The Reader Revealed

September 4, 2001, through January 19, 2002

‘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 printing 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 C 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.’


Catholic Church. Primer.Hereafter foloweth the prymer in Englysshe and Latin. Rouen, 1555.

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 Lord’s Prayer of the hornbook to the Primer. Female education often stopped at this level.


Franz Cleyn (1582-1658). Grammatica... from Septem liberales Artes. London, 1645.

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 read printed black letter but not handwritten italic scripts, and many, especially women, had only limited ability to write. 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 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 Shakespeare First Folio.


William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Mr. William Shakespeare's comedies, histories and tragedies. London, 1623.

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


John,of Garland (ca. 1195-ca. 1272). Synonima. London, 1505.

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.

John White (d. 1671). A rich cabinet with a variety of inventions ... London, 1668.


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.


Bible. English . Geneva version The Bible translated according to the Ebrew and Greeke . London, 1580.

Other readers simply made marks in their books which illustrate and record a wide range of human experience and emotion.


Gerard, Johann. Gerard is meditatations.Cambridge,1640.

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.


Bible. Latin. Erasmus. Testamentum novum. London, 1568.

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, 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.


This page updated April 10, 2002