Popular Literature in the Renaissance

Course Description

What did Shakespeare’s neighbour read? Not what you read in your average Shakespeare course! The 26,000+ texts printed in England from the inception of print to 1640 are now mostly unknown to us. London’s streets and book stalls offered a rich and diverse print culture, from ballads to chronicles, from proclamations to prose fiction, from how-to books to devotional literature. We will learn about steady sellers, best sellers, literacy, popular culture, the economics of print, the materiality of texts, urban culture, book distribution, gender and print, genre, shifting tastes, and the formation of the literary canon. You will have the opportunity to work with rare books in Special Collections, write about little-known texts for your assignments, and (in some cases) publish your critical introductions and editions on The Map of Early Modern London.

Calendar Description

Introduces students to a cross section of popular genres, authors, and publication forms in Renaissance England, from single-sheet ballads to massive chronicle histories, from proclamations to prose fiction, from how-to books to devotional literature. Asks what makes a text “popular” and what criteria go into the formation of the canon. Students will work with rare books in Special Collections, digital and print surrogates, and scholarly research tools.

Tentative Text List

Selections from Renaissance “big books”

Note that we will look at these books during our week in Special Collections.

  • Holinshed’s Chronicles
  • John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (we have the 1610 edition)
  • William Lambarde’s The Perambulation of Kent (we have the 2nd, complete edition)
  • John Stow’s Annales
  • John Stow’s Survey of London (all four editions, three of which we own)
  • The Geneva Bible (we have two 1599 editions in our library and there are others in the Legislative Library)
  • The 1611 Bible


Selection of ballads from the English Broadside Ballad Archive (with musical settings and recordings).

Prose fiction

Deloney’s Jack of Newbury. Note that this volume is the only book you need to buy for the course. All other materials will be provided by various means.

Other Genres

  • Selections from best sellers, steady sellers, and diverse genres: devotional books, sermons, how-to books, mothers’ legacies, shrew texts, scaffold literature, almanacs, ready reckoners, merchants’ manuals, mortality bills, jest books, newsbooks, and lexicons.
  • Selection of poems, pamphlets, crime literature, and pageant books from John Taylor the Water Poet, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton, Isabella Whitney, and others.


Stationers’ Assignment

Links to Course Pages