Heidi Brayman Hackel. Reading Material in Early Modern
England: Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. xii+322pp.
ISBN 0 521 84251 4.
Smith, Emily. "Review of Heidi
Brayman Hackel, Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender,
and Literacy." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006)
Because of our own embedment in a culture of technological
overlap, where print publication and web-based publication coexist and
compete with one another, the overlapping of manuscript and print during
the early modern period has proven to be a rich avenue of inquiry for
scholars. Margaret J. M. Ezell's Social Authorship and the Advent of
Print and George Justice and Nathan Tinker's Women's Writing and
the Circulation of Ideas: Manuscript Publication in England, 1550-1800
map out many of the similar energies and anxieties surrounding these publishing
technologies for early modern writers and for twenty-first century writers.
Their works address questions relevant to readers, contributors, and the
network of scholars otherwise invested in an online academic journal like
EMLS. They ask whether digital or web-based publication possesses
the same degree of authority as print-based publication, and they consider
how web-based publication should fit in the tenure process.
Heidi Brayman Hackel takes some of these ideas as starting
points, but she suggests something more provocative in her study Reading
Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy
print before it, the electronic medium takes its force and importance
from its unprecedented powers of dissemination. And yet the asymmetrical
literacies of early modern England continue, if in a diminished and inflected
form, in unequal access to computer technologies, equipment, and literacy.
(257) To reach this conclusion, Brayman Hackel has worked through an impressive
range of topics including reading habits, preliminaries, margins, commonplace
books, and gendered reading habits. She approaches these forms of reading
and writing material through what she has usefully termed the microhistories
of "many readers, who have left material traces of both the common and
the idiosyncratic practices in which they engaged" (141). Like Victoria
E. Burke, whose recent study of Ann Bowyer's commonplace book
interrogates reading practices among the "middling sort" in order to challenge
typical ideas about the history of reading, Brayman Hackel re-historicizes
the reader by shifting her emphasis away from "great writers" such as
Ben Jonson and professional scholars like Gabriel Harvey (7). Instead
she focuses on "less extraordinary readers, who often remain visible in
the historical record only because of their occasional traces in books"
Brayman Hackel utilizes a sophisticated interdisciplinary
approach that allows her to suggest (among other things) that the spatial
attributes of a house, the availability of writing materials, and the
reusability of written texts in privies all play roles in how literacy
was acquired, transmitted, and enacted during the early modern period.
The necessary overlaps between visual and oral habits of reading as well
as public and private acts of writing are never far from her analyses,
and the often misunderstood distinctions between reading and writing that
demarcated degrees of literacy among early modern people are presented
with clarity and persuasiveness. Brayman Hackel coins the phrase abecedarian
literacy to describe "the most elementary vernacular reader, someone
unable to write and able to read only haltingly and aloud" (63). By developing
this term, she makes a phenomenon that has perpetuated gross underestimates
of literacy rates visible in a new way. Her meticulous investigation of
non-page writing surfaces, her emphasis on the dual way in which literacy
depended both on class-bound educational practices and technical skills,
her awareness of the shifting contours of the role of the reader in the
writing, publishing, dissemination, consumption, and rewriting of print
texts, and her careful buttressing of theoretical claims with many and
varied historical examples make Reading Material both breathtakingly
large scale in its implications and individualized.
In chapter four, "Noting readers of the Arcadia
in marginalia and commonplace books," Brayman Hackel investigates the
material traces that readers left of their intellectual encounters with
books by surveying marginalia, words written on flyleaves, and commonplace
books, all of which differently interact with the text of Philip Sidney's
Arcadia. Brayman Hackel considers processes by which individuals
could expand the pages of the books they were reading by "interleaving
their books and compiling commonplace books" (142). She provides a sophisticated
and important discussion of what it meant to keep a commonplace book during
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which expands on the work of
Peter Beal, Earl Havens, and Ann Moss.
As with her discussions of readers' marginalia and commonplace
books, Brayman Hackel's discussion of female reading practices in chapter
five suggests how textual consumption was a highly individualistic process
that we can better understand by reconstructing women's libraries and
examining their idiolectic practices of owning, inscribing, and reading
books. She points out some of the invisibilities surrounding female book
ownership, including the general lack of marginalia in books owned by
women, and she challenges the notion that few women accumulated and organized
their own libraries by describing the libraries of Anne Clifford Pembroke,
Jane Lumley, and Frances Stanley Egerton, as well as by highlighting the
signatures of several female book owners: "Isabella Ponsonby," "Mary Raymond
1669," "Katherina Clowes Her Book," "Judeth Wood 1644," "Susan Bensley
her booke" (217), along with a full range of verses and marks that indicate
a woman's ownership of a text.
In her case studies of Anne Clifford Pembroke and Frances
Stanley Egerton, Brayman Hackel emphasizes that these women's libraries
should suggest to us that female book ownership was not as unusual as
modern historians have been inclined to believe. Of Egerton, Brayman Hackel
It is, in fact, her very conventionality, I would
argue, that makes her library so striking, for its existence does
not seem to have been considered worthy of remark. And if a woman's
library of 241 volumes did not warrant attention in 1633, then we
must expand our notion of early modern women as consumers of books.
Thus in the concluding passage of her final chapter, Brayman Hackel points
out something that Danielle Clarke and Erica Longfellow have elsewhere
suggested -- that many of our most basic assumptions about early modern
women have been engendered by our own practice of asking the wrong questions
and looking at the material traces women have left behind with predetermined
expectations and analyses. Brayman Hackel does much to replace superannuated
prejudices about early modern women's roles as book readers, writers,
With Reading Material, Brayman Hackel makes a
major contribution to our knowledge of the reading and writing practices
of many forgotten, underrepresented, or misunderstood book owners. Like
Margaret J. M. Ezell, Harold Love, Frances E. Dolan, Peter Stallybrass,
Juliet Fleming, David Scott Kastan, Wendy Wall, and Margaret Spufford
-- all scholars whose work Brayman Hackel draws into conversation with
her own in Reading Material -- she has produced a study that is
essential to our understanding of early modern reading and writing practices.
- Burke, Victoria. "Ann Bowyer's Commonplace Book (Bodleian Library Ashmole
MS 51): Reading and Writing Among the 'Middling Sort'." Early Modern
Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 1.1-28 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-3/burkbowy.htm>.
- Ezell, Margaret J.M. Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.
- Justice, George and Nathan Tinker. Women's Writing and the Circulation
of Ideas: Manuscript Publication in England, 1550-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).