From Piety to Reflection: The Purpose of Primers in Late Tudor England

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Stokes, William
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History Department, University of the South , History Department, University of the South, Senior Honors Theses 2016 , Primers , 16th century England , Reading in 16th Century England , Book of Hours , English church philosophy
The story of the 16th century was one of major changes for the English nation. On a national level, English government changed and yielded a more centralized and controlling state. On a cultural level, English society began to change as more and more people began to read and have the economic ability to buy reading material produced by printing presses. On a religious level, the English church, through many twists and turns, transformed from a Medieval Catholic institution with loyalty to Rome to a Protestant entity responsible to its monarch. But what did these changes mean for the English men and women who populated the towns and villages in this still predominantly agricultural society? It is hard to answer this question because this segment of the population left few written records. This thesis will consider a rare window into the lives of the insignificant laity by examining the change in primers, or Books of Hours. While it is true that not all of the English population could read these books, they were still produced on a mass scale to appeal to a broad audience. The first segment of this paper shall look at a group of primers produced in the reign of Mary Tudor. This section will show that while Mary’s regime sought to re­establish Roman Catholicism in England, the religion actually practiced through the use of these primers was not Medieval in nature nor was it like the Catholicism practiced on the continent in the 1550’s. The second segment of this paper will proceed to chart the disappearance of the primer tradition in Elizabeth’s reign. By the 1570’s English religion had changed to the point that the purpose and method of prayer had completely transformed. By examining Richard Daye’s A Booke of Christian Prayers and comparing it with the primer produced during Elizabeth’s first year as queen, it will be evident that the English church had completely changed and the English people had more or less accepted this.