The Reader Revealed

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The back cover of a 17th-century Bible, part of a personalized binding. Folger Bindings Image Collection.

The Reader Revealed was part of the Exhibitions at the Folger. The exhibition opened September 4, 2001 and closed January 19, 2002. The exhibition catalog can be purchased from the Folger Shop.

All the world’s a text, and all the men and women merely readers.

Reading is fundamental to human interaction and communication. Through innovations in print technology achieved by Johann Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, printed books became more affordable and more accessible. Thus, reading—once the preserve of a small educated elite—was opened up to a much more diverse audience.

The earliest printed books incorporated the manuscript tradition of using red ink to direct the reader’s attention and interpretation, as well as type that imitated handwriting, known as black letter. In this 16th century primer, printed in black letter, red ink was used to emphasize the major holy days such as the “Nativity of Our Lord” on December 25, revealing the origin of ‘red-letter days.’

English children were taught to read by their mothers or petty schoolmasters from hornbooks, or other basic reading manuals printed in black letter. They advanced from the fundamental ABCs, vowels, and the Lord’s Prayer of the hornbook to the primer. Female education often stopped at this level. Here a boy receives instruction in writing his ABCs. The girl, standing to the side reading, is literally and figuratively excluded from the knowledge of writing.

Readers at lower levels of literacy might have been able to read printed black letter but not handwritten italic scripts, and many, especially women, had only limited ability to write in italic script. An inability to write even one’s own name, however, did not necessarily indicate an inability to read since reading and writing were taught as separate processes, and reading—abcedarian literacy—was taught first.

Reading served many purposes in early modern Europe. Renaissance readers were as varied as kings and tradesmen, saints and sinners, celebrities and nonentities. It is this 'great variety of readers' that is addressed by John Heminge and Henry Condell in the preliminary leaves of their 1623 First folio on display of Shakespeare's works.

Students and scholars read to acquire specialized knowledge. But even sixteenth-century schoolboys could occasionally be distracted from their study of Latin grammar.

An illustration of a hornbook, from History of the horn-book, 1896. Folger Digital Image 22256.

Professionals read to enhance their skills. The accused read in pursuit of justice, the godly in search of salvation. Consumers read about new products. For women, studying worthy books might attract or repel suitors. Reading was often a pragmatic act, 'studied for action' to navigate the difficult course of human experience. The practice of reading was expanded and enhanced through numerous technological innovations, among them mechanized book stands, or book wheels, spectacles, magnifying lenses, and new and improved light sources. “How to make a glorious light with a Candle, like the Sun-shine” is illustrated in John White’s collection of helpful hints.

Throughout the seventeenth century, the community of readers grew and became more inclusive. One factor was the call for increased and improved education for women. Another factor was the agricultural revolution which afforded children and laborers more educational opportunities. The resulting improvement in literacy rates among these previously marginal groups increased the demand for, and contributed to the proliferation of, lower priced reading materials, making more books accessible to more readers.

Early modern readers identified with their books in a variety of ways. Some viewed them as almost mystical, as objects to be revered. Owners, like Francis Newby, decorated their books with custom bindings, gauffered gilt edges, and other ornamentation. Other readers, like Johann Gerard, simply made marks in their books which illustrate and record a wide range of human experience and emotion.

These interactions evidence deeper levels of personal interaction between book and reader—from humorous to grave, from inane to practical, from affluent to humble. The range of sentiments reflected by readers transformed even ordinary books into valued keepsakes to be passed on to future generations.

The early modern reader is revealed to us today primarily through evidence in contemporary books and manuscripts. Accumulated and preserved over the centuries by great libraries and individual collectors like Henry Clay Folger and Emily Jordan Folger, these books document the humble origins of a significant number of former owners and readers. Exquisite decoration and extensive annotation are evidence that these books were well-loved and well-used. Personal interactions between reader and book provide important insights into the lives, thoughts, and concerns of a time far removed from our own. The story revealed is an amazing and on-going saga of use, reverence, survival, and endurance.

List of selected exhibition items

  • Sarah Sale. Notebook of Sarah Sale. Manuscript, 1679-1690. Call number: A2254.5 (ms. content).
  • Christoff Weigel. Abbildung der gemein-nützlichen Haupt-Stände. Regenspurg, 1698. Call number: 203- 725q.
  • John Taylor. Verbum sempiternum. London: Printed by J. B[eale]., 1631. Call number: STC 23811.2.
  • Arthur Dent. A sermon of repentaunce. London: for Iohn Harison, 1583. Call number: STC 6652.
  • Aabc […]. [London?: s.n., 1625]. Call number STC 13813.6.
  • The New Testament of ovr Lord Iesvs Christ. London: Robert Barker, 1609. Call number: STC 2907.
  • Thomas Sternhold. The whole booke of Psalmes. London : Printed by I[ohn] L[egat], 1639. Call number: STC 2689 copy 1.
  • Samuel Daniel. The collection of the history of England. London: Printed [by Nicholas Okes] for Simon Waterson, 1626. Call number: STC 6251 copy 4 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Church of England. Catechismus paruus pueris primùm Latinè qui ediscatur, proponendus in scholis. London, 1573. Call number: STC 18711.
  • Francis Bacon. Francisci Baconi de Verulamio, summi Angliæ Cancelarii, De sapientia veterum, liber. London, 1634. Call number: STC 1129 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Edward Dering. A collection of speeches made by Sir Edward Dering Knight and Baronet, in matter of religion. London: Printed by E[dward]. G[riffin]. for F. Eglesfield, and Jo. Stafford, 1642. Call number: D1104 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Isaac Oliver. Philip Herbert, Fourth Earl of Pembroke. [Exhibited as William Herbert]. Drawing on vellum with watercolor, 1611. Call number: FPm10 (realia) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • George James De Wilde. The seven ages of man. Oil on canvas, 1823. Call number: FPa19 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Hartmann Schopper. Panoplia omnium illiberalium mechanicarum aut sedentariarum artium genera continens. Frankfurt, 1568. Call number: GT5770 .S4 Cage.
  • William Shakespeare. Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. London: Printed by Isaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.09 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Shakespeare. Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. London: Printed by Isaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.46.
  • Francis Carswell. England’s restoration parallel’d in Judah’s. London, 1689. Call number: C650 Copy 2.
  • Clement Walker. Relations and observations, historical and politick, upon the Parliament begun anno Dom. 1640. Divided into II. books. London, 1648. Call number: W334.
  • Joseph Moxon. Mechanick exercises: or, the doctrine of handy-works. London, 1683. Call number: M3014.
  • Simeon Ash. A support for the sinking heart in times of distresse. London, 1642. Call number: 146- 894q.
  • Poetical miscellany. Manuscript, ca. 1630. Call number: V.a.345 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Barry Moser. [Test impression for] the first book of Moses called Genesis [from the Pennyroyal-Caxton edition of the Holy Bible]. West Hatfield, Mass.: Pennyroyal Caxton Press, 1999. Call number: 252206 ART (size L).
  • Marcus Tullius Cicero. Ciceronis De oratore libri III ; Orator ; De claris oratoribus / cum annotationibus Dionysii Lambini ... singulis tomis distinctis. Venice, 1569. Call number: Bd.w. PA6304 .R7 1569 Cage.
  • Euclid. Preclarissimus liber elementorum Euclidis perspicacissimi, in artem geometrie incipit qua[m]foelicissime. Venice: Printed by Erhardus Ratdolt Augustensis, 1482. Call number: INC E86.
  • Boethius. Auitij Maulij Torquati Seuerini Boetij ordinarij patricij viri exconsulis De consolatione ph[ilosoph]ie liber primus incipit … Nuremberg, 1483. Call number: INC B694.
  • Aristotle. Aristotelis De natura animalium libri nouem. Venice, 1492. Call number: INC A871.
  • Thomas, à Kempis. Opera et libri vite Fratris Thome de Kempis ordinis Canonicorum regularium quoru[m] titulos vide in prmo folio. Nuremberg, 1498. Call number: INC T320 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Juan Luis Vives. Ioannis Lodouici Viuis Von gebirliche[m] Thün vnd Lassen aines Ehemanns. Augsburg, 1544. Call number: PA8588 .D4 1544 Cage.
  • Juan Luis Vives. Ioannis Lodouici Viuis Von Vnderweÿsung ayner christlichen Frauwen. Augsburg, 1544. Call number: Bd.w. PA8588 .D4 1544 Cage.
  • Impressio librorum. Engraving. [Antwerp], [ca. 1591]. Call number: ART Vol. f81 no.4 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Jan Collaert. Conspicilla. Engraving. [Antwerp], [between 1636 and 1677]. Call number: ART Vol. f81 no.15 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Songes and sonets written by the right honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and others. [London]: Apud Richardum Tottell, 1574. Call number: STC 13866 Copy 1.
  • Giovanni Boccaccio. The modell of vvit, mirth, eloquence, and conversation. London, 1634. Call number: STC 3174 copy 2.
  • William Prynne. Hidden workes of darkenes brought to publike light, or, A necessary introduction to the history of the Archbishop of Canterburie’s trial. London: Printed by Thomas Brudenell, 1645. Call number: P3973 Bd.w. P3904.
  • Venterus Mandey. Mechanick-powers: or, The mistery of nature and art unvail’d. London, 1696. Call number: M418.
  • The following collections or pious little treatises together with the Rule of S. Clare and declarations upon it, are printed for the use of the English Poor Clares in Ayre an index whereof begin’s in the sequent page. Printed at Doüay, 1684. Call number: F1401.5.
  • John White. A rich cabinet, with variety of inventions: unlock’d and open’d, for the recreation of ingenious spirits at their vacant hours. London, 1668. Call number: W1791.
  • The compleat clerk, containing the best forms of all sorts of presidents, for conveyances and assurances; and other instruments now in use and practice. London: Printed by G. Sawbridge, T. Roycroft, and W. Rawlins, 1677. Call number: H43.
  • Gijsbert Voet. Catalogus variorum librorum instuctissimæ [sic] bibliothecæ præstantissimi doctissimique. [London], 1678]. Call number: V645.
  • Eleanor Douglas. Samsons fall. London: [s.n.], Printed in the year 1642 [i.e. between 1649 and 1652?]. Call number: D2010.
  • Edmund Coote. The English school-master. [London]: Printed by A. Maxwell, 1670. Call number: C6073.
  • Francis Cruys. Ars nova natandi, or, New swimming girdles, that will safely support a man from drowning, in any kind of water; with many other conveniences. Bristol, 1698. Call number: C7447.5.
  • Gilbert Burnet. Some letters· Containing, an account of what seemed most remarkable in Switzerland, Italy, &c. Rotterdam: Printed by Abraham Acher, 1686. Call number: B5915.
  • Francis Quarles. Emblemes. London, 1663. Call number: Q80.
  • William Sewel. A new dictionary English and Dutch, wherein the words are rightly interpreted, and their various significations exactly noted. Amsterdam, 1691. Call number: S2825.
  • William Cartwright. Comedies, tragi-comedies, with other poems. London, 1651. Call number: C709 c.2 v.1.
  • John Lilburne. The triall, of Lieut. Collonell John Lilburne. [London]: Printed by Hen. Hils, [1649]. Call number: W338.
  • Desiderius Erasmus. De duplici copia verborum & rerum commentarij duo. Londini [i.e. Antwerp?], 1556. Call number: STC 10471.8.
  • Martin Billingsley. The pen’s excellencie or The secretaries delighte wherein as well the abuses wh. are offered unto ye worthines of ye pen by unworthie pen men, are trulie discovered. [London], [1618?]. Call number: STC 3062.
  • Catholic Church. Hereafter foloweth the prymer in Englysshe and in latin sette out alonge: after the vse of Saru[m]. [Rothomagi], [1555]. Call number: STC 16071.