Early English Books Wing / B4610
Is bookselling today so very different than it was a few hundred years ago?
Certainly, some similarities can be found. For example, an author could write a piece and see it published and distributed the very next day if he or she chose.
Some printers would pay the authors for particularly compelling (read: sellable!) chapbooks, ballads, broadsides and woodcuts. Authors might also have paid a printer to see their work published.
However, there was one notable difference: Early modern booksellers and chapmen might chant or 'sing' their wares, in order to garner reader interest and directly engage their audiences. (Unlike today where authors read their own books. So fun, though, to think of modern publishing executives standing on street corners, singing their clients' books!). Authors often wrote their pennypieces, knowing they would be read out loud.
So, take a typical seventeenth-century woodcut. A Brief Narrative of a Strange and Wonderful Old Woman that hath a Pair of Horns growing upon her Head (London, 1676).
Having identified a busy intersection near a market, church or tavern, the bookseller would call out to passers-by:
"You that love Wonders to behold
Here you may of a Wonder read.
The strangest that was ever seen or told,
A Woman with Horns upon her Head."
Horns upon her head? Surely a crowd would gather. The bookseller would continue, acknowledging that the tale about to be told was completely preposterous.
"It may be, upon the first View of the Title of this short Relation, thou wilt throw it down with all the carelessness imaginable, supposing it to be but an idle and impertinent Fiction..."
But the author's stated goal was to make the incredible seem credible, and the bookseller needed to convey that in order to sell the piece. Evidence, eye-witness testimony, whatever worked:
"Take but a Walk to the Swan in the Strand, near Charing-Cross, and there thou mayest satisfie thy Curiosity, and be able to tell the World whether this following Narration be truth or invention."
And a few more specifics intended to help the reader/listener connect and visualize the story: The 76 year old woman had been born and bred in "the parish of Shotwick in Cheshire." Married for 35 years before being widowed, she had lived a "spotless and unblameable life," helping her neighbors in her role as a midwife.
The groundwork laid, now the bookseller might offer some more sensational details. How did the woman's horns first emerge?
"This strange and stupendious[sic] Effect began first from a Soreness in that place where now the Horns grow, which (as 'tis thought) was occasioned by wearing a straight Hat."
Would the audience believe that? While some authors might have portrayed this hapless woman as a monster, this one took a more sympathetic view. Good booksellers might have changed their tone here, to cull the sympathies of their listeners....
"This Soreness continued Twenty Years, in which time it miserably afflicted this good Woman, and ripened gradually unto a Wenn near the bigness of a large Hen Egg... After which time it was, by a strange operation of Nature, changed into Horns, which are in shew and substance much like a Ramms Horns, solid and wrinckled, but sadly grieving the Old Woman, especially upon the change of Weather."
And yet the poor woman could not rid herself of the horns. You can almost imagine the audience leaning in, taking in each of the bookseller's words...
"She hath cast her Horns three times already; The first time was but a single Horn, which grew long, but as slender as an Oaten straw: The second was thicker than the former: The two first Mr. Hewson Minister of Shotwick (to whose Wife this Rarity was first discovered) ob|tained of the Old Woman his Parishioner: They kept not an equal distance of time in falling off, some at three, some at four, and another at four Years and a halfs Growth. The third time grew two Horns, both which were beat off by a Fall backward."
And if the pennies weren't being loosed from tightly clasped purses, the bookseller might offer one more fantastic detail about what happened to the horns...
"One of them an English Lord obtained, and (as is reported) presented it to the French King for the greatest Rarity in Nature, and received with no less Admiration."
(Yes, it seems the poor woman's horns may have been given to King Louis XIV of France! Surely, owning a woodcut detailing the story was the next best thing to seeing the horns with one's own eyes?)
The early modern townspeople and merchants and fishwives--and anyone else who enjoyed the strange account--might purchase the piece to share with family and neighbors later.
After passing it around, and thoroughly re-reading the story, the buyers might even paste the pennypiece somewhere on their walls, a cheap way to decorate their homes.
Hmmm....maybe we should go back to pasting strange and wonderful stories on our walls. What do you think?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.