Chapbooks are mostly works of fiction, which gained a relatively high level of popularity in Europe from the 16th century up until the end of the 19th century. They chiefly comprised early medieval or classical originals, such as knightly epics, romance adventures and comedy tales. Chapbooks were published in bound, cheap editions – an early modern form of the paperback. Chapbooks started being translated and published in Sweden at the start of the 17th century. Today they are almost completely forgotten and have gradually become a focus for research.
Rikard Wingård has examined the early Swedish Volksbücher and their readers, who were mostly found in the upper social strata, but also among the lower classes and the poor.
Volksbücher were sparking criticism from the church and polite society as early as the 16th century. Rikard Wingård shows how growing criticism was based on a Christian outlook on life in terms of a literate and historical consciousness, enhancing a linear time apprehension of time, resulting in aestethic preferences of which could not be satisfied by the Volksbücher.
“This approach is called the expansive type of reading and it has come to be the dominant form in the western world since the Renaissance. This type of reading endeavours to achieve a meaningful entirety in the text being read, something that at best is not attained until the end of the story.”
In contrast to the expansive type of reading, many of the Volksbücher instead appear to be written to attract a different kind of reader. Meaningfulness is established right at the start of the reading process rather than at the end. This form is named the assimilative type of reading and is based on an existential view that exists in oral and traditional cultures, where time is often perceived as cyclical and repeatable.
Volksbücher contain several different elements that support the goals of the assimilative type of reading and counteract those of the expansive type of reading. For example, the titles of Volksbücher are often extremely long and detailed, outlining the key events in the story. Sometimes there are summaries of the stories before the main text begins.
“The idea of having long titles and summaries that reveal the whole tale in advance seems alien to us, but they must have appealed in some way to the reader of the time,” says Rikard Wingård.
Criticism of Volksbücher and their popularity can be explained with reference to these types of reading. The increasingly dominant position of Christianity and literacy in society led to the disappearance of assimilative reading, and consequently Volksbücher as well. This is one of Rikard Wingård’s conclusions.
“Viewed from a broader perspective, the thesis opens the door for new approaches to viewing the mentality, reception and reading of the early modern period. It improves our understanding of a forgotten form of literature and encourages us to reflect on the origins of modern reading patterns.”