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Elizabethan shortcuts to learning

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There’s nothing new about “idiots’ guides” or shortcuts for those who want to write that exam essay without reading the text on which it is supposed to be based, or that love letter without thinking up winning phrases for themselves. I’ve just been reading a fascinating essay on Elizabethan and Jacobean examples.

The merchant William Fulwood in 1568 produced The Enime of Idlenesse: Teaching the manner and stile how to endite, compose, and write all sorts of Epistles and Letters: as well by answer, as otherwise, Devided into foure Bokes, no lesse pleasaunt than profitable.

He tells his “reasonable Reader” that this is not for the “cunning clearke” but the “unskilful scholar that wanteth instructions”. It wasn’t just for business, also including “what sorte thou mayest (I say at such vacant times) take thy penne in hande and gratifie thy friend with some prettie or pleasant conceit”.

It went through eight editions up until 1621. By that time, women were also seen as a market. The Academy of Complements. Wherein Ladyes, Gentlewomen, Schollers, and Strangers may accomplish their Courtly Practice with most Curious Ceremonies, Complements, Amorous, High Expressions and formes of speaking, or writing … with Additions of witty Amorous Poems. And a Table expounding the hard English Words. This was published, perhaps unsurprisingly, pseudonomously. by one “Philomosus”. There were Puritans around, but they were not yet in the ascendant.

Travel guidebooks and phrasebooks start about the same time. One of the first in English was probably Andrew Borde’s The fyrst boke of the Introduction of knowledge, which contained all of the information we’d recognise: descriptions of countries, their monetary systems, and useful foreign phrases. It was published in 1542, less than 70 years after printing had been introduced into England – it is amazing how fast printers learnt to seek out new markets.

There was even marriage guidance, if only as an aside from business advice. In An Essay of Drapery, Or the Compleate Citizen. Trading Justly, Pleasingly, Profitably (1635) William Scott wrote that a certain amount of dissemination was allowed, as “with one who hath married a wife, whome hee must use well, pretending affection to her, though hee cannot love her”.

From “Handbook Learning of the Renaissance Middle Class”, Louis B. Wright, in Studies in Philology, Vol 28, 1931, pp. 58-86.

I’ve been finding lately odd bits of fascinating scholarship in social history published in the Thirties. It seems that this trend was disrupted by the war, and a lot of the work has disappeared from view – the Fifties perhaps not being very “socially” inclined. I’ve found some of these Thirties journals very good hunting grounds for little-referenced material.

You can find more like this on my home blog, Philobiblon.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Interesting – thanks. Any online links/examples?

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    None that I’m aware of – I’d love to know if anyone finds any. Hopefully, eventually, with Google Print …

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Sorry to quibble, but you may have meant “dissimulation” rather than “dissemination.”

    Interesting overview of early developments in the self-help segment of publishing.