Tessa Watt's Cheap Print and Popular Piety fires yet another shot in the ongoing battle between those who see some sort of divide between popular and elite culture in early modern England and those who do not. What makes Watt's study of particular interest is her in depth examination of one aspect of early modern culture: cheap print. She argues that the notion of `cheap print' is only useful as an interpretive tool if it is taken at face value, i.e. printed material that was inexpensive to produce and thus inexpensive to buy. It is not a valid interpretive tool if it is thought to be aimed at a distinct social group. Watt falls on the irenic side of this debate, not seeing a sharp divide between elite and popular culture. This, of course, puts her on the opposite side of Keith Wrightson and David Levine's `Terling Thesis', and Wrightson becomes Watt's favorite whipping boy throughout her work (see p. 72 or 126, for example). She prefers to see culture as a "mosaic made up of changing and often contradictory fragments" (3), which is surely correct to a certain degree. She constructs this definition in opposition to Peter Burke's Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, and then proceeds to largely come to the same conclusions as Burke.
Watt argues that early modern English culture is better described as overlapping rather than competitive for several reasons. Traveling minstrels and chapbook salesmen crisscrossed the country with their songs, tales, and wares, blurring the traditional divisions between metropolis (London) and country (everywhere else). (22 & 28) Thus culture was not like a spoke, radiating out from London to the rest of the country, but an interconnected web, with influences running both directions. In a similar vein, Watt seeks to emphasize that a sharp distinction cannot be drawn between oral and printed culture. Not only did oral culture seep into print and vice versa, but the printed ballads and broadsheets were not just meant to be read, whether individually or corporately. (258) They were also to be sung or pasted onto the walls of homes and public places. (12 & 149) Thus even the illiterate would have often had contact with texts, whether in church, the ale-house, or the walls of their neighbors. (220) Lastly, and where Watt comes into self-proclaimed sharp conflict with other scholars such as Wrightson and Patrick Collinson, is the relationship between Protestantism and the printed word. She sees neither Protestantism nor print as revolutionary forces, but as "inseparable from and constantly modified by the cultural contexts in which they were found." (325) In other words, these were not forces for polarization, but harnessed towards enforcing societal norms. Both religion and the printed word had a place in the world of popular songs and alehouses. (326)
Watt's turgid prose wearies the reader nearly as much as the enormous amount of woman-hours that went into Cheap Print and Popular Piety must have wearied the researcher. Her trolling through the STC and the Stationers' Register must have consumed an enormous amount of time, and her familiarity with the holdings of a number of major archives speaks to a significant amount of research (see pp. 225 & 274, for example). Her ability to move beyond texts as simply literary objects is also highly imaginative, and she has done a remarkable job of recovering what she calls the "basic mental décor" of early modern print-consumers. For a historian to move beyond just prose documents and delve into music, poetry, ballads, wall-paintings and other decorative arts is commendable.