I had never heard of ‘chapbooks’ until recently. They were popular, pocket-sized, paper-bound books which preceded the novel and existed from the late 16th century until the middle of the 19th century when they were unable to compete with newspapers and some churches considered them ‘ungodly’. The form originated in England and Scotland, but similar books were published in the US, as well. Chapbooks were an important vehicle for the distribution of popular culture, particularly for people living in rural areas. They provided entertainment, information and (often fictitious) history. Now, they are valued as records of popular culture, that has not survived in other forms. Chapbooks were aimed at people without formal libraries, and, in an era when paper was valuable, the paper of old chapbooks was used for wrapping, and even for toilet paper.
The word chapbook is derived from the old English word ce’ap, meaning an itinerant peddler. The peddler would buy the books, on credit, from publishers which were originally clustered in the London Bridge area of London. The peddler would travel about, selling the books at markets, fairs and door-to-door. In the mid 17th century enough chapbooks were printed in one year to account for one English family in three. They were usually printed on a single sheet of paper and folded to produce a book of up to 24 pages, often with woodcut illustrations that may not have had any relevance to the text. Reportedly, in most cases the quality of the paper and the printing were very poor. However, in some cases, chapbooks were long, well printed and historically accurate. At a time when an agricultural labourer was making 12 pence per day, chapbooks sold for 2 to 6 pence.
The literacy rate in the mid 17th century for English males was about 30%. This figure rose to 60% a century later. It seems likely that chapbooks contributed to this rise in literacy, with many working people readers and a few were even writers. Before the industrial revolution, workers had periods of time available for reading, and chapbooks were read aloud to families, and probably in pubs, as well.
Between 1661 and 1688, Samuel Pepys collected chapbooks. His collection is kept at Magdalene College, Oxford. Mr. Pepys devised the following list of subject categories of items published during that time:
- Devotion & Morality
- History – true & fabulous
- Tragedy: murders, executions, & judgements of God
- State & Times
- Love – pleasant
- Love – unpleasant
- Marriage, Cuckoldry, etc.
- Sea – love, gallantry & actions
- Drinking & good fellowship
- Humour & frollicks
Stories set in a mythical past were popular, as were stories about heroes (rich or poor) triumphing in difficult circumstances. Robin Hood is featured in chapbooks before he started giving to the poor what he took from the rich. Ignorant and greedy clergymen were often figures of fun. Some trades (cobblers, weavers and tailors) whose members were often literate were sometimes the subject of a story.
Today’s novel, while far more sophisticated (in most cases) than chapbooks, owes some of its attributes to the chapbook. These include entertaining and informing, while historic novels provide historic settings. But the modern novel goes further: considerably longer, written (mostly) in better English, with more complex characters, interactions and plots. Many novels today are intellectually more challenging than the chapbooks of two centuries ago.