2.4.3: 1585 - 1725 - Types of reading public

Although literacy in the Netherlands was reaching an ever higher level during the seventeenth century, it can not be said that the ability to read and the ownership of books increased along with the level of literacy. When, in 1626, the minister from Drenthe, Rudolph Meyer, was visited by an ecclesiastical commission he appeared not to have a single book in the house. On the other hand, the simple Frisian tenant farmer, Dirck Jansz Cuyck (1578-1636), had a well-filled bookcase. It is certain, however, that books were read throughout the whole social pyramid except for the lowest level: the masses. Even this section of society, however, did not have to go without reading matter. Travelling hawkers, singers and storytellers on barges and in inns could also bring the illiterate into contact with the world of writing and printing. There was a clear increase in Dutch-language books during this period which indicates a growing consumption of books among wider levels of the population. Protestantism to a large degree contributed to this: primary education where, in addition to reading and writing, the Heidelberg catechism was taught and the psalms were chanted, was almost completely devoted to it.

The reading habits of the various social groups differed to a large extent. It is assumed that the cultural and political elite (the nobility and the aristocracy) often read other things than the well-to-do middle classes (scholars, civil servants, merchants) or the wider middle groups (junior officials, shopkeepers, craftsmen) and the poorest of all. Such a distinction, however, is far from simple as the books in the possession of nearly every level of the population include a Bible and a psalm book or hymnbook (still in Gothic black letter as taught in the primary school) and also numerous chapbooks. It is, however, evident that books in the classical languages, in French and other modern languages were reserved for the educated upper levels. Financial affluence, in addition to personal appreciation, primarily determined the possession of books.

Another illustrative distinction is that among the professional groups where a distinction is made between professional and non-professional readers. The former category included scholars, lawyers, administrators, priests and ministers, medical practitioners and teachers but also businessmen such as bankers, merchants and ship owners. Their professional literature consisted of more or less regular reading matter: law books, legal treatises, medical and theological tracts, arithmetical, mathematical, cartographical or accountancy works but also almanacs distributed in large quantities which contained information on annual fairs, exchange rates, etcetera. Many of these 'professional readers' belonged to the other category of lay-readers, who appreciated entertaining and useful reading material such as poetry and prose, emblem books, travelogues, edifying works or pamphlets and newspapers.

A mixture of these two approaches is offered by the study of the reading habits in particular areas (Friesland, Amsterdam 1701-1710), or of particular social groups such as the patricians of Hoorn, or of the population of a trading fleet. Comparison of the reading habits of various religious groups such as, for example, Catholics, Pietists (Nadere Reformatie) and Mennonites provides illuminating insights. The first two groups show a homogenous reading consumption, although the Protestants read more than the Catholics. The Mennonites read catholic and reformed books in addition to typical mennonite literature. It is clear that in this period the theological and edifying market was still by far the largest. Moreover, many works were read again and again.

Finally, the appearance in private ownership of titles by, for example, Cats, Schabaelje or Vondel, or of specific genres such as songbooks and almanacs, provides further information about both the popularity of these works and the social diversity of their owners which may provide an indication of the varying types of readers and types of users.

author: Piet Visser

Types of reading public