John Taylor and Henry Walker, part 3: readers

by Nick

[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.]

In previous posts I have outlined the importance of establishing who every player was in the communication circuit behind Taylor and Walker’s pamphlet war, and of exploring how the dispute relates to the social and political context of its time. This post looks at who might have been reading the pamphlets.

There is no direct way of assessing who those readers were, or what they thought about Taylor and Walker’s exchange. There are no diaries or other sources in which readers mention the various pamphlets. However, it is still possible to reconstruct their potential readership analysing the form and content of the pamphlets. They were printed on single sheets of quarto, making them up to eight pages long. The maximum print run would have been about 1,000 copies. They would have sold at perhaps a few pence. each. Hence, they would have been affordable to many of the middling sort: the average day wage of a building craftsman in London in 1641, for example, was 30d., and that for a building labourer was 17d.At the same time, the cost of a 4lb loaf of bread was roughly 6d. So while wage labourers might have struggled to afford them, middling-sort craftsmen and artisans would certainly have been able to purchase pamphlets at this price.

And it was not just that the books were affordable to a wider market: the wider market also existed for them. Literacy levels in London were significantly higher than in other parts of England, and spread across a wider social base. Shopkeepers and, to a less extent, artisans were often able to read print. Those who could not read might still participate in print culture, through membership of workplace or religious community that allowed them to hear texts being read. This period saw a growing expansion in forms of cheap print like sermons, newsbooks and ballads, deliberately published at a size that was affordable to middling sort readers. The size and form of Walker and Taylor’s pamphlets make it likely they were designed to attract middling sort readers.

Woodcuts from the pamphlets give another clue about their potential readers. The two most striking illustrations are those depicting Taylor and Walker with a she-devil.

Both draw on the same imagery of a large, winged demon with claws, horns and pendulous breasts. This imagery owes much to late medieval conceptions of the devil, in which he (or occasionally she) could appear as a physical being but had limited powers. Perhaps as a result, the devil was often presented in a humorous context. He appeared in medieval “merry tales” and mystery plays, often in a sexual or scatological context. Such images would have been recognisable by those at all levels of society.

By the 1640s, however, this late medieval conception of the devil was being challenged. Godly puritanism emphasised the power of the devil, putting the struggle with him at the centre of spiritual life. It has been argued that this challenge was not entirely successful – medieval conceptions of the devil lived on amongst much of the population of England. This does not necessarily mean that the pamphlets were not intended to be read by the godly. The iconography of the woodcuts would still have been recognisable even to those who had differing views of how the devil operated. But it does suggest that the pamphlets were intended to be read – and the images seen, for those who could not read – by an audience from a wide social background.

However, it is important to bear in mind the representations of Taylor and Walker that accompanied the devils. The picture of Taylor is a fairly accurate representation of him, and shows him with his ferry boat to underline his identity. Although there are no surviving portraits of Walker, the two images in A Reply as true as Steele and A Seasonable Lecture are similar, which suggests they could have been drawn to reproduce their subject. Walker is also depicted with the tools of his trade, in the form of andirons. To those that knew Walker and Taylor, it is likely that both images would have been recognisable caricatures.

The images, then, have a number of layers to them. They might have been amusing or offensive to someone living outside London, unconnected to the world of publishing, but those living in London who knew Walker and Taylor and who were involved in the world of publishing would also have recognised the images as caricatures. We can see in this the sophistication of publishers of cheap print by the 1640s in marketing their pamphlets. Woodcut illustrations were increasingly being drawn to order, using a style and iconography that could appeal to a number of audiences and hence broaden a pamphlet’s chance of selling well.