Chapbooks: Definition and Origins

A chapbook is "a small book or pamphlet containing poems, ballads, stories, or religious tracts" (dictionary) The term is still used today to refer to short, inexpensive booklets. The context I am using it in is that of the Early Modern period in England. Chapbooks were small, cheaply produced books, most often octavo or duodecimo printings of twenty-four pages, sold without a cover. Pamphlets were similar to chapbooks, but they can be divided by their content. Pamphlets generally concerned matters of the day, such as politics, religion, or current events. Chapbooks were timeless books of jest and tales that often sprang out of folklore. Chapbooks were so called because they were sold by peddlers known as chapmen. Chap comes from the Old English for trade, so a chapman was literally a dealer who sold books. Chapmen would carry boxes containing the conveniently sized editions, either in town on street corners, or traveling through the countryside. They typically sold their wares for twopence or threepence, and stocked a large variety of titles. Among the types of content contained in chapbooks were romantic tales of chivalry, religious and moral instruction, cookbooks, guides to fortune telling and magic, and bawdy stories full of innuendo.

Chapmen traveled through England as early as the 1570s (Watt) selling books to whoever they could. Chapbooks followed broadsides as early print products for people of lesser means and learning than the wealthy. Broadsides represented print for the semi-literate: two of the main forms were ballads and pictures, neither of which depended heavily on reading. Ballads would be bought and sung by musicians who could read. People who heard the songs might repeat them in alehouses or inns, relying on memory. In this way the songs could change into new songs which would later be transcribed, or devolve into a meaningless jumble of words. Broadsides containing large woodcuts were also popular. They typically featured some sort of moral lesson or biblical saying. Even those who could not read at all could make use of these broadsides by hanging them on the wall. The one line or so of text could be remembered or inferred from the picture.

At this early stage of print, text was not static. Works moved back and forth between oral and print forms. We will see an example of this movement if we trace the history of the story Guy of Warwick. It originated in the Middle Ages, when it was sung as a heroic ballad. Sometime between 1200 and 1400 it was written as a manuscript. At that point, the physical copy would have been accessible only to the scholarly and rich, but the common folk still would have known the name of Guy through hearing the song or story. The story was printed in the first decades of the 1500s for a gentry audience. The educated people who were rich enough to buy books were known to read on occasion to their less fortunate neighbors. In the late 1500s, the story was abridged into a broadside ballad, and was once again heard in song form. In the late 1600s, it was turned back into book form in twenty-four page chapbooks, and conditions at that point were allowing more people access to these inexpensive books.

Books became cheaper to print as they aged, which is one of the factors that allowed a text to pass from an expensive edition only affordable by the wealthy, to a chapbook version. As the process and machinery of printing was refined it became generally cheaper. For a particular book, woodcuts could be reused from one version to the next. Also, the upper-class literati grew bored with the same works after they went out of fashion, so printers could make more money off the same stories by vulgarizing them and selling them to the middle to lower classes.

Chapbooks saw an increasing audience between 1500 and 1700, because more people were learning to read as the literacy rate rose. Although it is impossible to figure out how many people could read that far back, we can look at general trends of schooling. More scoolteachers were employed in the early 1600s than before. Even though records of literacy tend to show us only those people who could read and write, there were probably many more people who could only read. As Spufford posits, children were receiving just enough education to teach them to read, before they were pressed into working to make money for their families. Evidence exists that members of even the poorest social classes were able to read, including laborers and women. Continue