Janet Wright Starner
Today we think of reading and writing primarily as silent, and private, mental activities. Literate individuals generally sit alone with books or computers as they consume and produce texts. The teachers who introduce us to those skills are concerned primarily with our levels of comprehension because literacy is critical to success, even survival, in the twenty-first century. We depend on words to understand our world, and we use texts to manipulate it. In striking contrast, evidence from the most popular reading primer from the seventeenth century makes it clear that reading in the early modern period was conceptualized as an aid to speaking, and that functional literacy included the regular consumption of handwritten as well as printed texts. Reading was a communal, collaborative, and aural/oral activity that required individuals to move between the handwritten and the printed worlds, as well as between oral and textual media.
The English Schoole-Master, by Edmund Coote, was first published in 1597, and it educated budding readers and their teachers for over one hundred forty years. Remarkably, although it appeared in over sixty-four printings, the contents of the text changed very little. This primer's longevity may perhaps be explained by the fact that it was both slim and affordable. But if Coote's book was small, his agenda was ambitious: "I professe to teach thee that art utterly ignorant, to Reade perfectly, to Write truely, and with judgement to understand the reason of our English tonge with great expedition, ease and pleasure" (1630, 2).
For Edmund Coote, reading was a process of decoding symbols, and his textbook promised to reveal the secrets of that code to everyone with the wherewithal to buy his book. The English Schoole-Master seems to have functioned as a sort of early modern users' guide to written English. By pointing out the obstacles readers might encounter in a variety of textual environments, Coote aimed to ease the path to literacy for those who might not otherwise develop reading skills: "men and women of trade, as Taylors, Weauers, Shop-keepers, Seamsters, and such other, as haue vndertaken the charge of teaching others" (1630, 3). While his egalitarian approach is noteworthy, what is even more fascinating is the window onto early modern notions of reading and writing that his text provides, notions that seem foreign to us now.
Coote's educational system framed reading as the process of deciphering sounds in order to deliver speech. Students were taught first to vocalize recognizable one-syllable units and, in subsequent chapters, they learned to build longer words out of those syllables. In Coote's world, then, reading meant translating written symbols into the more familiar spoken language. Not surprisingly, this process put a premium on pronunciation. The educated reader was enjoined to avoid "barbarous speech" because corrupt pronunciation led to incorrect spelling, which could confuse readers:
I know not what can easily deceive you in writing, unless it be by imitating the barbarous speech of your country people whereof I will give you a taste... cthey commonly put (f) for (v) as feal for veal. And a nox, a nass, my naunt, thy nunkle, for an ox, an ass, mine aunt, thine uncle, etc. (1670, 27).
Moreover, Coote knew that readers' attempts at "perfect" and verbally "distinct" reading would require more than just word recognition. They would also need to understand the symbols that cropped up in texts they read. What we now call punctuation he called "points," and these marks functioned differently for early modern readers than they do for us. They did not necessarily mark off grammatical units, nor did they provide visual cues to guide understanding as they do for modern readers. Instead, they functioned as expressions of the length of time the tongue tarried before continuing to sound out a phrase:
You must obserue also, that which we doe call * points or stayes in writing, as this marke (,) like to a small halfe Moon noteth a small stay; two prickes thus (:) makes a longer stay, and one pricke thus (.) is put for a full stay as if we had ended. When a question is asked, we marke it thus (?) When some words may be left out, and yet the sentence perfect, it is noted thus ( ) as teach me (I pray you) to reade. But for the true framing of your voice in all these, you must craue the helpe of your Master. (1670, 26).
The text's multiple references to pronunciation suggest students who read aloud to learn. However, the need for vocalization does not seem to have ended once proficiency was reached. For Coote, reading was also dialogic and collaborative. Each student was expected to learn in the company of a more experienced reader, who would correct pronunciation and explain "hard words," but the lessons themselves were literally dialogic. Extensive marginal glosses provided an instructor's script, coaching him or her to teach by asking questions:
When your scholars shall learn this Chapter, let one read the questions, and another the answers. When your Scholars appose one the other, let the answerer answer without book (1670, 28).
Beyond its value to early learning, Coote's insistence on collaboration prepared accomplished readers for a textual environment that involved dialogue. Whether manuscript or print, Coote conceived a book as a conversation conducted between reader and writer. The practices and conventions of those exchanges are readily illustrated in the holdings of special collections libraries like the Folger. For instance, the Folger holdings include a copy of the first print edition of the English verse anthology, Englands Parnassus: Or The Choysest Flowers Of Our Moderne Poets, With Their Poeticall Comparisons by Robert Allott (1600) (STC 378 Copy 1). These poems circulated privately in manuscript before printing opened them up to a wider audience. At the end of this copy, the owner has added what he describes as "verses, occasioned by reading the foregoing Flowers" (495). This handwritten supplement to the printed text makes it clear that early modern readers continued to think of printed books as functioning in the same ways as their handwritten "paper books" or manuscripts. Evidently inspired by the printed poetry, the owner of this volume has composed his own verses in response to what he has read, and then copied them into the book, effectively adding them to the collection. Examples like this seem to make it clear that such handwritten additions were considered to be legitimate amplifications of the work.
A slightly different example, that further illustrates the blending of print and manuscript, can be found in a copy of George Chapman's play, An humerous dayes myrth, wherein three handwritten pages have been added at the end of the volume to supply missing pages of the printed text. Perhaps the last pages of this copy were lost. The writer has meticulously emulated print publishing conventions by forming letters to mimic print fonts, using catchwords at the bottom of pages, and marking his first inscribed page with the signature "H" to indicate a new gathering of leaves. Marks in the text itself suggest this was an actor's working copy, so the play's final lines would be essential to his purpose. But whether the originals were lost or incompletely printed, the book owner clearly felt the supplied handwritten pages ought to duplicate the look of a printed page, not a manuscript. The precision with which the letters were copied is significant since it suggests that the hand that copied the text was experienced. While literacy rates were on the rise in the early seventeenth century—in terms of readers—the number of people who could produce handwritten text was much smaller.
Although The English School-Master offered little advice on handwriting, despite its promise to teach it, Edmund Coote clearly understood that the adept reader, whether he could write or not, would need to cope with the permeability of print and manuscript spaces. He knew that characters and symbols common to manuscripts could appear in printed books, put there by hand or by press. To prepare readers for these encoding systems, Coote described the various abbreviations and marks peculiar to handwritten texts, such as the macron, or "strike," inscribed above a letter to stand in for missing letters as well as the superscript letters in abbreviated words like "ye," "yet," and "you":
You must also know those kind of writing used in some words: as a strike over any vowel for m or n; as ma for man, co for con, like ye for the and yt for that, yu for thou, wt for what and so forth. In written hand there be [m]any other. And so a word ending in a vowel, doth lose it sometime when the next word begins with a vowel, as thintent. for the intent, which exactly would be written thus, *th'inent (1670, 27).]
But the most dramatic confirmation of the persistance of reading and writing practices tied to handwriting appears in Coote's 1630 edition of his primer. In this text, as well as the one dated 1627, he provided examples of "faire Writing, whereby in euery Schoole all bad hands may be abandoned" (1630, 2). The practical graphic advice that Coote offers on page 86 is twofold: an engraved secretary alphabet, followed by an engraving of Psalm 119 in the secretary script.
My sowle cleaueth to the dust: O quicken thou me
The effort involved to produce these images in print—alphabet and poetic exemplar—was not inconsequential. The letters would have been incised on a copper plate and then engraved, a process different from writing on paper. The elaborate mimicry of handwriting in a printed medium and its inclusion in these books also illustrates an important but neglected point about the relationship between manuscript and print: that the influences moved in both directions. Moreover, Coote's popular primer demonstrates that as late as 1630, readers needed to know how to decipher secretary hand and could expect to encounter it on a regular basis. The secretary alphabet does not appear in the 1670 edition (though it does in later ones). Printers still believed it necessary for students to be made aware of other marks typically found in handwritten documents—like the macron as well as the contractions for ye, yt, etc.—and so they retained that helpful instructional material.
These early modern texts provide evidence that reading and writing were as much physical as they were cognitive enterprises. Communication depended as much, or more, on the lips and ears as it did on the eyes and hands. Reading meant "translating into speech," an activity that required proper enunciation and dialogue. "Writing" frequently meant "copying," and involved significant physical effort to first prepare the materials—paper, pen, ink—and then to inscribe words in one of several hands available to the writer. The differences between these practices and those to which modern readers are accustomed should prompt us to question further how readers decoded and negotiated the signs and symbols they found on the handwritten page. While dozens of pedagogical texts were available, Edmund Coote's primer The English Schoolmaster may best illustrate the early modern conception of reading as largely oral, collaborative, and active, and of writing as an act of deciphering that required the comprehension of multiple codes.
Coote, Edmund. The English schoole-master. London, 1630.
——.The English school-master. London, 1670.
——.The English school-master. London, 1680.
Fox, Adam. "Introduction." Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500–1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
McKenzie, D.F. "Speech-Manuscript-Print" in New Directions in Textual Studies. Dave Oliphant and Robin Bradford, eds. Austin, Texas: Harry Ransom Humanities, 1990, 87–109.
Olson, David R. The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing And Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Thomas, Keith. "The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England," in The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Gerd Baumann, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, 97–131.