Reading, Society, and Politics in Early Modern England

By Kevin Sharpe; Steven N. Zwicker | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Reading revelations: prophecy, hermeneutics and
politics in early modern Britain

Kevin Sharpe


I

The histories of reading and the book have largely been written in two, very different, ways. Early research concentrated on the long durée of publications and reading habits – on the shift in the quantities, materials and genres of books over several centuries, and on the move from the intensive study of a few titles to the extensive reading of a myriad of print. Changes in habits of reading, that is, have been viewed as changes in the types and availability of books: we write of reading revolutions effected by print, the penny pamphlet or the novel. Alternatively, specialized case studies have focused on the reading habits of particular individuals who brought to the often familiar books of their culture a radical new hermeneutics which was sometimes personal, as with Menocchio the Friulian miller of Carlo Ginzburg's study, and sometimes, as with Jean Ranson, the mark of shifting cultural sensibilities, in this case what we characterize as Romanticism. What neither approach offers is an understanding of how books with a continuous history were read, interpreted and deployed in different communities and in a variety of very different and changing circumstances over long historical periods. What, in other words, did it mean to read the same texts – the classics, Scripture, legal treatise or fable – through the upheavals of Reformation, Civil War, Hanoverian Succession, Scientific Revolution and Romantic movement? Any such history must endeavour attention to local circumstance and moment, but, for all the difficulties, it is study of the reception of a text over the long historical arc that elucidates the relationship of cultural and political to hermeneutic change and brings the history of reading to where we argue it belongs: at the centre of all histories, of History.

This, of course, is, as most histories of reading are, a history based on writings, some of which have been studied before. My approach here differs in foregrounding these texts not simply as arguments but as readings of

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