Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Month: July, 2008

John Taylor and Henry Walker, part 2: the texts

[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 my last post I described how I wanted to break down the communication circuit that underpins the pamphlet war between John Taylor and Henry Walker. In this post, I’ll start by trying to relate the texts to the broader social, political and intellectual context of their time.

You might think from the “shitting devil” woodcuts that the pamphlets are also fairly crude. But actually Taylor and Walker’s texts use a diverse range of tactics to outdo each other. Witty anagrams are traded: “John Talour the Poet” becomes “ART THOU IN HEL, O POET”, and “HENRIE WALLKER” becomes “KNAV, REVILER, HEL”. Marginal notes and indexes are used to orientate the reader and to lend the pamphlets an air of sophistication. Both authors try to claim the moral and literary high ground: Taylor accuses Walker of libel, and of being responsible for the increasing volume of cheap print being produced. Walker stresses how quickly he can compose responses – “I take not seven days, nor scarce halfe seven hours to bring forth my Ante-Reply for the presse”.

Both authors emphasise that literary sensibilities, not profit, are their motive for writing. This attempt to disassociate themselves from the stigma of print was typical of pamphlet writers in the early 1640s. Although such claims were ostensibly pitched at those producing cheaper forms of print, in fact authors of cheap print like Taylor and Walker were not averse to doing so in order to give themselves an edge over their competitors.

Both pamphlets also make effective use of woodcuts linked to details in the text. A Seasonable Lecture, for example, has a picture of Walker preaching from a tub, exclaiming part of the catchphrase of the pamphlet, and a parallel picture showing Tobias and his dog.

A Swarme of Sectaries also uses a picture of a preacher in a tub labelled Sam How (a cobbler well known as a mechanic preacher), juxtaposed with sign indicating the Nag’s Head tavern (well known as a meeting place for separatist puritans).

Both woodcuts use a visual language that would have been immediately recognisable to a wide range of readers. This was not just to help pamphlets catch the eye when readers were browsing in bookstalls. Integrated with the text in this way, woodcuts give pamphlets a greater imaginative depth that helps to hold the reader’s attention.

However, woodcuts are not the only means through which the two authors could achieve such an effect. For example, Walker tells a story of Taylor dining with Archbishop Laud at the Tower of London and getting so drunk that he fell into a tub. The basis of this may drawn on a real story and although this may be a greatly exaggerated form of the real incident, it is not just rumour-mongering on Walker’s part. He uses the anecdote to counter the woodcut in A Swarme of Sectaries. By claiming that the man in the tub is Taylor, Walker is able to turn Taylor’s material against him. In effect, Walker uses the anecdote to produce a textual woodcut to deploy against Taylor.

Both authors also subvert and rework other pamphlet forms. A Seasonable Lecture, for example, is a satire of the pamphlet sermon, which had been a common form of print from the Reformation onwards. In the early 1640s pamphlet sermons were generally written accounts of speeches that had actually been delivered, rather than a standalone form. Playing on this, Taylor lends his pamphlet realism by quoting the date it was supposed to have been delivered, and claiming it had been transcribed in shorthand. (Systems of shorthand were commonly used to transcribe sermons at this time).

Similarly, A Reply as true as Steele is a classic piece of “flyting” – a type of poetic duelling that originated in Scotland in the fifteenth century. In particular, it is inspired by a duel in the 1580s between two Scottish court poets, Alexander Montgomerie and Patrick Hume. As well as borrowing its form, Taylor borrows a number of phrases. For example, references to Walker being born due to a union between the devil and a dun cow, and to being suckled by a sow, are direct quotes from one of Hume’s poems.

Walker’s pamphlets are also heavily intertextual in the way they rework past texts. An Answer very knowingly bases itself on an earlier pamphlet battle between Taylor and the writer William Fennor. Walker starts by  playing with anagrams of Taylor’s name and mocking his imagined coat of arms. These verses are both direct quotes from a work by Fennor criticising Taylor. Later he goes further than simple quoting, taking various couplets and remixing them to form two entirely new poems. Walker also mines Taylor’s back catalogue – which had been published as a collected works in 1630 – for embarrassing material. For example, he quotes from a verse written by the schoolboy George Hatton, originally quoted in Taylor’s An Arrant Thiefe. In the original context the verse was complimentary to Taylor, but Walker is able to recontextualise it and turn it against him. Similarly, another section references The World Runs on Wheeles, which had criticised hackney coaches and linked them with libidinous behaviour. Walker is able to subvert references from this to claim Taylor is obsessed with sex.

However, the intertextuality in this particular dispute went even further. After Walker and Taylor’s exchange, a third pamphleteer entered the dispute with The Irish Footman’s Poetry. No other works by its purported author George Richardson survive.  The only clues in the pamphlet itself are his description of himself as a “Hibernian pedestrian”, and his note that “in Ireland I was born and bred”. However, the pamphlet’s effusive praise for Taylor makes it likely that it was connected to Taylor in some way. The pamphlet’s invention of “John the Swimmer” to contend with “Henry the Walker” has similarities to Taylor’s own description of himself in other works as the Sculler, or the Aquatic Poet. It may have been produced by friends of Taylor, or commissioned by his publishers.

Whoever the author was, it is significant that the dispute spawned a further contribution. The recycling and redeployment of both past and present texts – and the resultant multiplication of publications – became an increasingly common characteristic of pamphlets as the 1640s progressed. Walker, Taylor and their peers used the devices and vocabulary of the past in order to present continuity between their own work and that of commercially or artistically successful pamphleteers. Such strategies were used not only to affirm authors’ superiority to their rivals, but also in order to more successfully entertain or inform their readers.

In my next post I will look at those readers, to see if it’s possible to reconstruct who they might have been.

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.


Ralph Luker’s list of 80 recommended history blogs is up at Cliopatria.

Richard Badger

I’ve finally got round to catching up with the June edition of the Historical Journal and I’ve been particularly intrigued by an article by Peter McCullough on the printer Richard Badger [link to article – subscription or Athens access required].

Badger (1585-1641) was a printer who was entrusted with publishing an edition of Lancelot Andrewes’s XCVI sermons (1629) whilst still a journeyman. In the 1630s he was made a master printer and went on to produce a wide range of Laudian publications.

McCullough uses a close study of Badger’s professional and kinship connections with Laud and his supporters to study the extent to which his political and religious ideologies were consistent or sincere. He makes a crucial distinction between books published by printers – in other words, where the capital was put up but the printing often passed on to others, where the publisher’s name would generally be given on the imprint – and those merely printed by them – where they were doing work for other stationers.

This sensitivity to form yields a fascinating analysis of Badger’s career. McCullough argues that to use printed output as an index of religious allegiance is not on its own sufficient – this distinction between published and printed works needs to be borne in mind. An analysis of published works shows that Badger showed remarkable consistency in his Laudianism.

McCullough complements this analysis by looking at an untapped source for stationers’ allegiances – the exchequer’s composition books from the Office of First Fruits and Tenths, which show stationers standing surety for over 300 clerical appointments. He weaves this together with bibliographical analysis, looking at the printer’s imprint Badger adopted, shown above – with its grandeur and heraldic crests – to demonsrate the positive impact Badger’s association with Laud had on his business.

McCullough concludes that these sources can be used to confirm recent trends in the historigraphy of printing that have moved away from seeing printers as motivated solely by commercial interests.

As a work of historical analysis this is properly post-revisionist, crossing a number of academic disciplines and using a wide range of sources. I found it a really stimulating read and would recommend checking it out.

1. Peter McCullough, ‘Print, publication and religious politics in Caroline England’, Historical Journal (2008).

2. Lancelot Andrews, XCVI Sermons, printed by Richard Badger (London, 1641).

Things noted

Early modern:

Other periods:


I posted previously about being inspired by Digital Scholarship in the Humanities to mess about with word clouds. The same post also gave me the idea to try some text comparison tools.

TAPoR’s Comparator tool allows you to type in the URLs for two different pieces of text. It then compares the two, producing a word list showing whether words appear in both.

I tried it out with two texts in the pamphlet battle between John Taylor and Walker of 1641 that I’ve been looking at recently. Late in the summer of 1641, a text called The Irish Footman’s Poetry appeared by a third author – one George Richardson. The text referenced various previous pamphlets in the dispute. Although it appeared when Taylor was on a journey down to the south-west of England, it is often attributed to him. (No real George Richardson appears to have existed).

I ran Richardson’s text through the tool alongside one of Taylor’s pamphlets from the dispute. I had a hazy idea in my head that this could just possibly be a magic tool that could tell me the real author of a pseudonymous text.

Unfortunately it didn’t tell me very much. What it gives you is a list of words that occur in both texts, and the ratio with which they occur in both. In some cases I can imagine this being very useful – for example to trace the transmission of texts in cases where later works references or draws upon previous works. In my case, though, the only words that emerged in common were everyday verbs like “do”.

Then I tried doing two separate sets of more detailed analysis using the HyperPo tool. Here are the results for Taylor:

  • Total words (tokens): 1813
  • Unique words (types): 785
  • Highest word frequency: 91
  • Average word frequency: 2.31
  • Standard Deviation of word frequencies: 5.07
  • Average word length: 4.29
  • Standard Deviation of word lengths: 2.11
  • Number of sentences: 44
  • Average words per sentence: 41.2
  • Number of paragraphs: 17
  • Average words per paragraph: 106.6

Here is the same analysis for Richardson:

  • Total words (tokens): 1841
  • Unique words (types): 726
  • Highest word frequency: 86
  • Average word frequency: 2.54
  • Standard Deviation of word frequencies: 5.29
  • Average word length: 4.35
  • Standard Deviation of word lengths: 2.22
  • Number of sentences: 95
  • Average words per sentence: 19.4
  • Number of paragraphs: 38
  • Average words per paragraph: 48.4

Again not much stands out – in any case trying to look for similarities this way could be distorted if, for instance, the same author was deploying different literary styles in each text.

So, TAPoR’s tools were fun to try out, but not much help in this particular case – a far better way to establish who the real George Richardson might have been is through a detailed contextual, bibliographic and stylistic analysis of the text. That said, I’d still recommend having a play about with TAPoR’s wide range of tools since you may well find something of use.