1.4.3: 1460 - 1585 - Types of reading public

The reading culture in the first, late medieval, part of this period, was partly determined by a low level of literacy. There had been, however, a university in Louvain since 1425 which attracted noted scholars. A number of places had a grammar school for which printing companies such as that of the Pafraet family of Deventer produced masses of books. The monastic population also made up a large group of readers while in Devotio Moderna circles texts were actively used. The possession of books of a practical nature or intended for edification or entertainment by the urban citizenry was not unusual. As reading aloud was still common, those who listened must also be counted among the book public. The current practice of reading in silence was, however, gaining ground.

Ownership marks in books on the list of Gheraert Leeu of Gouda show that Dutch texts ended up more often with women than with men. These women, of whom many led a religious life, formed the largest public for the substantial devotional literature in the vernacular. Into this fits the list which the noblewoman Maria van Loon drew up in 1500 of fourteen books in her possession with, among others, Dat Faderboech and Der selen troest. Among the citizenry - officials and merchants but also clergymen - moralising stories which catered for an independent lay piety were popular.

This image of the late medieval reading culture is necessarily fragmentary. We know more about the readers from the time of Humanism and Reformation (from 1520 onwards). There are many testimonies available to provide insight into reading behaviour in early evangelical circles. They met in attics, in inns, on barges or in open fields, and read to one another from readily available booklets on the new religion and discussed what they had read. This reading culture corresponded with that of the Devotio Moderna and matched that of the rhetoricians. The latter strengthened the reading public in towns and cities and contributed to the religious renewal.

The book climate, in the meantime, was increasingly determined by the humanists. They supplied the printers with copy for text editions of the Church Fathers, classical authors and medieval authors and were themselves, besides the clerical bodies, the largest customers. During the sixteenth century, Humanism and Reformation together formed the breeding ground for a pool of educated readers including non-clerics. A reflection of the literature requirements in these circles is offered by the production of the Officina Plantiniana of which 70% consists of works in the fields of humanism and religion. The students and professors who from 1575 onwards populated the University of Leiden were part of this reading public.

Until well into the sixteenth century, an interest remained in the narrative reading matter from the Middle Ages. This was forced somewhat into the background when Renaissance literature developed as part of a pursuit to cultivate the mother tongue. The reading public for this, however, actually belongs to the next period.

author: W. Heijting

Types of reading public