1.4.4: 1460 - 1585 - Reading habits / traces of users

Printed objects as well as testimonies left by readers are the main source for the history of reading. Certain bibliographical categories, however, have been transmitted very poorly. Consequently, the reading public of important sections of early modern book production and also their reading habits are largely hidden from our view. For example, printed ephemera such as schoolbooks, calendars, almanacs, etc. which were produced in large quantities, are now very scarce. In addition to printed books, many manuscripts were still being produced and read during the sixteenth century. Legal texts, regional law books and costumals, often circulated in handwritten form. Furthermore, apart from books produced in the Low Countries, books imported from foreign countries were also read.

Much less is known about readers than about the texts available to them. Many people marked their ownership of books with an inscription of their name or their family coat of arms as a bookplate or as a stamp on the binding. Reconstruction of the history of collections and determination of the provenance of individual volumes is possible with information gathered from notes of acquisition and sale, ownership, auctions and gifts, bindings, and old library shelf-marks. Quite a few owners improved the arrangement of their collections by having several texts bound into one volume.

Margins and blank pages in numerous books are filled with readers' notes, underlinings, and reference marks. Page numbers, tables of contents, and indices were added to enhance the accessibility of the texts.

In medieval manuscripts, layout was an important mnemotechnical aid. Printers and editors further developed this instrument to guide readers. To this end, they added punctuation and paragraph marks, chapter titles and rubrics, tables and illustrations, tables of contents and indexes, headings and foliation. Of course, readers still took the liberty to add their own notes and markers. Occasionally, such markings may lead to the identification of their author, for example because the handwriting can be attributed to a well-known person or because the content of the remark unambiguously refers to a particular individual.

Comparison of different editions may show whether a particular form of reading was recommended for a specific text: whether it was meant to be read aloud or in silence, for study or amusement, or as an aid to spiritual meditation. For a long time, reading aloud remained customary, as is apparent from instructions for readers of prayer books.

author: G.C. Huisman

Reading habits / traces of users