The Elizabethan Top Ten – a rigorous, entertaining and provocative set of studies in the print culture of a defining era

‘The Elizabethan Top Ten is a rigorous, entertaining and provocative set of studies in the print culture of a defining era. Given the number of avenues it opens up, and the new lights it throws upon an apparently familiar scene, Smith and Kesson’s wish that it will prompt more debate seems certain to be amply fulfilled.’    Quite Irregular Blog

‘… The Elizabethan Top Ten offers more than ten compelling reasons for deserving popularity among humanities scholars and students.’   Journal of British Studies

The Elizabethan Top TenEngaging with histories of the book and of reading, as well as with studies of material culture, The Elizabethan Top Ten explores ‘popularity’ in early modern English writings.

Is ‘popular’ best described as a theoretical or an empirical category in this period?

How can we account for the gap between modern canonicity and early modern print popularity?

How might we weight the evidence of popularity from citations, serial editions, print runs, reworkings, or extant copies?

Is something that sells a lot always popular, even where the readership for print is only a small proportion of the population, or does popular need to carry something of its etymological sense of the public, the people?

Four initial chapters sketch out the conceptual and evidential issues, while the second part of the book consists of ten short chapters-a ‘hit parade’- in which eminent scholars take a genre or a single exemplar – play, romance, sermon, or almanac, among other categories-as a means to articulate more general issues. Throughout, the aim is to unpack and interrogate assumptions about the popular, and to decentre canonical narratives about, for example, the sermons of Donne or Andrewes over Smith, or the plays of Shakespeare over Mucedorus.

Revisiting Elizabethan literary culture through the lenses of popularity, this collection allows us to view the subject from an unfamiliar angle-in which almanacs are more popular than sonnets and proclamations more numerous than plays, and in which authors familiar to us are displaced by names now often forgotten.

Below is an edited extract from Andy Kesson and Emma Smith’s introduction to the The Elizabethan Top Ten. You can read the full introduction on the Ashgate website.


After some months dominated by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, The New York Times Book Review announced a change in policy for its famous book bestseller listings. Their new list of ‘trade paperback fiction … gives more emphasis to the literary novels and short-story collections reviewed so often in our pages’. The aim is clear: to exclude some – in fact, the very top – bestsellers from the bestseller list in order to make space for books whose value was signalled more by their presence in the paper’s review pages than by their sales figures alone. Six months later the paper attempted again to explain the rationale for its decision, but served to further confuse the distinction between ‘trade’ and its tautological formula of ‘mass-market’ bestsellers. In March 2008 Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement was in both charts, ranked 8th and 17th, respectively. ‘You may still wonder’, the paper wrote, ‘why we decided to separate the mass-market and trade best-seller lists. The reason is that mass-market books – no surprise – tend to sell in larger numbers than trade. A list based on the number of copies a paperback sells will usually be dominated by mass-market’.

One might expect that a list headed ‘bestsellers’ would indeed register those books that sold the highest number of copies, but here this is in conflict with a different measurement of value: trade books ‘are the novels that reading groups choose and college professors teach’. ‘Best-selling’ is here in an uneasy relationship with other, less quantifiable indices of value, or, to put it another way, the hyphenated term ‘best-selling’ is under some strain, as ‘best’ starts to serve less as an adjectival modifier to ‘selling’ and more its ideological opposite. Oscar Wilde’s aperçu in his ‘Lecture to Art Students’ seems relevant here: ‘popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong’.

This uncomfortable compromise between quantitative and qualitative indicators of value is not confined to newspaper bestsellers. Annual lists revealing which authors are most borrowed from UK public libraries, or the metrics by which Top Ten music charts are calculated have been subject to similar caveats and recalibrations, and indeed the BBC felt itself forced to censor its weekly chart show in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in 2013. For various reasons, it seems that we want to elide quantitative and qualitative measures. True ‘bestsellers’ are just slightly regrettable, an attitude perhaps still bearing the residual anxiety of what J.W. Saunders influentially dubbed ‘the stigma of print’. Popularity is itself suspect. We want the best-seller list to be the same as that list authorized by reading groups and college professors, and when it isn’t, we tweak the arrangement to get a more satisfactory result. Saunders identified the stigma of print as a specifically Tudor problem. If methodological and ideological questions dog contemporary best-seller lists, where publication and sales data are relatively robust, they are multiplied when turning to the question of print popularity in the Elizabethan period.

This book attempts to raise, rather than elide, the practical and methodological challenges of defining print popularity, and, in particular, the interpretative difficulties for literary critics and cultural historians when our sense of what ought to have been a bestseller – because it is what college professors now teach – turns out not to have been. Our title, ‘The Elizabethan Top Ten’, is self-consciously anachronistic. We have not, for reasons discussed below, tried to tabulate a ‘Top Ten’ on print editions alone (although if we had, the Book of Common Prayer, discussed in Brian Cummings’s chapter, and Sternhold and Hopkins’s psalm translations, discussed in Beth Quitslund’s, would have been there). Rather, we have invited contributors to our Top Ten to either propose a particular popularity case study within a genre – sermons or plays, for instance – or survey a particular aspect of the print market, with an eye to how their focus might form a local contribution to broader issues about writing, publishing and consuming print in the early modern period.

We actively encourage disagreements about what has been left out. We’d be delighted, for instance, if someone angrily proposed another sermon in place of The Trumpet of the Soule: for all the recent revival in sermon studies in the past decade, no sustained ‘top ten’–type argument has broken out. We haven’t got a section on ballads, for instance, despite Adam Fox’s startling estimate that ‘three or four million broadside ballads were printed in the second half of the sixteenth century alone’.

We might have included something else on the range of ephemeral literature, including chapbooks, playbills and forms: Juliet Fleming uncovers early wallpaper as an unexpected representative of this wide and diverse category. We chose to take Shakespeare as our example of literary canonization because the stakes are so high for our own contemporary disciplinary practice: the case of John Lyly, whose 11 print works went through at least 46 editions in 60 years, might have given a different shape to the story.

Above all, our aim has been to stimulate debate, including disagreement. Our contributors seek to further a dialogue about notions of popularity and about the relative roles of quantitative and qualitative methodologies for judging and interrogating popularity in the past. This volume brings together book history and literary criticism not merely to nominate or enumerate bestsellers, nor even to problematize them, but rather to try to understand their hold on the market, and with that, the gap between our own literary assessments and those of the past we seek to understand.

For some critics, statistics suggest that in the Elizabethan period the vast majority of the people were illiterate, and popularity and print are therefore mutually exclusive. Tessa Watt sensibly suggests that ‘in a partially literate society, the most influential media were those which combined print with non-literate forms’, such as musical ballads, illustrated books and books for devotion. But we should still ask whether, in an era before mass literacy, any printed text could truly be described as ‘popular’. Joad Raymond’s intervention is helpful: ‘print culture can be described as “popular” not because it is the voice of the people, nor necessarily because it was widely read among the people or reflected their views, but because the people were understood to be involved in the publicity dynamic, the dynamic by which print came to play a part in public life and the political process’.

This book explores the ways print, in its content, appearance or placement, addresses itself to and is constructed by this sense of the public. Like the contributors to Raymond’s recent Oxford History of Popular Print Culture (2011), the writers in The Elizabethan Top Ten contribute to a reassessment of the role of print in studies of the popular.

Most classic accounts of popular culture disregard print, following Peter Burke’s monumental Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, first published in 1978, and prefer the reconstruction of the non-commercial practices of a communal, oral folk culture over the commodified entertainment of a learned elite.

But the public for print needs to be seen as extending beyond those who actually bought it and into a more heterogeneous, increasingly print-aware culture. Estimates of the number of print ballads in circulation in the Elizabethan period reach into the millions; religious texts like the ABC and Catechism went into scores, perhaps hundreds of editions; almanacs were printed in the hundreds of thousands.

And although press run for particular print artefacts is not the only indicator of ‘popularity’, it does suggest which works were already, or anticipated to be, commercially successful and which had relatively widespread penetration. We can see that numbers here vary widely, but even at the upper end of the range they remain small, particularly when set against, for example, the capacities of the theatres or the expected crowd at a sermon; on the other hand, we do not know how many people might encounter any one copy of a book. In their contributions to the current volume, Helen Smith cites Gabriel Harvey’s habit of signing his books ‘et amicorum’ and Abigail Shinn discusses Harvey swapping books with Spenser. The study of popularity needs to incorporate a study of human networks and the reception and ongoing use of books, as well as their publication and distribution.

The current book engages with these issues in two sections, one on methodology and the other the Top Ten itself. The first four chapters sketch out the conceptual and evidential issues associated with popularity. Thus Alan Farmer and Zachary Lesser open our discussion by investigating and interrogating how the English Short Title Catalogue represents popularity within the early modern book trade. They provide new categories for a large-scale analysis of the print market, drawing together theoretical, evidentiary and bibliographic themes. Lucy Munro demonstrates how Elizabethan popularity was driven by books first printed before Elizabeth’s reign, so that age, paradoxically, offered new possibilities to a print market often criticized for its fixation on newness and novelty. Helen Smith abandons financial concerns entirely, advocating the early modern book as an object of friendship, conviviality and advice. In the final methodological essay, Neil Rhodes revisits Shakespeare’s writing career to show how ‘the best-selling English author of all time’ negotiated ambitions for exclusivity whilst responding to unanticipated levels of popularity amongst his readers. These four chapters offer sustained, different perspectives from which to rethink approaches to popularity.

The second section of the book is the Top Ten: ten short chapters presenting for the case of a particular genre as popular. Our contributors unpack and interrogate assumptions about the popular, decentre narratives about the canon and rediscover an early modern world which looks both oblique and new. We move from self-writing in almanacs to censored script behind wallpaper, international news to Spenser poems, domestic books to public sermons, psalm books to Munday’s serialized stories and from The Book of Common Prayer to polar bears at the Stuart court.

This Top Ten is not intended to be the final word on the most popular kinds of books available to early modern readers. Rather, we offer here a range of current thinking about early modern popularity, bringing together material textual criticism, the history of the book, conceptual frameworks, empirical data and evidence of reading practices, combining book history and literary studies in order to begin a new conversation about the nature of popularity. This is, above all, a book about people – people who produce, consume and love books and the content of books – and seeks to restore a sense of the vitality and radical implications of the Elizabethan ‘Pop-holy’ generation.


More information about The Elizabethan Top Ten

List of contributors to the book:

Andy Kesson; Emma Smith; Alan B. Farmer; Zachary Lesser; Lucy Munro; Helen Smith; Neil Rhodes; Adam Smyth; Brian Cummings; S.K. Barker; Abigail Shinn; Catherine Richardson; Juliet Fleming; Lori Anne Ferrell; Beth Quitslund; Louise Wilson; Peter Kirwan.

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