Reading in Early Modern England

Contexts and Problems

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 University of Kent

The history of reading in early modern England is elusive and teasing – offering glimpses of readers but rarely a detailed view of how they read; posing more questions than answers. In part this is because the history of reading is still a relatively new field of enquiry, and our knowledge of reading practices in the period is slowly accruing piece by piece. In the last two decades especially, the history of books and reading has undergone a transformation: reading practices have increasingly been located in terms of their cultural specificity; particular readers, reading acts, and libraries in early modern England have been brought to light; the material histories of books and the ‘sociology of texts’ have inspired new directions in bibliography, while research into manuscript culture has revealed specific readers and annotators at work.1 As Robert Darnton suggests, the history of books and reading is not so much a field of study as ‘a tropical rain forest. The explorer can hardly make his way across it’, criss-crossing tracks between academic disciplines and different caches of evidence.2 Sources relating to readers, reading acts, and reading practices in early modern England are vast and disparate, scattered across a myriad of genres, fields, and disciplines – from fiction to the documents of social history; from written texts to physical artefacts; from the literary to the non-literary; from print to manuscript. The sheer range and inconclusivity of much of this material demands that we make careful distinctions between sources for a history of reading, and confront the methodological challenges they pose. This special issue on Reading in Early Modern England stems out of a Shakespeare Association of America seminar in 1999 on the topic.3 In this short essay I do not attempt to provide an introduction to the history of reading in early modern England, but instead to voice issues raised by the seminar in relation to three key areas: women’s reading, social differentiation, and textual transmission.

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