Voices and Books in the English Renaissance: A New History of Reading 
by Jennifer Richards.
Oxford, 329 pp., £65, October 2019, 978 0 19 880906 7
Show More
Learning Languages in Early Modern England 
by John Gallagher.
Oxford, 274 pp., £60, August 2019, 978 0 19 883790 9
Show More
Show More

Between​ 2002 and 2018, the number of GCSE foreign language exams taken in England, Northern Ireland and Wales fell by 45 per cent. The main reason for this was that in 2002 the government announced that it was no longer compulsory for students to study a language at GCSE level. Numbers immediately dropped. Some schools reported that students perceived languages to be too difficult, though budget cuts in now optional language teaching and the priority given to subjects like maths and science also played a part in the decline. Modern languages is not the only subject area to suffer in UK secondary schools. The past twenty years have seen an increase in the number of schools offering Latin, but a drop in the number of pupils taking a GCSE in the subject. The numbers studying all arts subjects have gone down, with drama considered to be in a state of crisis. In 2017, UK schools had 1700 fewer drama teachers than in 2010. Over that period, the number of students taking drama at GCSE level fell by a quarter.

It is worth putting all this in context. For the bulk of British history, most pupils who had the comparatively rare opportunity of formal education had to become proficient in Latin as a bare minimum. In the British Isles as in the rest of Europe, most instruction in other subjects took place in Latin. From the early Middle Ages into the Renaissance, skill in Latin was a marker of elite status, as it still is, but it was also of practical use for international travel and communication. It was taught using many of the same techniques employed for modern foreign languages today: singing, lively dialogues, reciting poetry, taking dictation and giving speeches. Pupils learned the language orally, in other words, as well as through grammar and the translation of set phrases.

The boys and the few girls who learned to read, write and speak Latin often received an education in drama along the way. The plays of Terence were a mainstay of education in ancient Rome thanks to his exemplary style. Medieval and early modern teachers recognised their pedagogical potential and used individual lines or whole plays as part of their language teaching. That the plays often featured rape, prostitution, extramarital pregnancy and beatings didn’t seem to bother teachers, though some composed Christian works based on Terence’s plays in order to have a cleaner alternative. Even these versions, however, retained some of the provocative elements that made Terence’s dramas so memorable. Dulcitius, a hagiographical play by the tenth-century German canoness Hrotsvit of Gandersheim about three virgin sisters who are menaced by a leering pagan governor, includes a scene in which he is tricked into having sex with some sooty pots and pans. Acting or reading out plays helped pupils connect to a second language. It taught them to deliver Latin speeches clearly and meaningfully. Learning a language was also training in the effective use of voice.

It is easy to overlook how loud premodern education was. Most of our evidence for more than a thousand years of teaching consists of books, and, to the modern way of thinking, books are objects used silently. That this was not the usual way of doing things for much of Western history is now better known, though still difficult fully to understand. In a famous anecdote in the Confessions, Augustine describes seeing Ambrose of Milan reading on his own without making a sound. Ambrose was not the first person in history to read silently, but his quiet, private reading was unusual enough to make an impression. Augustine wondered whether Ambrose did it to preserve his voice or because someone might overhear him reading a difficult passage and ask him to explain it. Scholars have, in turn, asked why Augustine found Ambrose’s silent reading noteworthy: was it simply his ability to do it, or the peculiarity of his solitude?

What’s clear is that reading was, for most people, a fundamentally social act. This remained true in the millennium following Augustine. Meals at Benedictine monasteries were accompanied by a reading; the listening monks and nuns were expected to use signs if they wanted someone to pass the salt. In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer depicts three noble women sitting in a parlour listening to a maiden read an epic French poem on the history of Thebes, a good indication of the way Chaucer’s own writing was enjoyed by his 14th-century audience. In the early 1980s, Walter Ong proposed that, by making compact, portable books widely available, the advent of print in Europe helped to change reading from an oral group activity to a silent, private one. Ong acknowledged that social reading continued into the early modern period, and presumably he also knew about the tiny psalters, pocket-sized Bibles and cheap university textbooks that medieval people owned and carried around with them well before the age of print. But his theory fitted with the perception of the Renaissance as a period of radical change, and obscured the many ways early modern books could occasion dramatic, social and noisy behaviour.

Jennifer Richards’s excellent Voices and Books in the English Renaissance challenges the view of early modern books as objects for quiet use. She begins by noting how much scholarly work on Renaissance books focuses on traces associated with silent reading, especially the annotations readers used to help them absorb the material, to note parallel passages, or to mark their reactions to certain passages. Oral performance leaves no obvious marks behind. Richards might have pushed her point further: scribbles in the margins of a book aren’t incontrovertible proof of silent reading, and indeed medieval books survive with the same kinds of annotation despite belonging to the age before print. If anything, the wealth of sources from the early modern period gives a fuller sense of the places books might be read aloud – among them, ‘church, university colleges, the printing house, theatrical spaces, ordinaries, barber shops, prison’.

Richards’s focus is less on oral culture, however, than on the physical voice. She encourages us to see the history of books in the early modern period differently by acknowledging the importance vocal work still has in our reading. To overlook the voice means to ignore the clues accents give us about class, education and geographical origin. It means missing hints about the age, gender and health of the speaker. Most important, it is in speaking a text out loud that we give it much of its emotional quality. We can vary our tone and pitch, speak loudly or softly, speed up, slow down, or add pauses for dramatic effect. Doing this effectively is sometimes a matter of instinct and more often a reflection of training: actors, singers and voice artists learn this skill today, but in the early modern period it would have been practised in grammar schools too. And of course, voice is not absent even when we read quietly. As Matthew Rubery points out in his history of audiobooks, The Untold Story of the Talking Book (2016), silent readers often imagine voices sounding out the words, and the muscles used for speaking move in minuscule, barely detectable ways as they read.

There is a difference, however, between reading with an inner voice and approaching a printed book in the expectation that it might be read aloud. Early modern teachers, like their medieval predecessors, taught the fundamentals of reading with lists of nonsense syllables, prayers and set dialogues, all of which were useful for pupils who were learning how to connect heard sounds to letters and to pronounce written words correctly. Richards cites the physician Helkiah Crooke’s dictum that ‘no man knows how to read which hath not first learned it by the means of hearing’, an idea that might be confusing at first glance. The use of prayer in elementary pedagogy shows how this might have worked. Children dedicated to Benedictine monasteries in the early Middle Ages probably learned to sing the Psalms in Latin at the same time as they were learning to read and before they had mastered Latin grammar. Early modern pupils used primers containing the alphabet alongside the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. These children approached literacy through phrases they had already heard, spoken, sung or memorised. They learned to recognise something familiar before they learned to decode something new.

As their education progressed, pupils had to learn how to read books out loud. Richards shows how the choices early modern printers made in typesetting and punctuating books helped readers to speak them. Early modern educators, like their modern counterparts, had to deal with the peculiar challenges posed by English: confusing homonyms, plentiful loan words, and irrational spelling conventions. Edmund Coote helped readers of The English Schoole-Maister (1596) navigate difficult vocabulary by printing a list of tricky words at the end of the book. Loan words from Latin and Greek appeared in Roman type, French words were rendered in italics, and words of English origin in blackletter.

Modern English is punctuated to help readers understand the grammatical structure of a sentence. In the 16th century, this way of using marks was in its infancy. In most cases, texts were ‘pointed’ to help the reader speak the sentence with the right rhythm. A comma indicated a short pause, a colon cued a slightly longer pause, and the period a full stop. Printers understood the necessity of good pointing, and would revise editions to improve the rhythm. Writers, too, knew that good writing could be killed by poor delivery. Richards quotes a poem by the Elizabethan wit John Harington, complaining that someone had read his epigram with ‘point so perverse’ that in the end it seemed ‘neither witty nor a verse’.

The formatting choices made by authors and printers are suggestive, but remain open to interpretation. In reconstructing the soundscape of English grammar schools, however, Richards shows conclusively the centrality of the voice to Renaissance education. After first rehearsing the basics of Latin grammar with sayings, dialogues, and orations on set themes, boys dived into more challenging classical literature. Teachers read books aloud, even when their pupils could afford their own copies and knew how to read them. They gave boys dictation and questioned them orally on their understanding of the material. School plays offered an opportunity to practise delivery at the same time. Many of these activities still take place in schoolrooms today. Where Renaissance education stands out is in the importance it gave to rhetoric, and in the importance rhetoric gave to delivery.

The matter of delivery, Richards notes, ‘is seen as frivolous and foolish’ by historians of rhetoric, and has been given short shrift. But early modern educators had boys practise figures of speech, many of which – like irony – depended on a particular intonation. One of the rhetorical exercises the Renaissance inherited from the ancient curriculum required pupils to compose and deliver a speech in the voice of an object, an animal or a famous person. Many of these monologues were highly emotional laments written for legendary women such as Niobe, Hecuba or Medea. (Hamlet’s dismissive remark about an actor – ‘What’s Hecuba to him?’ – was Shakespeare’s wink at the histrionics of the Renaissance classroom.) Scholars have debated whether this practice taught boys to empathise with women or simply to speak for them. Richards reminds us, however, that elite women were sometimes tutored in the same way at home. Some of them, like Elizabeth Cary and Mary Sidney, wrote closet dramas that allowed women themselves to perform women’s passions.

Noble women like Sidney, Cary and indeed Elizabeth I were tutored in modern languages as well as ancient ones. This was despite common prejudices against women’s education and female speech more generally. An anecdote about Bathsua Makin, a noted 17th-century polyglot, says she was presented at the court of James I because of her ability to ‘speak and write pure Latin, Greek and Hebrew’. ‘But can she spin?’ the king asked. John Gallagher relates this story and many like it in Learning Languages in Early Modern England, in which he assembles a rich body of documentary evidence to illustrate the methods and social importance of instruction in vernacular languages. While Richards describes the oral elements of Latin education and its consequences for English books, Gallagher provides the other voices: London-based teachers of French boasting of their perfect accents to attract students, well-off English travellers to the Continent who knew to avoid their countrymen if they wanted to learn Italian properly, and Huguenot refugees learning English language and culture from phrasebooks.

Gallagher’s​ main point is simple but powerful: ‘early modern England was multilingual.’ Medieval England was too, in practical terms, but between 1480 and 1715, print made language-learning books increasingly available. Gallagher counts at least 294 editions of conversational manuals for teaching a modern European language printed during this period – and this leaves out grammars and dictionaries, as well as books on non-European languages. Language manuals were practical tools, and some of them were printed cheaply and left unbound, which suggests that the number of available resources was even higher.

Why did people choose to learn modern languages? The reasons varied with the language. French was prestigious and useful for diplomacy. Claude Mauger, Restoration England’s most prominent French teacher, claimed that he kept his language up-to-date through daily contact with French courtiers, ambassadors and various members of the nobility. He thus managed to boast at once of his pedagogical credentials and his social connections. Italian was a lingua franca for commerce across the Mediterranean, and later appealed to lovers of opera. In a perfect example of Restoration multilingualism, Giacomo Rossi published a guide to learning Italian in London, and wrote it in French because he assumed his local readers would already know that language; he went on to write libretti for Handel, another immigrant.

The 17th-century Dutch manual Anglo-Belgica was written with merchants in mind, and included sample business letters and conversations about trade. Spanish was a trickier choice: potentially suspicious in the wake of the Armada, but briefly in vogue three decades later, when a marriage between the future Charles I and the Infanta María of Spain was a possibility. Language learning wasn’t only an accomplishment for the well-off. Servants who could converse in foreign languages were more employable by elite families. Gallagher’s more general argument is that the English were interested in learning foreign languages because English was still a marginal tongue. The cost of entry to international trade, politics and culture was some time spent with language primers.

The form of these books had much in common with the texts used to teach Latin. Like current language manuals, they began with pronunciation and moved on to dialogues. Authors encouraged their readers to practise sounding out the language and to try speaking it as soon as they could. Some tried to convey the proper pronunciation through phonetic renderings and by putting special marks under silent letters, others did so through descriptions of the way the mouth ought to move. Some just told their readers to find a native speaker. The best advice came from G. de la Mothe, author of The French Alphabet, who advised his readers to find a French church (as one could in London), buy a French Bible and attend services every day. Working on a similar principle to Latin primers, conversation manuals for modern languages included ‘prayers, psalms, and passages from the Bible’. Modern languages were not taught with the rod, but opportunities for humiliation still existed. Manuals advised readers to learn the ‘best’ dialect of Italian, or told cautionary stories about people who were laughed at in Spain for their ‘bad accent, worse pronunciation and worst phrase’.

Conversational manuals were, in Gallagher’s words, ‘speaking books’, intended to give learners the tools to navigate a variety of social events, rituals and practical quandaries. They explained how to be polite to social equals and, often, how to be rude to inferiors: John Minsheu’s Spanish Grammar taught an Englishman how to employ the informal ‘tu’ and to call his servant a majadéro or ‘blockhead’. Class was not the only prejudice reinforced by these books. In Sex Linguarum, a polyglot manual from the Continent, readers could find lumped together the Latin for ‘heathen’, ‘a Turk’, ‘Saracens’, ‘a heretic’ and ‘a sodomite’; translations into five modern tongues were also supplied. In The French Garden, a manual written specifically for women, Peter Erondell offered vocabulary for discussing childcare with the nurse, and asking men for help with simple business transactions. Like their Latin analogues in medieval and Renaissance schoolbooks, the sample dialogues in modern language manuals did not shy away from conflict. William Stepney’s Spanish Schoole-master includes a drinking party in which men accuse one another of not imbibing enough. A similar scene in a Latin colloquy written in England six centuries earlier features inebriated monks bullying each other. It seems that textbooks have always recognised the importance of drama and alcohol for language learning.

Together, Richards and Gallagher have given us a picture of an early modern England made louder and more boisterous by print, not silenced by it. Printed books made foreign languages more accessible, even to those without a private teacher or the funds to travel. Overseas trade and global politics resulted in greater interest in foreign tongues, with books on Arabic, Malay and Narragansett as well as the Continental standards. Immigrants take their place here as teachers, authors of foreign-language manuals, and students of English in their own right. This is a story of England finding its many voices.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences