What does it mean to read and write?
For the Tudor educationalist Richard Mulcaster, the answer can be summarised in a single word: everything. Reading and writing are far more than simple practical skills, and form for Mulcaster the vital building blocks of a good education. Acquiring them, though, embroils us in a kind of dichotomy between rights and responsibilities. As explained in Positions, it is by reading that we harvest the fruits of the past, learning to ‘loue and feare God’, ‘obey and please men’, ‘entertaine knowledge’ and ‘expell ignorance’ (2020, pp.29-30). This benefit from reading, however, is matched with a duty that manifests itself in writing. To write means doing ‘the like thereby for others, which other haue done for vs, by writing those thinges which we daily vse’ so that posterity may also benefit from the knowledge slowly garnered throughout the ages (Ibid., p.39).
This philosophical discussion may seem abstract, yet the ideas of those like Mulcaster might help us to understand what authors and printers in the 16th century were attempting to achieve when they produced pamphlets such as ‘An A.B.C. for chyldren’, a sixteen-page text printed in London by a certain ‘Ihon Kyng’ at some time around 1561. The text has been freshly digitised as part of the Univeristy of Oxford’s UNIQ+ internship scheme and is available in both a diplomatic and an educational critical edition, making it more accessible for academic analysis. Those interested in the digitisation process can find out more through a series of blog posts written by the UNIQ+ interns.
The pamphlet begins by listing syllables that can be written in English, before moving on to a discussion of how specific sounds should be written down and eventually concluding with a selection of example texts which demonstrate good writing. This structure is quite typical for the time and proved to be commercially successful, as demonstrated by the fact that similar texts can be found elsewhere in Europe. Cristina Dondi notes, for an earlier historical example, that ‘Psalteriolo de puti’, a simplified version of the psalter for teaching children, was the most popular work sold by the Venetian merchant Francesco De Madiis, with a total of 659 copies purchased between the years 1484 and 1488 (2018, pp.587-588).
Despite this placing texts such as the ‘A.B.C. for chyldren’ in the category of popular literature, the grander ideals of those like Mulcaster are never too far away. Consider, for example, the texts in the final section of the pamphlet. These include the Pater noster, the Ave Maria, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and a series of ‘Preceptes
of good lyuynge’ (rules on how to live a good life). At every step, the practical purpose of teaching children how to read is used as a vehicle to simultaneously instil the higher values that good Christians should embody and inculcate students into the traditions of their culture.
The earlier sections of the pamphlet contribute to this purpose too. In his explanation of English spelling, the anonymous author declares that the orthography of his native tongue is superior to that of the French because in ‘Engliſh we vſe to write no letter but thei are ſoūded’ (fol.B1.v.) or, to put it in more modern language, English is written exactly how it is spoken. French loanwords are thus, in the author’s opinion, a danger to English as they are not spelt at all how they sound and therefore threaten to ruin the coherence of English orthography. Here, the practical lesson that English should be written phonetically is tied up with the political lesson that we should always be wary of potential interference from the old foe in France.
As with Mulcaster, reading as taught in the pamphlet is both a practical skill and a part of a higher project. The intertwining of pragmatic and ethical goals in Tudor education becomes particularly apparent when we consider Mulcaster’s attitudes to the teaching of other subjects such as drawing. Although learning to draw has the obvious abstract advantage of instructing children how to make aesthetic judgements and become familiar with beauty, for Mulcaster it brings practical benefits ‘besides the delitefull and pleasant’ (2020, p.35). Skills from drawing can be adapted for pragmatic purposes such as evaluating goods being bought at market for their ‘substaunce, forme, and fashion’, leading to more successful business ventures (Ibid.).
Our text is by no means the only embody this philosophy of dual purpose – it appears to have been a part of ABC pamphlets right from their conception. According to Charles C. Butterworth, the ABC has its roots with the ‘Primer’, the name given to the translation of the Book of Hours into English, when it was realised that the text was very well suited to teaching children how to read (1949, p.374). Butterworth suggests that alphabets were being added to editions of the English Primer as early as 1514 (Ibid., p.375), underscoring the fact that the moral and religious motivations on display in our 1561 pamphlet are typical for the 16th century.
It must also be acknowledged though that there are other, less ideological or purely conventional reasons that help to explain the choice of texts and the structure of the pamphlet. The work is designed for beginners so follows a logical course designed to take the reader in steps from learning to read the alphabet to understanding syllables and eventually whole passages. The need to cater to beginners is further reflected in the choice of example texts. As well as being of moral and religious importance, texts such as the Ten Commandments would have been very familiar to a 16th century audience, making them the perfect choice to help students understand the relationship between how words sound and how they are written.
This more pragmatic interpretation also aligns with the general views of other influential groups in society who, unlike Mulcaster, took a much dimmer view when it came to learning how to read and write. As Alice T. Friedman highlights, for example, the feudal aristocracy ‘looked down upon’ specialised training beyond the basics of literacy. For them, advanced skills were unnecessary as they could be performed by employable professionals such as priests and lawyers, not to mention that literacy was not strictly required for noble pursuits ranging from waging war to hunting and courtly music (1985, p.59).
Our seemingly simple pamphlet is, then, not so simple after all. It can be viewed as both a container of ideas and a product of needs. The pamphlet presents us with an interesting opportunity to explore how the thought of Tudor educationalists such as Mulcaster could be applied in practice. The practical and commercial limitations on the production of the text and its method remind us though that more abstract and theoretical approaches to interpreting texts must always remain tethered to material history.
Robbie Spiers is one of this year’s interns with the History of the Book. He studied Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge and is hoping to pursue a career in academia in the future.
‘An A.B.C for chyldren’, Queen’s College Sel.d.81 (1-8) (Oxford: Queen’s College, 2021), <https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/eccf0442-5119-4ce3-9f5c-b408a54907f3/surfaces/c6d495d8-9759-49fa-a719-a07514881175/>.
Butterworth, Charles C., ‘Early Primers for the Use of Children’, The Paper of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. 43, No. 4 (1949), pp.374-382.
Dondi, Cristina, ‘From the Corpus luris to ‘psalterioli da puti’, on Parchment, Bound, Gilt…: The Price of Any Book Sold in Venice 1484-1488’, in Cristina Dondi (ed.), Printing Revolution 1450-1500: Fifty Years that Changed Europe (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2018), pp.577-599.
Friedman, Alice T., ‘The Influence of Humanism on the Education of Girls and Boys in Tudor England’, History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1/2 (1985), pp.57-70.
Mulcaster, Richard, Chapter 5, The Project Gutenberg EBook of Positions, by Richard Mulcaster, ed. by Robert Herbert Quick (Project Gutenberg, 2020) <https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/62025>, pp.25-39.