British Ephemeral Literature Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

British Ephemeral Literature

Ephemeral literature refers to published writing not intended to have any lasting significance; rather, such works were produced to address topical issues, narrow interests, or particular needs. British ephemeral literature comprises printed materials marketed primarily to less-educated readers, such as broadside ballads, chapbooks, abridged classics and legends, almanacs, jestbooks, and early versions of newspapers. These documents are studied today for their historical, social, and cultural interest. As records of “popular culture” from earlier periods, they provide invaluable insight into the lives and tastes of common English folk that may not be gleaned from works of “high” literary art.

During the Middle Ages the reproduction of books and other printed materials had been a time-consuming process of rewriting entire volumes by hand, page by page. Only the most valuable or useful texts, which were almost exclusively religious in nature, were copied. Few people could afford to buy books, and even fewer were literate. The introduction of the printing press in Britain in the 1470s had an enormous impact on the way people read. As printing became more common, the number of printed materials exploded. The concurrent increase in the availability of elementary education also began to create a more literate society. It is difficult to determine exactly what percentage of the population could read by the end of the fifteenth century, but certainly most English boys and some girls had at least a few years of schooling, and thus the majority of people were at least partially literate. Publishers soon began to produce and distribute reading material specially targeted to these members of society. Commoners, including rural peasants and urban laborers, who could not afford—or, indeed, understand—the leather-bound volumes of high culture, began purchasing for their entertainment cheaply produced and simply written works, including broadsheets with ballad lyrics, chapbooks, and small books containing, for example, bawdy jokes, prophesies, children's verse, and tales of heroic exploits. This ephemeral or “street” literature offers some of the greatest insights into the culture and mindset of middle- and lower-class English people in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, insights that are not available in the works of gentleman-poets and landed nobility of the same period.

The first popular printed materials were broadsides. These were single-sheet printed documents issued in response to specific popular or newsworthy events or were otherwise designed for short-lived purposes. Broadsides could be handbills, royal proclamations, advertisements, and so forth, but they were most widely used to print songs or ballads. Early broadsides were printed in black letter print, so are often called black-letter broadsides. The broadside sheets, often adorned with wood engravings or woodcuts, were sold in stalls or by travelling peddlers or singer-sellers. People pasted the sheets on walls to learn the lyrics, and discarded or pasted over them when the song was familiar. The earliest broadsides of popular tunes appeared in the 1500s and covered a variety of subjects. There were bawdy ballads such as “The Babes in the Wood,” those about female warriors such as “Mary Ambree,” and hundreds of other songs dealing with every topic from love and courtship to political events. The broadside ballad gave expression, in simple and clear terms, to the everyday human experience of the lower and middle classes to whom it was mainly directed. However, it is also likely that it was not only the lower classes who were reading these texts, but the gentry and the literary-minded as well. William Shakespeare knew street ballads intimately, and in his plays seem to both delight in them and revel in denouncing their authors as hacks. In the late eighteenth century, however, the Romantic poets took an interest in the ballad form and transformed it into respectable, “high” art.

In the seventeenth century readers turned away from reading broadsides in favor of chapbooks. One of the reasons for the movement toward these longer, more complex works may have been that the proliferation of pamphlet literature during the English Civil War gave readers a taste for more substantial works. In terms of its physical characteristics, the chapbook was a single sheet of paper that was printed on both sides and then folded so as to make a book of twelve leaves or twenty-four pages. It often contained engravings or woodcuts and, like most ephemeral literature, was fragile and printed on paper of inferior quality. The derivation of the word “chapbook” is unclear. It may be a corruption of the word “cheap” or a derivation of the old English word “ceap,” which means trade. These small books, which were also called “penny histories,” were sold by peddlers, or chapmen, who traveled between towns with their wares. As with broadsides, chapbooks covered a wide array of subjects. There were tales of murder and intrigue, children's stories, fairy tales, folktales, medieval romances, and retellings of classics such as the Faust legend. Few chapbooks contained original material, and stories appeared in various permutations in different books. Some of the most popular chapbooks were those that told of the exploits of Guy of Warwick, a hero who displayed during his many adventures a particular brand of English virtue. Collections of songs and ballads in chapbooks were known as “garlands.” Samuel Pepys, a devoted collector of ephemera of various sorts, collected a number of chapbooks, including many that were compilations of ballads. Chapbooks remained popular throughout the 1700s and continued to flourish into the next century.

The styles and types of British ephemeral literature are not limited to broadside ballads and chapbooks, although those seem to have been the two most popular forms between the early 1500s and 1800. Other examples of the many forms of popular ephemeral literature include the “Penny Dreadfuls,” jestbooks, and popular books on religion. The Penny Dreadfuls were novelettes, short stories, and serial novels—again cheaply printed and usually read once and discarded by their readers—that featured gruesome stories, gallows tales, and adventures in foreign lands. There were special stories for women included in these books. Jestbooks were usually concerned with sex, music, and scatological jokes while small religious books often emphasized fear of death and the wrath of God. These and the many popular publications that are not generally examined by scholars of English literature offer the contemporary reader a glimpse into a world that looks much different from that portrayed by acknowledged “literary masters.” As literary continue to widen the literary canon to include works of artists representing a greater range of human social and cultural experience, ephemeral literature will likely be examined in greater depth. Those scholars who have already begun to explore these texts point out that they can promote a better understanding of the development of English literature and that they offer insights into aesthetic values and beliefs held by common citizens.