Friday, January 16, 2015

Question from Heidi - Books of the Tudor court

What sort of books circulated around the Tudor court? What did the likes of Anne Boleyn read for fun?


PhD Historian said...

What an interesting question!

The first part of your question says “Tudor court” generally, which of course spanned the very long period between 1485 and 1603. The availability of reading material changed and grew enormously during that 118 years as printing expanded exponentially. Expensive manuscripts were supplanted by affordable printed books. But then you focused on Anne Boleyn specifically, so I will assume she and her era (the 1520s and 1530s) are your main interest.

First, however, there is the idea of “reading for fun.” Though people of the early 16th century did, in some limited sense, read for pleasure, their concept of pleasure-reading was quite different from that of most people of today. They did not have very much fiction, for example. Yes, they had works like the Arthurian legends and the Canterbury Tales, but those works were not viewed in the 16th century as simple fiction. The Arthurian legends were considered history, for example, and the Canterbury Tales were didactic, or meant to educate on some subject (e.g.: morality, social obedience, etc.). Most of the books printed before about 1550 had some degree of educational or informative purpose. Novels, bodice-ripper romances, and escapist fiction did not yet exist.

Instead, people of the first half of the 16th century read non-fiction for both pleasure and education. Religious texts were a favorite of course. Those could included Books of Hours, or tales of martyrs and saints, or the works and collected sermons of a wide variety of ancient church fathers (e.g.: Jerome, Augustine, Basil). By the 1530s, classical history was becoming popular, especially the works of Cicero, Livy, and others from Ancient Rome. In the same decade, household manuals were beginning to emerge in print. These included such types of reading as herbals (books on plants and their use in medicine), prescriptive literature on childrearing, and even books offering marital advice. Today, we might call these “how-to” or “self-help” books.

But again, by the later Tudor period, printing had expanded to such a degree that a much, much wider variety of books were available. Beginning in the middle of the 16th century, for example, chapbooks containing fictional heroic romances and pseudo-histories began to appear, though many of these still contained a thinly-veiled didactic purpose. By the second half of the century, overseas explorers published accounts of their travels. And toward the end of the century, stage plays began to be published in book form. A far greater number of books on a massively wider variety of topics was available in, say, 1590 than in 1530.

This is all just a very sketchy overview of an enormously complex subject, but in general, what people of the sixteenth century read “for fun” really depends quite heavily on the specific decade in question. In Anne Boleyn’s day, the choices were more limited. By the time her daughter died in 1603, there was considerably more available to read.

Raindrop girl 180 said...

A Christian man obedience it was a book given to Anne by Cromwell in order to sway Henry the 8th away from Catholicism.