Ignorance as a Productive Force in Complex Storyworlds
The Case of Pilgrim’s Progress
Keywords:eighteenth-century, seventeenth-century, history of reading, literature, history
This article aims to show how attention to the history of ignorance can bring to light salient qualities of key texts from the past, and in doing so illuminate not just the history of the book and the history of reading. The eighteenth-century saw a substantial increase in availability of printed material, but most full-length printed books were beyond the budget of the poorest. This market was met by chapbook abridgements of the most popular texts, some of which were considered by the higher ranks to be proper reading for the poor (religious classics) and some which were more controversial (fiction). However, readers on each side of this divide were often ignorant not only of how the other side was reading specific texts, but of the fact that they were not in fact reading the same text at all, since the poor were much more likely to rely on abridgements. I compare two abridgements of a key eighteenth-century religious text, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and show how both converge on a more forward looking narrative technique than the original and on a more level representation of social ranks than the original. An “approved” text for the poor, therefore, by means of ignorance, had the potential to encourage a non-approved attitude towards aesthetic innovation and social rank.
This article is part of a special issue entitled “Histories of Ignorance,” edited by Lukas M. Verburgt and Peter Burke.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.