The early modern period in England witnessed the emergence of a variety of different types of readers and reading practices. Early printed poetry miscellanies are a very good example of how the space of the book provided a meeting-place for these new and diverse readerships. Just as the miscellanies chart changing poetic styles across the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries, they also reveal changing literary tastes. One means of understanding how and why miscellanies were read in this period is to ask two inter-related questions: ‘What did books tell readers to do?’ and ‘What did readers do with their books?’ (Brayman Hackel, 9). The first question directs us, in part, to the paratext of the miscellanies – the preliminaries and marginalia – and the second takes us to the marks that early modern readers left on their books.

The ideal reader interpellated in the pages of Tottel’s Miscellany and those miscellanies that followed its example, such as Paradise of Dainty Devices, is often said to be that of the ‘gentleman reader’. Wendy Wall argues that these miscellanies ‘marketed exclusivity’ and ‘functioned as conduct books’ that ‘demonstated to more common audiences the poetic practices entertained by graceful courtly readers and writers’ (Wall; Heale 2003a, 14-15; Nebeker, 989-1003). Elizabeth Heale has taken this argument a step further to point out that the ideal ‘gentleman reader’ fashioned within the miscellanies also functioned to exclude the gentlewoman as both composer and reader of lyric poetry: ‘For the mid-century miscellanists, the writing of courtly verse was primarily a gentlemanly activity in which the active participants were almost exclusively male, and in which the attitudes and gestures marketed as socially desirable contributed to the construction of a desirable mid-century masculine self, humanist-educated and socially aspiring’ (Heale 2003b, 233).

The scenes of reading described in the prefatory material to miscellanies, however, are not uniform and do not remain static. Henry Disle’s dedicatory epistle to The Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576) addressed to Sir Henry Compton, and accompanied by Compton’s coat-of-arms on the facing page, seems designed to appeal to the socio-literary world of the ‘gentleman reader’. Disle took care to advertise the volume’s elite origins, that the miscellany originated from a manuscript book of verse ‘penned by divers learned Gentlemen, and collected together’ by its now deceased gentleman-compiler, Richard Edwards. Yet, by the 1596 edition, now published by Edward White, the paratext had been re-designed: Compton’s arms and the dedication were removed, and in their place is the list of authors originally on the title-page. When paratext changes in this way it might be a sign that a miscellany is moving down the social scale, hence the ‘gentleman reader’ of the earlier editions is replaced by a more openly defined ‘general reader’. In the case of A Poetical Rhapsody, which is republished over a twenty year period, successive editors changed the paratext, content and organization of the miscellany to appeal to the changing literary tastes among their readerships. The woman reader also is not universally excluded from the printed miscellanies and retains a place particularly in the ballad collections (Heale 2003b, 246-7). A Handful of Pleasant Delights appears to be marketed as a ‘pretty Book’ that ‘Ladies may well like’ in Richard Jones’s epistle to the reader; given that it includes a number of female-voiced songs, presumably women are not simply imagined as passive recipients of the verse, but also envisaged as performers. The gathering of texts in the miscellany foregrounds the complex status of the printed book as reading material. It is worth pointing out, that while editors may have defined their readers prescriptively in paratextual material, the verse miscellany itself offered numerous points of entry for different readerships.

A number of the notes that contemporary readers made in their copies of the miscellanies are recorded in the notes to this edition. Annotations take a range of forms, from marks placed against whole poems or lines of poetry to editorial notes. Readers mark poems for a variety of reasons: to indicate their own appreciation of a verse or to show to a companion, or to mark poems or lines to copy into their commonplace books. Such marks can provide evidence for individual and shared tastes, and changing literary fashions. Other marks function editorially. A copy of the 1596 edition of Paradise of Dainty Devices in the Folger library (F: cs0361), for example, has a note beside the title of the song said to have been composed by the first Earl of Essex on his death bed (‘O Heavenly God, O Father dear, cast down thy tender eye’), indicating that it is to be sung ‘To the Tune of Rogero’; similarly a contemporary hand noted beside the title of ‘Fair Phillis and her Shepherd’ in a copy of England’s Helicon in the British Library (L: C.39.e.48 ) that it was to be sung to the ‘tune of crimson velvet’. A copy of the 1587 edition of Tottel’s Miscellany in the Bodleian Library (O: Seld. 8o H.43.Art) has numerous annotations that identify sources, for example, noting against ‘Some men would think of right to have’ that it is ‘Taken out of Tully’, or other explanatory notes, such as, that the ‘gander’s foe’ in Surrey’s ‘Though I regarded not’ is ‘the sow or hog or rather fox’. This reader also collates this later 1587 edition with an earlier edition to produce a corrected version. In this case, the reader takes on the role of an editor and the different ways in which the book is marked aim to authenticate the text. The marks left by this reader provide a very material example of the ways in which readers are not passive consumers of texts but play an active role in their construction of meaning.

Further Reading

Heidi Brayman Hackel, Reading Material in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Elizabeth Heale, Autobiography and Authorship in Renaissance Verse. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Elizabeth Heale, ‘Misogyny and the Complete Gentleman in Early Elizabethan Printed Miscellanies’, Yearbook of English Studies, 33 (2003), 233-47.

Eric Nebeker, ‘Broadside Ballads, Miscellanies, and the Lyric in Print’, English Literary History, 76 (2009), 989-1013.

Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.