From Print to Digital: Technologies of the Word, 1450-Present >> Content Detail



This section includes a former student's work which has become one of the assigned readings.

Chapbook Analysis

Courtesy of Nicholas Hausman. Used with permission.

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.

Guy of Warwick: Summary of the Story

I chose to examine Guy of Warwick in particular because of its popularity and availability. It is a typical chapbook story of the romantic type, and it is often presented as indicative of the genre. Both Spufford and Watt mention it and use it as a benchmark to show the amounts of chapbook sales. Many printings were made of the Guy chapbooks, which shows that they sold well. Guy's story was a very popular one, and it has a long history. The English loved stories of their heroes in the Early Modern period, and the departure from historical fact to fantastical adventures made it exciting for readers across class boundaries.

I will now present a plot summary based on a 1700s chapbook of 144 pages. Guy was born an English gentleman. However, he had no wealth in land and was the son of a steward to Lord Roband. As a young man, Guy fell in love with Lord Roband's daughter, Phaelice, for her amazing beauty. He proposed marriage to her, but she rejected him on the basis that he is far below her in status. After making a point of the materiality and greediness of women, Guy decided to go out and make a name for himself through bravery and strength, in order that Phaelice would accept him as a husband.

So began the adventures of Guy, as he armed himself and headed for France in search of opportunities to test his arm and raise his reputation. Guy soon encountered the maiden Dorinda who had been falsely imprisoned as part of a plot. Guy fought the three men who had lied in order to pace her in prison, and he killed two of them. The other one fled. However, while sailing away, Guy's ship encountered and was attacked by the ship of Philbertus, the mastermind behind the plot. Guy singlehandedly cut a path through his enemies, and they eventually gave up and retreated. Guy next visited Germany, where he entered a tournament of jousting and martial prowess. He bested all his competitors and as a reward for winning was promised the hand of Princess Blanch. Guy remained true to his love for Phaelice and gave up the opportunity to marry Blanch, instead promising to serve her as a knight. Guy returned to England with the riches that had been the remainder of his prize. He once again proposed to Phaelice, but she turned him down again. She was not overly impressed by the deeds that he had thus far performed, and said that she could not marry him until he carried out even greater feats of heroism.

On Dunsmore-Heath in England, a gigantic cow was terrorizing the countryside and killing any man who tried to stop it. This cow was twelve feet high and eighteen feet long, and was destroying everything it saw. Guy heard reports of the beast, and went to try his luck. After a fierce battle he emerged victorious, the monster dead at his feet. The King of England was so thankful that he knighted Guy. Guy then traveled to Byzantium, to battle the heathens, and return that city to Christian control. Once again, no man could stand up to Guy's strength, and he slaughtered the Saracens and Turks, and recovered Byzantium. Some time later, Guy was walking through the woods and he came upon sixteen ruffians assaulting an Earl and Lady. The ruffians did not stand a chance. Continuing through the woods, Guy happened upon a battle between a lion and a dragon. He decided to watch the fight and aid whichever creature was losing. The lion was getting the worst of it and appeared to be almost finished. Guy stepped in and defeated the dragon. After the fight was over, the lion licked Guy's feet to show its thanks. Guy went on more adventures and killed a giant boar and the dragon of Northumberland.

After all these acts of heroism, he returned home to Phaelice, who finally agreed to marry him. The two were happily wedded. Unfortunately, soon after the marriage, Roband died. Upon the loss of his father-in-law, Guy was thrown into despair. He reflected upon his adventures, and renounced them as sins of his youth. Despite his lifelong quest for Phaelice, Guy left his new bride, and began a pilgrimage to atone for past errors. He put on the robes of a pilgrim, left his sword and armor behind, and vowed to tell no one who he was, for at that point, Guy was known throughout the land. On his pilgrimage, he ran into a man who was utterly depressed. Guy promised to help the man. It tuned out that the man's sixteen children had been taken hostage by a giant. Guy slew the giant and returned the man's children. After a few more similar adventures, Guy retired to a cave to be alone with his melancholy thoughts. When he was about to die, he found a nearby farmer and told him to take a ring to Phaelice. She received the ring and ran out to find Guy, who she had been longing for all those years. They were reunited and embraced, but Guy died in her arms. Phaelice followed him to the grave within two weeks.

Analysis of the Story in Terms of Orality

In his book, Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong writes about the characteristics of orally based thought that are distinct from chirographically (writing) or typographically based thought. I will now examine the story of Guy of Warwick for evidence of oral thought, based on Ong's characteristics.

The story contains many features of orally based thought: both words as power and actions, and memory aids, the two main categories distinct to oral thinking. The characters exist on the level of actions and words, not introspective abstraction. Except for the stage in Guy's life when he decides to repent for his violence, actions dominate the book. Even dialog between characters is rare, and not very realistic. For example, when Guy first speaks to Phaelice, he gives a monologue of several paragraphs. The natural back and forth is absent. Also, the characters are flat. We do not see into their heads; they are basically type characters. We never find out what drives them, or the complex Web of thoughts that causes them to take certain actions. Likewise, description in the book is sparse. The dragons are not detailed in all their terrible features; instead the author calls up the already developed image of a dragon into the mind of the viewer. The concrete nature of the story points to oral thought. Abstraction and psychological ideas are products of print culture. Their absence is easily noticeable to readers today, because in our heavily print-based society, we have become accustomed to seeing abstract ideas and descriptions. Without them, the story seems simple and flat. To a member of a culture without much print or writing, the story would have seemed different. In Ong (53-54), people from predominantly oral cultures had trouble defining words. They assumed that everyone already knew, for example, what a tree was. Oral people would have an image of a dragon or a giant in their minds, and only unusual features that affect the story would need to be noted. Actions and words were the important elements for people from oral cultures. The verbal and physical conflict between characters was what made up the mental life of these people.

Praise was another feature that came from oral culture. Guy is praised for his sword of flame, and his overpowering strength and bravery. These words seem trite and insincere to us today, but as Ong writes, "...Praise goes with the highly polarized, agonistic, oral world of good and evil, virtue and vice, villains and heroes" (45). Praise was part of an oral western rhetorical tradition, and it made its way into print in this story. Praise went along with the designation of Guy as a "heavy" character, or one who is larger than life. Characters of this type were important in oral cultures, because their heroic features aided memory. When nothing could be recorded, things had to stand out to be remembered. Guy has the strongest arm, and the best blade. He literally seems to be larger than other characters in the story, perhaps approaching the height of a giant. Guy's enemies also had to be unusual to stand out. The giant cow of Dunsmore-Heath is a good example of a bizarre crature that aids memory. Other examples in Guy of Warwick are a giant boar, and the fight between the dragon and the lion. Stories in oral cultures were episodic, and the story of Guy incorporates this element as well. Certain episodes could be inserted or deleted based on the memory of the storyteller, in an oral culture. The ability to lengthen or shorten a story without affecting the plot is also useful in print culture. One of the chapbook versions cuts a 232 page book down to twenty-four pages without changing the story much. A later chapbook then expanded it back to 144 pages. The story could be easily changed based on the audience the printer was aiming at. Redundancy was a key element to oral storytelling, because it was necessary to repeat things that the audience might have missed. Several of Guy's adventures are repetitive: he fights two dragons, and two giants. The differences between the episodes are small, so this feature probably came from the oral tradition. Another memory aid was the use of common numbers. Guy saves a man's sixteen children and defeats sixteen ruffians. The number sixteen must have had some significance to people of the time.

Three Editions: Evolution of a Book

I looked at three editions of Guy of Warwick at the Houghton Library at Harvard. One was an expensive bound edition from the 1500s, one was a short chapbook from 1695, and the third was a longer chapbook from the 1700s. The differences between the three editions show us something about oral residue in printed works, as well as the role print played in fixing the English language as standard and unchanging.

The earliest version that I examined was a bound book of 282 pages from the 1500s. It would have been affordable only to the rich, and it was written in verse and difficult language. Its intended audience was the educated, upper-class man. Its print conventions display its extravagance, as well as the changes in print between the Sixteenth Century and today. The text was entirely in gothic print, with large letters and margins. The lines were justified only on the left, leaving lots of white space to the right of the words. Page numbers were not printed, and only a few woodcuts were included. The large amount of empty space and large type were signs of luxury. Paper was the most expensive part of the book, so to leave parts of it empty showed that one had money to spare.

This book was very hard for me to read, showing the many changes that have occurred in printing and language. The gothic text and different symbols for letters made trying to read like breaking a code. Many words present in the book have since gone out of use, and had to be inferred from the context. Spellings of words were also different from today.

The 1695 version was a twenty-four page chapbook, five and a half by seven inches. It was written in prose, and was sold for he price of 3d., which would have been in the price range of a larger audience. The story was cut down to fit the short length, and many of Guy's adventures were left out. The print in this edition was very small, with hardly any margins. The book seems to be printed as cheaply as possible, although it is still on good paper by today's standards. In contrast to the earlier version of the story, this one was easy for me to understand. The type still is made up of some gothic print, but is mainly the font we are used to today. The words and spellings were the familiar ones in current use, for the most part. Sometime between the 1500s and 1695, print stabilized the English language to the point where it has not changed significantly in three hundred years. The printing of the dictionary, and the influence of print on thought and speech combined to stop the changes that made Old English and Middle English incomprehensible to readers today.

The last version I looked at was a 144 page chapbook printed in the 1700s, three by six and a half inches. This version restored the full story for readers of lesser means. The print was small, as were the margins. Gothic type was gone, replaced by italic interspersed with the standard typeface of today. The increased number of people who could read at this time would have presented a larger audience for the book. The fact that the copy I looked at was from the eleventh printing shows that it was popular and sold well.


The interplay between oral transmission and chirographic and print copies of Guy of Warwick show the overlap between the different technologies of the word and their related thought processes in a society near the beginning of print. In the 1500s the flow back and forth between print and oral forms of the story display the influences of each culture on the other. This argument agrees with Spufford and the example of St. George, another chivalric romance that exhibits the play between print and speech. The story of St. George was printed in a chapbook, which was used to stage the Mummers' Play, and was then recorded again in print. Print shaped part of oral culture, and vice versa.

By the start of the Eighteenth Century, and the last chapbook edition, it seems that print took a firm enough hold to begin the end of oral culture in England. The standardization that comes with print was in effect and allowed print and language from that period to be understandable to English speakers today. The prose form of the story is closer to the style of today's novels. However, the 1700s chapbook still contains a story with a high oral residue. Perhaps oral culture did still have an effect on society, but it was naturally growing smaller with time, as the population moved towards being fully literate.


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