authors and publishers are generally easy to discover, the history of readers and the experiences of these readers can be much harder to trace. Understanding how books were read gives us important insights into the lives of ordinary readers and allows us to see books as social and cultural artefacts as well as objects. Sometimes, we can get lucky and find evidence of a reader within the pages of an early modern book.
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The inscriptions in A Manual of Modern Geography tell us that this book was given by a teacher, Samuel Whyte of the English Grammar School in Dublin, to a student, Jonathan G. Battier as a prize. We can also see from the annotations on the title page that a reader, perhaps Jonathan, perhaps another reader altogether, made marks on this book as they read. This copy of The Blossoms of Morality also has some inscriptions. We call these marks at the margins of a book marginalia. Sometimes, marginalia indicate what readers thought of or felt about a particular book. And sometimes, like here, they were a way for a reader to demonstrate their ownership of the book, to mark the book as their property.
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Joseph Grubb felt the need to mark this book as his own more than once. His pencil inscription “Joseph Grubb’s book, got it 8th of the 5th, 1790,” is opposite a later inscription in pen and in a more assured and mature hand, “Joseph Grubb, Clonmel 1820.” He kept this book and returned to it over the course of 30 years. Publishers cultivated relationships with their readers in the early modern period. While we might think of crowdfunding as a new way to fund a project, this book, The History of St. Paul’s, shows us that crowdfunding or, at the least, a form of it has been around for a very long time.
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If we look inside the front covers, we can see a list of subscribers. These were readers who signed up and bought copies of a book before it was printed. The difference with modern crowdfunding is that early modern publishers often approached wealthy potential patrons directly. However, the patrons listed here are children. You can see how many of them are listed as Miss or Master, indicating that they were young, unmarried girls and boys who had not yet entered society. The History of St. Paul’s is also unusual because it is remarkably small. Miniature books have been printed since the invention of the printing press. One of the first printed miniatures, a book called the Diurnal Mogantium was only 3 inches by 4 inches.
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And it was set and bound by Peter Schöffer, one of Gutenberg’s assistants, in 1468. The next two items I want to look at are miniature books from Trinity’s collections. These are what we call thumb bibles. These books contain stories from the Bible in simple language. And they were made so they could easily fit into a little hand or into a little pocket. The miniaturisation makes them attractive as well as easy to carry around. And they were especially popular with children. Their small size gives us some idea of how readers used them. They are for everyday use rather than serious study or for special occasions. And they’re for private reading rather than reading in a group.
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This book, The Bible in Miniature, is miniaturised in two ways, firstly, its diminutive form. Think of the care that must have gone into the printing, folding, and binding of such little pages. And secondly, it is miniature in the sense that the stories inside are heavily abridged. These pages describing the birth of Christ are really a summary of the chapter in the gospel. Likewise, A Short History of the Bible and Testament contains very brief summaries of stories from the old and new testaments. This book aimed to familiarise readers with the stories and moral messages of the Bible by using vocabulary that was easily accessible to a young audience. This book, like all others, is designed with a reader in mind.

Welcome to week 3 of this course on the History of the Book in the Early Modern Period.

This week we will be exploring how books were read. This gives us important insights into the lives of ordinary readers and allows us to see books as social and cultural artefacts.

In this video, we explore how inscriptions and marginalia tell us about the reader of a book.

  • Have you come across any interesting inscriptions in books you have read?
  • What did they tell you about the reader?
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The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: 1450 to 1800

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