Reproduction only for non-commercial use.

© May 2007; revised 12 November 2009

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Gallery Catalog Nos.  112 & 113 & 113a & 113b & 113c

NOTE: A new (revised & expanded) edition of this Gallery Exhibit is forthcoming.

Women booksellers, 1640 and 1644

she-philosopher.com CAT. 112

La Galerie du Palais (c.1640). Etching by Abraham Bosse (1602–1676), showing a French woman bookseller (behind the counter of the stall at left). The neighboring stalls in this 17th-century version of a fashionable mall sell fans (center stall) and lace (stall at right).

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she-philosopher.com CAT. 113

Byrsa Londinensis, vulgo The Royall Exchange of London (1644). Etching (2nd state of three) by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677), showing an English woman selling broadsheets (in the foreground at left).

  This view, facing west, of the first Royal Exchange (on the site of the present Exchange at the junction of Threadneedle Street and Cornhill, with Cornhill seen through the south door on the left), is our best visual record of the building which opened in 1569 and was destroyed a century later in the Fire of London in 1666.

  London’s first Royal Exchange was built in 1566–7 by Sir Thomas Gresham (whose portrait medallion hangs from the cartouche), using a Flemish architect, and was modeled on the Bourse in Antwerp. “On the first floor, above the cloisters, was The Pawn — rows of stalls selling all manner of fine and rare commodities. In the niches over the arcading stood the statues of the English monarchs from the time of Edward the Confessor,” with 3 vacant niches. The statue “most clearly visible on the right, that of Charles I, was torn down after his execution in 1649, and its pedestal inscribed with the words ‘Exit tyrannus regum ultimus’ — ‘The tyrant is gone, the last of the kings.’ On the corners of the building, and on the tower, stood gigantic grasshoppers, the crest of the Greshams.” (Parry, Hollar’s England: A Mid-Seventeenth-Century View, n. pag.)

  The Royal Exchange was the center of British commercial activity, and Hollar here emphasizes the urban bustle of its courtyard to give the viewer a true sense of place. “The merchants who crowded its Italianate courtyard represented trading interests from all over Europe and beyond. ‘At every turn, a man is put in mind of Babel, there is such a confusion of languages,’ wrote Dekker in 1607. Hollar’s eye for national costume enables us to catch something of the internationalism of the scene: two Muscovite merchants in their furred caps stand in the left foreground, turbaned Turks are in the centre of the crowd, and representatives from Antwerp and Amsterdam, Venice and Vienna, are distinguishable.” (Parry, Hollar’s England: A Mid-Seventeenth-Century View, n. pag.)

  Verses in the cartouche by Henry Peacham characterize London’s Royal Exchange as superior to the Antwerp Bourse, “where / But emptines is seene or trifles sold.” London’s own “Modell of Magnificence” carries “rare or rich” goods from around the world: “Arabian odors,” “Silkes from Serres,” “Pearles, Sables, fine linnen[,] Jewels” and other luxury items. Of note, Peacham doesn’t here advertise the availability of broadsides, the sale of which Hollar depicts so prominently.

  Hollar’s Byrsa Londinensis was reissued in 1668, with the English arms in place of the dedication (3rd state of three), in an effort to capitalize on the growing interest in scenes of London “in its flourishing condition before the fire” (phrasing from Hollar’s 1666 print, A True and Exact Prospect of the Famous Citty of London with its before and after views “taken from the same place”).

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Headpiece from Capt. John Smith's publications on the Americas

Adrian Wilson, among others, has argued that “the growth of female readership and the emergence of women writers” in the latter half of the 17th century destroyed “women’s collective culture.” She believes that prior to the onset of mass female literacy, a rich, woman-centered oral tradition enabled females from a range of social strata (especially midwives) to become “local leaders of women.” Accepting recent theories concerning the patriarchal bias of literature and learning in the Latin West, Wilson and other critics contend that the mass of women lost ground when literacy spread from the masculine to the feminine sphere.

It is my belief that early-modern women were neither disengaged from nor disempowered by literary culture. The prints by Bosse and Hollar usefully remind us that women were actively involved, all along, in spreading literacy and advancing the book trade.

In 17th-century England, publishing professionals such as Elizabeth Allde, Margaret Allde, Hannah Allen, Elizabeth Andrews, Elizabeth Awdely, Grace Beckett, Jane (or Jean) Bell, Joanna Brome, Mary Clark, Elizabeth Crooke, Mary Crooke, Gertrude Dawson, Mary Dawson, Elizabeth Dunton, Jacqueline Vautrollier Field, Elizabeth Flesher, Anne (or Anna) Griffin, Sarah Griffin, Elizabeth Harris, Sarah Harris, “the Widdow Helme,” “the Widdow Hurlock,” Ann Leake, Elizabeth Leake, Anne Maxwell, Anne Moseley, Dorothy Newcombe, Dorothy Newman, E. Newman, “the widowe Orwin,” “the Widow Page,” Sarah Paske, Ruth Raworth, Alice Charlewood Roberts, Hannah Sawbridge, Anne Seile, Elizabeth Seller, Mary Senex, Margaret Shears, Mary Simmons, (the three Quaker printers and sisters) Elizabeth Sowle Bradford, Jane Sowle Bradford, Tace Sowle Raylton, (along with their mother) Jane Sowle, Mary Thompson, Alice Warren, Alice Wolfe, and Mary Wright were considered solidly respectable businesswomen. But the publishing trade also involved women of lower social status, some of whom were associated with the underground press that flourished in the early decades of the century.

The network of anonymous women who peddled “scurrilous” political broadsides from portable market stalls that popped up unpredictably, and disappeared in similar fashion, became an effective distribution channel for political dissent. Even a politician as powerful as the first duke of Buckingham, who applied state resources to identifying and punishing those responsible for circulating the libelous material, was continually frustrated in his attempts to shut down the decentralized run of published attacks on his administration.

At the time, literacy was still confined to a minority of the population, but alehouses, inns, and market crosses provided gathering places where the illiterate could hear broadsides and newsbooks read, while the doggerel libels of the “pot-poets,” with their crude and memorable rhyming couplets, circulated widely in manuscript and were copied in letters from London to the country. Not only did all this agit-prop produce a large, politically informed populace, it also “created the pent-up demand for traditional print that was so marked a characteristic of the Civil War period.” Moreover, according to Thomas Cogswell, the decentralized practices of scribal publication safely

allowed contemporaries to conduct a steady, often violent political debate. The audience for these clashes furthermore cut across class distinctions and geographic location so effectively that the “underground” market arguably was as close to a mass media as early Stuart England ever achieved.
(Cogswell, “Underground Verse and
the Transformation of Early Stuart
Political Culture” 287)

While Hollar did not work for the underground press, he did produce “images designed to appeal to a very broad audience” (Doggett, Biggs & Brobeck 26) for the bookseller, Thomas Jenner — a social crusader and Parliamentarian who

dedicated his profession to the ultimate triumph of Puritanism. His stock interprets the new morality and chastises the old.
(Leona Rostenberg, English Publishers
in the Graphic Arts, 1599–1700
4)

Jenner, who set up trade as a dealer in prints at the White Beare, Cornhill, around 1618, was in business for more than 50 years (Jenner’s last traced activity is in 1672), and continued to be a successful stationer in the graphic arts during the Restoration years, despite having been ideologically aligned earlier with the Commonwealth and Parliamentarians.

During the early 1640s, Hollar engraved for Jenner several “crude rather than realistic” images which “could more easily be used to illustrate crude, rude, or violent subject matter.” (Doggett, Biggs & Brobeck 26) During this same period, he also

executed several notable plates which were published by Jenner: studies of Algernon, Earl of Northumberland, taking off for the wars: William of Nassau, in honor of his recent nuptials, and a striking view of both Houses of Parliament.
(Rostenberg, English Publishers in
the Graphic Arts, 1599–1700
31)

The audience for prints was growing right along with the audience for pamphlet literature during the Civil War years, and had a typically mixed effect on its female subjects and audiences. While it is true that the graphic arts were by and large “deeply conservative,” the reliance on “everyday, familiar stereotypes,” which polarized political debate so as to mobilize public opinion, robbed men as well as women of their humanity. The pamphleteers

took great efforts to produce portraits and satire with which people could identify. In this way even the simplest woodcut characters were capable of eloquent significance. At the same time the meaning of visual figures could be valuably obscure. Not only did witty writers twist the meaning of pictures to their own ends, but owing to the ambiguity of the pictorial figure, whether an image was seditious or not was always open to question. ... Despite this wonderful flexibility of meaning, printed images of human figures were deeply conservative. Fresh titles and text were used to trigger new connotations from old, traditional iconography — but even these connotations were based on strongly-held attitudes to gender, clothing, and other social elements. During an era of great social change, with opportunities to turn the world upside-down, images of human figures in the popular press only acted to confirm deep, narrow-minded prejudice.
(Tamsyn Williams, “‘Magnetic
Figures’: Polemical Prints of the
English Revolution” 110)

Hollar’s picturing of a female vendor of broadsides in 1644 is a valuable corrective to the sort of visuals featured in the “brief, readable pamphlets and broadsheets” of the revolutionary years. Hollar does not politicize his subject; he humanizes her, by casting her as one in a wide range of social types interacting in an everyday setting. Rather than erase her from Peacham’s upscale London commercial scene, he foregrounds the woman in an active occupational role — a role which she holds because of, not despite, the spread of literacy.


Ornament from Capt. John Smith's publications


The career trajectory for women who were related to a master printer or stationer (especially a daughter or widow) followed the usual pattern we find in regulated trades built around an apprenticeship system. For example, Mary Thompson was the daughter of printer Thomas Ratcliffe (d. 1678), who specialized in mathematics and music texts, along with plays and dissenting religious works. Mary’s second marriage was to the man who was her father’s partner from about 1672 to 1678, the soon-to-be notorious Catholic and Tory printer-turned-publisher, Nathaniel Thompson, aka “Popish Nat.” Mary soon became an active printer and publisher in her own right, running the family publishing business while her husband was in jail — all too often, until after the accession of James II — and again after her husband’s death in 1687. She was herself arrested for dispersing the inflammatory political tract, The Appeal from the Country to the City, probably written by Charles Blount, which was circulating in London in October 1679. In 1688, she passed the family publishing business to her daughter from her first marriage, Mary Daniel Edwards, and son-in-law David Edwards. And thus a new generation of Ratcliffe women continued to profit from the print trade.

An English woman wandering through a cosmopolitan London crowd selling broadsheets

she-philosopher.com CAT. 113a

Detail from Hollar’s 1644 etching, Byrsa Londinensis, vulgo The Royall Exchange of London (1st state of three).

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• a spread from Comenius’ children’s primer, Orbis Pictus, on the top-level LIBRARY page (directly below the Table of Contents listing) showing the interior layout of a bookseller’s shop (or library, as bigger shops were then known)

• two 17th-century arguments that speech favors men, whereas writing/reading empowers women: Theophilus Dorrington’s recommendation of women’s closet reading (because “It is much more easie to deceive the Ear than the Eye.”) in the GALLERY exhibit on Portraits of Melancholy — III + Charles Gildon’s acknowledgment that “a Man of a great deal of Wit delivers his Arguments on any Subject with that address, that they appear much stronger from his Mouth, than in Writing” in the IN BRIEF topic on arguments for and against learned women at the close of the 17th century

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