The Impact of Increased Literacy on Ballads and Chapbooks in Seventeenth-Century England
In seventeenth-century England, the rise of popular education and literacy coinciding with the mechanical technology of printing, led to the decline in the creation of ballads and in the importance of chapbooks.
After England's Restoration period, inexpensive print was available in large quantities due to new technological innovations in the printing field. Almanacs became important for households on all social levels to own and approximately four hundred thousand were printed in the 1660s annually. Bibles were also being printed in great amounts, though less than almanacs due to the fact that they did not become out-dated.
Early in the seventeenth-century England underwent "a form of phenomenon a little like that phenomenon of the Great Rebuilding and is very likely related to it" (9). This upsurgance of spending power enabled the yeomanry of the countryside to send their sons to school. Free from the labor force, these boys were taught to read and write. Fathers who were not as wealthy as the yeomen, still could send their sons to school until they were of working age, about six or seven. These lower class boys were taught to read, but writing was taught at a later age. This increase in the amount of the population that could read and write was extremely significant, transforming England from the fourteenth-century to the sixteenth century from a late medieval peasant society, to a society in which reading and writing were used by more people, and on all social scales, for education and entertainment. Approximately thirty percent of men in the latter half of the seventeenth-century were literate. Sixty-five percent of the yeomen were literate.
Before literacy increased and books were sold inexpensively, story-telling was an important oral tradition. Elderly women who worked the fields with young children helped the children's day pass by telling them stories while they weeded and scared birds. Families spent holidays together telling tales of giants and dragons. After a long day in the fields, men gathered around fires and in a "one-upmanship" fashion tried to tell the best story.
This oral tradition was deeply rooted in the ballad. Ballads were created and re-created as they were passed from generation to generation and from town to town. As books became more accessible to the lower classes, ballads were collected and printed to be distributed among them. The ballad tradition suffered from these collected printings. It has been historically traced that the distribution of ballad books and the decrease of new ballads being created coincides. Before the ballads were printed, the ballad singers were not bound by strict memorization. The ballad singers had the ability to be creative and personalize their songs. The printed versions of the ballads were then thought of as the absolute text, due to the authority printed text held in this...