The Narrative Functions of John Rastell's Printing: The Pastyme of People and Early Tudor "Genealogical" Issues

Article excerpt

The Pastyme of People (ca. 1529-1530, STC 20724) is one of the earliest printed chronicles produced by a humanist printer in early Tudor England. (1) On the surface it is a simple, brief chronicle, but it nevertheless may reveal much about the ideological conflicts and complexities of early Tudor printing culture. John Rastell (ca. 1475-1536), the author and printer, was a contemporary of Thomas More, and his first efforts at historical writing were made in his late years, around 1530. Rastell's The Pastyme of People is significant partly because of the rich variety of its illustrations, but this aspect of the chronicle has unfortunately not been fully appreciated by students of early modern history and literature since T. F. Dibdin's edition first appeared in the nineteenth century. Rastell combined the written parts of his history with elaborate paratextual devices--notably, a complex page layout with accompanying woodcut illustrations. These textual and paratextual elements must be analyzed together in order to reappraise Rastell's unique historiography. Most significantly, the mise-en-page of the chronicle seems atypical for early Tudor printed histories.

Given that the immediate sources of the graphical elements and printing processes have not been identified, (2) it would be worth examining this brief chronicle in the broader context of late-medieval manuscript and early print culture. Every previous study of The Pastyme of People has situated Rastell's early efforts to modernize historiography within the rise of "universal" humanism (as distinct from English insularism) and as an expression of the tastes of a rising middle class critical of the incumbent monarchy. (3) However, an examination of the visual structure of the chronicle also reveals that Rastell's interest in the more sophisticated political issues of his day--in particular, the genealogical issues facing the Tudor dynasty and the concomitant questions of national prestige--was no less profound than that expressed in the works of several other contemporary historical genres, including genealogical chronicles. As a matter of fact, it is worth noting the similarities that Rastell's history bears to the common medieval genre of "genealogical chronicles," most of which were produced in a roll manuscript format. (4)

Therefore, recent theories, such as those put forward by Gabrielle M. Spiegel and Edward Donald Kennedy, about the "form and function" of these genealogies and other historical or literary texts, can shed light on Rastell's compilation of sources. (5) The innovative nature of the studies of Spiegel and Kennedy comes from the fact that they pay attention to the visual elements and "literary" accessories found in medieval historical works--elements which historians had traditionally overlooked--and attempt to understand their function and meaning. Their approach will certainly lead to a new classification of these paratextual materials and will encourage a comparative approach to historical narratives as a whole.

Examining The Pastyme of People in this new way reveals hitherto overlooked aspects of the work. Kennedy's insight that "Later English chroniclers [i.e., chroniclers after the Wars of the Roses] continued to romance the past, or at least to distort it, but they did so as government propagandists" is potentially applicable to Rastell's work. (6) Rastell was certainly not a government propagandist in Kennedy's terms, but he may well have applied a propagandist method to the form of his chronicle so as to promote his own views and set himself up to serve as the king's wise, even Erasmian, counselor.

The author and printer John Rastell was actively concerned with various Tudor polemics, and lived during a time of numerous ideological and political crises that emerged under the new Tudor dynasty. Radical concepts, such as the promotion of new social estates (partly owing to the reorganization of the administrative system), the humanistic revolution in historiography, and various religious controversies, all emerged during this period. …