Bibles and theological books
The inventory of William Corbett’s bookshop reflects the reading habits of the seventeenth-century literate public. These books are overwhelmingly religious in content – rather than sitting down with a new work of history or literature or the latest play, for the most part, the reading public were grappling with theology. Find out more about Bibles, prayer books and other theological works Corbett stocked below, or use the links on the right to look at non-religious works.
There are more than 20 Bibles listed in Corbett’s bookshop, in various shapes, sizes and versions. The most expensive book in the shop is a folio edition of the Great Bible, valued at 14 shillings. There are ‘small bybles’ too, as well as Greek and Latin editions.
A copy of the Bible would be a treasured possession, often the only book a family owned, and blank pages at the front or back would be used as a family record. The Bible pictured above, a copy of the Geneva translation, has been used by to record the births of children between 1616 and 1629 (click to see larger images).
Prayer books and psalms
Corbett stocked official texts appointed by the Church of England – multiple copies of the Book of Common Prayer and a copy of the Homilies (a book of sermons).
The inventory also mentions a large number of ‘primers’. The word primer originally referred to a prayer book, but in the sixteenth century these developed into books used for teaching children to read, containing the alphabet, but also texts such as the Lord’s Prayer, Creeds and Catechisms – revealing the extent to which education and religion remained tied together in this period.
In addition there are psalm books like the one pictured. Psalms were an important way of conveying Protestant ideas at a time when only around 30% of adult men and 10% of women could read fluently.
Long theological works
By the 1630s there were almost 150,000 new ‘long theological books’ published each year: these included transcripts of sermons, longer commentaries on Biblical texts, and books advising people on Christian life and encouraging them in private devotions.
Many of these books in Corbett’s bookshop are concerned with negotiating the practices of the church following the Protestant Reformation. One is a sermon given by John Buckeridge, Bishop of Rochester 'concerning Kneeling at the Communion'. The practice of kneeling during communion was controversial in the post-reformation period, because the act of kneeling could be interpreted as implying that the bread and wine had become the body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation), a Catholic belief denounced by Protestant reformers. Another book in the bookshop is John Sprint’s Cassander Anglicanus, 'shewing the necessity of conformitie to the prescribed ceremonies of our church', which encouraged ministers to conform to the teachings of the Church of England, even though this included wearing a surplice and kneeling at communion.
Several devotional texts started out as Catholic works, which were edited for Protestant readers, removing mentions of Purgatory and the Virgin Mary. Two such books were Robert Parson’s Christian Directory, and The Sinner’s Guide by Luis de Granada. It seems likely that the editions stocked by Corbett were the Protestant versions.
Sources and Further Reading
‘primer, n.1’, OED Online
David Cressy (1977) ‘Levels of Illiteracy in England, 1530-1730’, The Historical Journal, 20: 1-23.
Kari Konkola and Diarmaid MacCulloch (2003) ‘People of the Book: Success in the English Reformation’, History Today, 53 (10), 23-29.
The photographs on this page are all books from St Nicholas Cathedral Library held in Newcastle University Special Collections. The St Nicholas Library was the first public library in Newcastle, dating back to the late 16th century. Find out more here.