Reading pamphlets

I’ve spent the past few weeks immersed in seventeenth-century pamphlets and as a result, have been reading a lot of background literature on printing, print culture, bibliography and the history of the book. Below are some scattered thoughts, based on what I’ve read, about different ways of approaching an early modern pamphlet. They will probably be old hat to most of you, but some of them have been new discoveries to me and hopefully some visitors to this blog might also find them useful.

I’ve based this post around a borrowed version of the diagram of the “communications circuit” of the book in Robert Darnton’s classic article, What is the History of Books? – but adding in the crucial extra of the physical book itself. (You might need to click on the image to actually read the text!)


  • The author. This is the most obvious starting point. Who wrote your pamphlet? What else did they write? What can you construct of their life – were they a professional writer, did they write under someone else’s patronage, what political and economic connections did they have? Don’t be scared of anonymity, either. Even if their names aren’t on the front page, authors often leave clues in the text to alert you to their identity. Do the vocabulary or concepts used in the pamphlet match those used in other pamphlets? Has the author used an anagram of their name, or initials? With a bit of work it’s often not too difficult to figure out the author – a (very humble) example from my own reading is linking a pamphlet by “I.S.” to the soldier John Streater.
  • The “middle-men”: printers, publishers, shippers and booksellers. These could be one and the same, but not always. But the point remains that books aren’t just created by authors. Publisher, printers, booksellers and often shippers all have to do their job in order to get a pamphlet to the reading public. Who printed your pamphlet? What else and who else did they publish? Where was it sold? Was it imported from elsewhere? Finding out can tell you a lot about the economic, social and intellectual conditions in which a work was published. And not finding out can also be illuminating – was the pamphlet issued without a licence or printed elsewhere then smuggled in to its eventual destination? The non-textual elements of a pamphlet can be helpful in tracking down anonymous printers. Look at the colophon, any woodcut initials, and any decorative woodcuts. Are they the same as those used by pamphlets for which you know the identity of the printer? Think about the font, too – are any of the letters cracked or otherwise distinctive, and if so can you match them to another pamphlet? Consider any illustrations, too. Is the woodcut brand new, or has it been recycled or pirated from previous works? For a great example, see this post from Blogging the Renaissance.
  • Readers. Sometimes – if rarely – this will be obvious. Perhaps it’s a popular work that attracted lots of comment from other writers, or was mentioned in contemporary diaries: from this you can reconstruct at least some of the book’s intended reading public. Or perhaps it was a limited edition that was intended for a named audience. Sometimes, you are able to get a detailed insight into an individual reader. One of the most famous examples is Carlo Ginzburg’s microhistory of the miller Menocchio in The Cheese and the Worms. But mostly, it is more difficult to track down your pamphlet’s readers – some may not have been able to read at all, but still may have accessed the book. For example, they might have had it read to them; if it’s a ballad or uses verse, they might have heard it sung; or if it was pasted up on a wall, they might have looked at the pictures. So form can be one way in to establishing who the readers were. Also consider the size of the pamphlet. Was it published in a small and hence cheap size, like octavo? Or was it a bulky and expensive folio? Analysing a pamphlet’s size can tell you a lot about its intended audience. This is where looking at pamphlets via the web is not always helpful, despite its convenience – you do not always get a sense of the physical dimensions of a tract. And consider other ways in which a book was consumed – what were surviving copies bound with, and where were they kept?
  • Intellectual influences and publicity. To borrow Joad Raymond’s phrase, “pamphlets multiplied”, feeding each other and sparking new publications. Does the title indicate that it’s an animadversion against another pamphlet? Are there references in the text to other authors or works? Many pamphlets cannot begin to be understood without this contextualisation. For an example, see Christian Jouhaud’s article on lampoons in seventeenth-century France.
  • Political and legal sanctions. What censorship regime was in place when the book was published? Was the book licensed, or pirated, or smuggled to its eventual destination? And does this tell us anything about how the content might have been put together? For some contemporary views on censorship, Milton’s Areopagitica is a traditional starting point – and there is an excellent online exhibition to celebrate his quartercentenary at the Bodleian.
    • The book itself. I’ve already touched on points like size, or illustrations, or cracked type, above, but there are other aspects of books themselves that can be illuminating. Look carefully at the typeface in which the text is laid out. Are certain words capitalised, or italicised, and if so does this mean you have to read something else into them? An excellent example is Don McKenzie’s close reading of the prologue to Congreve’s The War of the World, in which he shows that modern printed editions have inadvertently mis-quoted Congreve by changing his punctation and use of capital letters, thus completely altering the intended meaning. Or find out whether there were different versions of the pamphlet. Were there later editions, and do they differ from the original? Sometimes, different versions could even be issued within the same print run. For a brilliant example, see Jason Peacey’s analysis of Henry Parker’s The Generall Junto.

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