Cheap print and religion c.1550 to 1640
This study examines the presentation of religion in the cheapest printed wares produced in London c.1550-1640: broadside ballads, woodcut pictures, text-dominated broadsides, and octavo chapbooks. During the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the trade in this 'cheap print' became increasingly specialized. The 'ballad partners' collected a stock of titles, increased the use of illustrations, and organized themselves for more efficient distribution. They published large folio woodcut pictures, and began to develop a new line of chapbooks. The thesis investigates, not only the spread of readership, but the interweaving of the printed word with existing cultural practices, both oral and visual. Part 1 deals with the broadside ballad as song, disseminated by a network of travelling performers and pedlars. Part 2 looks at the broadside picture as an image for the wall, placed against the background of domestic wall painting and painted cloth. Only in Part 3 do I follow the development of 'cheap print' intended primarily for reading, in particular the 24-page octavo format which became the standard 'small book' after the Restoration. I have dated the beginnings of this trade to the second decade of the seventeenth century, and have traced some three dozen extant 'penny merriments', 'miscellanies' and 'godlinesses' published before 1640. Just as 'cheap print' was shaped by existing non-literate traditions, Protestant ideas and images were modified by older beliefs. Reformers wrote hundreds of ballads in the first half of Elizabeth's reign, of which some fifty showed enduring commercial success. By comparing the original output of the Protestant publicists with this seventeenth-century 'stock', I show the partial success of the reformers' goals, as the doctrine of salvation by faith, Protestant martyrs, and Old Testament episodes infiltrated the ballads. In the woodcuts and other visual art, the gap between Protestant 'iconophobia' and the continued demand for religious pictures was bridged by 'stories' for walls, chosen from the lower rungs of the 'ladder of sanctity'. Texts themselves became a common form of decoration: broadside 'tables', bearing pithy aphorisms and excerpts from Scripture, sanctified the walls of the good householder. Finally, the octavo repentance tract replaced the broadside ballad as a medium for the evangelical message, but the moralistic 'penny miscellanies' reflected the conservative religion of many ordinary parishioners. The study of these cheap forms of print shows their manifold uses, during a period of transition to widespread literacy. At the same time, it reveals some aspects of the process by which a new, post-Reformation, religious culture was created.