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Reading History in Early Modern England. (Reviews).

D. R. Woolf. Reading History in Early Modern England

(Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History.) Cambridge: University Press, 2000 [2001]. xvi + 360 pp. + 20 pls. $69.95. ISBN: 0-521-78046-2.

D. R. Woolf provides "a history book about the history of history books" in the period from 1475 to 1725. As a history it is replete with data and citations but thin on explored ideas. Woolf's furthest abstraction is to suggest that "the forces determining the writing, printing, purchase, lending, reading. . . were many and complex" (318). At the more specific level of describing the increasing creation and use of history as a genre his documentation is impeccable, voluminous and engaging.

Woolf first describes the death of the old order of histories as the chronicles "dissolve" into a variety of "parasite genres" (26). These include almanacs, newspapers and corantos, historical verse, diaries, biographies, and historical narratives. Chronicles shared the qualities of providential explanation, annalistic structure, and the avoidance of continuous narrative. Woolf is careful to note the dissolution of the chronicle as due to larger social effects, but his data -- and he provides numbers and tables -- make evident the parallel entrepreneurialism of printers in its demise. Caxton's early production of Higden's Polychronicon began a vogue of printed chronicles which peaked in the mid sixteenth century (Stow is the leader in number of editions at 25, with the epigone Baker next at 13).

But the printed versions became the death of the genre. Most were too compendious to be marketable as octavos or smaller, and the quarto and folio editions were expensive to produce and became reference works or showpieces. Readers increasingly demanded "novelty and currency" (21). Though chronicles brought the reader up to date with increasingly full descriptions of recent years, printers fed and stimulated the new demand with shorter, cheaper and more current works.

As people read (or heard) more in increasingly debated religious and political matters, author identity became of interest and therefore marketable; and class stratification led to differentiated markets for broadsides, almanacs, and chapbook histories as well as to history plays, the "politic histories" of Daniel and Drayton, and biographies such as those of Hayward or Bacon. By the mid-seventeenth century "the twilight of the chronicle . . . was turning to night" in response to "a culture that now privileged style, authorial social status and selectivity" (76).

Woolf proceeds to describe the contexts and purposes of history reading in this period. It is hardly news that readers annotated their reading and wrote about it in diaries and commonplace books, but Woolf gives us God's plenty of examples where history was the topic, allowing him to distinguish public reading, silent reading (including with one's "domestic pint"), reading for application and, increasingly at the end of the period, reading for diversion.

At the same time, ownership of historical works increases, not only absolutely but relatively as a proportion of collections. Woolf marshals considerable data from inventories, wills, and catalogs -- carefully emphasizing their undependability -- in tables and graphs to make visible "the gradual increase in historical readership during the later sixteenth century" (137). In the following chapter he recapitulates the history of libraries in the period, augmented by great detail on the relative proportions of historical works. Whether describing individual lending, or school, parish, community or institutional libraries, "the likelihood of finding historical works increases as one moves forward in time" (190). The final two chapters deal with the costs of producing and the prices of purchasing historical works in the period, and with their marketing and distribution.

To a very considerable extent his chapters comprise a potted history of the book in England at this time, with a particular focus on historical works. An unschooled reader can learn a great deal about authorship, readership, book production and distribution in the hand-press period, while also learning specifically about the historiographic subset that was somewhere between five and fifteen per cent of the books produced. Woolf's overviews and descriptions are clear and energetic, with useful stories and massive amounts of detail about particular booksellers, authors, buyers and readers. He has mined the previous literature and numerous existing archives to provide quantities of anecdotes and examples.

A more critical reader therefore might say that the main line story of English book history is here submerged under a mass of detail about historians and readers that does not provide a clear rationale for its presence. The author's intent is to focus on historical works; the main conclusions in each chapter are that more history was being written, distributed and read. The mass of detail buttresses this point but is in the end anecdotal, for Woolf and we know that it is only the accidents of history that preserve or destroy the examples he uses. He provides a number of quantitative tables and charts in amelioration; these of course become more credible in the later period but earlier they too are primarily built on the accidents of surviving evidence. A final pair of useful appendices provide a tabulation of a bookseller's inventory and an analysis of auction sale catalogs in the late seventeenth century. The latter would also have benefited from a tabular presentation; the narrative including many numbers i s inevitably confusing and it is difficult to get numbers to add to given totals.

If Woolf has a hypothesis, it is the last line of his chronicle: "If indeed there was a historical revolution in the early modern period, it lay. . . in the volume and variety of books that appeared... and in the even greater number of English men and women who read them." He provides massive data for this straightforward point.
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Author:Graham, Peter S.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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