Loading Animation

Reading Children in Early Modern Culture


FB 65

Reading Children in Early Modern Culture

By: Edel Lamb

Podcast Interview

Edel Lamb and Kate Chedgzoy discuss their common interests in childhood, early modern literary cultures, and Lamb's monograph, Reading Children in Early Modern Culture. You can listen, here.  

Professor Kate Chedgzoy studies Renaissance Literature at Newcastle University. You can listen to other episodes of the SHCY podcast by visiting the podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Play and iTunes.

This review appeared in The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 13, no. 2 (Spring 2020): 311-313.

Reading Children in Early Modern Culture.
By Edel Lamb.
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. xi + 258 pp. Cloth $99.99, e-book $79.99.

Making a case that early modern English children as readers, users, consumers, and producers of books from infancy to adolescence were central to the “imaginative conceptualization of print culture” (1) is something like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without all its pieces. Edel Lamb has wisely cast a wide net for evidence in Reading Children. The primary sources range from scarce school books to recently discovered manuscripts; the secondary literature cited covers chivalric romances, reading practices, marginalia and doodles, instructional books used in grammar schools, school plays, cheap print, girls’ education, spiritual autobiographies, and riddles, among other subjects.

This monograph about “the significance of reading to early modern childhood and of childhood to early modern reading” (1) has six chapters. The introduction jumps off from the epigraph “Children are Bookes, and Books men’s children,” from William Martyn’s Youth’s Instruction (1612) to document wide consensus for the view that becoming literate guided the toddler’s progress toward maturity (1). The second chapter reviews the familiar territory that the ideal child reader was a good one who embraced texts that shape Christian character, behavior, and belief. The connection between the child’s propensity for play and pleasure, expressed through the consumption of romances, histories, chapbooks, and anthologies of riddles or jests, is explored in chapter 3. Schoolboy reading practices in and out of the classroom are the focus of chapter 4 and the redefinition of reading’s role in the formation of girlhood that of the fifth. Both chapters show how alternative reading practices provided boys and girls ways to resist or disrupt teaching of the correct performance of gender and “aged” roles. Consideration of early attempts to define the self through childhood memories in life writings by poet Abraham Cowley and diarists Elizabeth Deleval and Elizabeth Isham concludes this tightly focused book. 

Reading Children is not positioned within the history of education per se, but some of the field’s key concerns, such as the role of visual aids in pedagogical strategies, help to establish how teachers assessed children’s capabilities. Barbara Ritter Dailey’s essay on Henry Jessey’s catechism is footnoted, but Jessey’s innovative presentation of a radically simple series of questions and answers is passed over. Yet surely the typography reflected what the author’s experience with very young catechumens had taught him about their comprehension of abstract ideas. This kind of material would have enriched the discussion on the formation of religious subjectivity, for example.

Reading Children’s concentration on gender and age formation within the reading community of young people means that other aspects of seventeenth century print culture—specifically book-trade history—receive less attention. Lamb’s account of children as consumers relies heavily on Francis Kirkman’s account of his lifelong romance with chivalric histories as a reader, writer, and bookseller. But his stature as an autobiographer who was among the first to dwell on childhood reading, down to details about school boys acquiring books through purchase and exchange, is probably greater than as a publisher of books for children. Kirkman was a small player in the Restoration’s growing children’s book market: other entrepreneurs like Benjamin Harris or Nathaniel Crouch (aka R. Burton), who angled for young readers with different sorts of books than Kirkman did, deserved more attention. Without a more comprehensive account of the market, it is very difficult to discuss children’s agency as book buyers versus them being recipients of gift books during this period. Information about how book promotion and retailing targeted children is critical when addressing this issue, especially when so little is known about it before the rise in the eighteenth century of trade lists of new publications and review journals.

While Reading Children is not a history of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century reading for children, it suggests ways in which such a study might be framed as an alternative to the Darnton thesis of a struggle between instruction and delight. Critics of early modern literature have tended to privilege imaginative works like Shakespeare’s plays and chapbook romances over genres like schoolbooks or didactic poetry that are not belletristic. We could listen instead for children’s voices in any text where they can be heard—whether a verse monologue by Bunyan, a highly colloquial and rude dialogue between schoolboys by Charles Hoole, plays for presentation at school or the professional stage, and life writings—and see where a greater focus on constructs and representations of the intended reader, as opposed to canonical literary categories, might lead. Reading Children—together with William Sloane’s essential bibliography, Warren Wooden’s Children’s Literature in the Renaissance, and C. John Sommerville’s Discovery of Childhood in Puritan England—invites scholars to revisit this critical period and conceptualize it in different terms.

Andrea Immel
Cotsen Children’s Library
Princeton University Library

Olga DrorAbout Edel Lamb

Dr Edel Lamb is a Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Literature at Queen’s University Belfast.  She previously held an Australian Research Council Fellowship at the University of Sydney and an Irish Research Council Fellowship at University College Dublin.  Her work focuses on early modern children and their participation in literary cultures, and she has written two books on the topic: Performing Childhood in the Early Modern Theatre: The Children’s Playing Companies (1599-1613) (Palgrave 2009) and Reading Children in Early Modern Culture (Palgrave 2018).  She is co-editor of a special issue of Shakespeare on the topic of ‘Shakespeare and Riot’, and has published her work on childhood and early modern drama in Renaissance Drama and Ben Jonson Journal.  She is currently working on a book on girls’ writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.