The pamphlet war between John Taylor and Henry Walker

The series of posts that follow are a slightly amended and lengthier version of a paper I gave on 12 July at the Birkbeck Early Modern Society. [Note: since writing this my views on some aspects of this pamphlet exchange have evolved: if you are also researching this issue and want to get in touch please do.]

The pamphlet above is one of a number of salvoes fired in an infamous pamphlet war that started in June 1641, between two writers called John Taylor and Henry Walker.

Taylor was a waterman who had lived in London since his apprenticeship in the early 1590s. Despite only a brief spell at grammar school, contact with actors and writers he ferried to the Bankside triggered a new interest in literature for him. From 1612, Taylor started publishing verses and experimented with other forms of print. For example, in 1614 he produced a miniature “thumb-bible” as a novelty for courtiers. He also experimented with a subscription model for selling books. By the 1630s, Taylor’s predominant output was satirical pamphlets.

Less is known about Henry Walker’s background. In 1638 he was admitted as a pensioner at Queens’ College, Cambridge. However, before this he was apprenticed to an ironmonger in Newgate market. By 1641 he was writing and selling anti-episcopal books. At the same time, he was also becoming well-known as an Independent “tub preacher” – in other words, a preacher without a living.

The first salvo in their pamphlet war was fired by Taylor in a pamphlet called A Swarme of Sectaries. In it Taylor satirised a range of “mechanic” or non-beneficed preachers. Walker responded with An Answer to a Foolish Pamphlet entituled A Swarme of Sectaries, in which he attacked Taylor’s literary and religious credentials. Taylor quickly came back with another pamphlet, A Reply as true as Steele, criticising Walker and throwing in a woodcut of a she-devil giving birth to Walker. Walker then wrote a further response, Taylors Physicke has purged the divel, with a woodcut showing Taylor in his ferry-boat drinking something unmentionable from the rear end of another she-devil: this is the pamphlet you can see above. A third author, George Richardson, then entered the fray on Taylor’s side.

Although the dispute went quiet later in the summer of 1641, Taylor resurrected it in 1642 with two further pamphlets. One, a satire of a sermon preached by Walker, became well-known as “Tobie’s dog” after the mock-sermon’s subject, the book of Tobias. Another was a spoof of a debate held between Walker and a Jesuit.

This dispute has traditionally been seen as one of the literary set-pieces of the 1640s. In the civil war both Taylor and Walker would go on to be propagandists for king and Parliament respectively. As a result, their dispute is often presented as a paper conflict prefiguring the actual conflict that would break out between Charles I and Parliament in 1642. This interpretation has been combined with a tendency to see the dispute as being crude and of low literary merit. More recently, historians have been concerned not to marginalise popular print and instead to see it as an expressive form in its own right. Taylor and Walker’s pamphlet war has also been re-evaluated as part of this trend, and some historians have sought to restore Walker and Taylor’s literary credentials.

However, all of these re-interpretations have continued to stress the oppositional nature of Walker and Taylor’s exchange. Importantly, too, even the most recent interpretations have only considered one aspect of the dispute – the two authors.

But actually it takes more than authors to bring a book to print. As Robert Darnton has argued in work on the print culture of eighteenth-century France, there is a “communication circuit” involved in every book. You also need printers, booksellers and readers. And a text itself doesn’t exist in a vacuum either – it relates to the social and political context of its time. The diagram below shows Darnton’s version of this communication circuit.

What I will do in subsequent posts is analyse some of the missing characters in the communication circuit behind Walker and Taylor’s dispute:

  • the texts, and how they relate to seventeenth-century print culture in general
  • the readers
  • the publishers

A full contextual analysis of all the parties involved, and the creative tensions between them, reveals that the exchange could be at once a pitched battle and a friendly spat, and could simultaneously be both crude and erudite.

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