Dr Willie is Reader in Early Modern Literary Studies at Liverpool John Moores University and author of Staging the Revolution: Drama, Reinvention and History, 1647–72 (Manchester University Press, 2015). Her recent work, part of an AHRC funded international research network, considers soundscapes, and the art of hearing, in the early modern world.
In The Doctrine of the Sabbath (1595), Nicholas Bownde extols the virtues of psalm-singing and other godly activities. Such engagement with the soundcape is juxtaposed with the singing of ballads. Bownde laments that some individuals will not sing psalms, but will store up ballads and eagerly await the possibility of learning them. These iniquities are further compounded because, often, neither the owner of the ballad nor anyone in their household can read.
Whether or not these observations are made from empirical observations or are made for rhetorical effect, they shed light upon the ways in which early modern readers engaged with the material text and the extent to which being unable to read served as a barrier to the printed word. Tunes become a means to commit text to memory and to allow future utterances by both readers and non-readers. It demonstrates one of the ways in which people who could not decipher words could use their ears to read. While memory enabled people to have access to reading, meditation allowed them to reflect, digest and absorb the text. For Bownde, reading scripture without understanding was fruitless; hearing, reading, and conferring upon scripture increased knowledge while psalm-singing and prayer stirred the affections. This paper seeks to address the relationship between reading, memory and books to show how reading aloud was perceived to be an enabler of cognition.