Orality, Literacy, Popular Culture: An Eighteenth-Century Case Study

Abstract

Taking two antiquarian texts as its central focus—Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares: Antiquities of the Common People (1725) and the revised and extended version compiled by John Brand as Observations on Popular Antiquities (1777)—this paper explores how orality, literacy, and popular culture were understood and represented by the literate and educated during the eighteenth century in order to shed light on the heritage of certain key terms that have become common in the modern critical lexicon. It examines the ways in which Anglican hostility towards the Catholic Church, anxiety about public order, and doubts about the state of the national character shaped attitudes toward traditional beliefs and oral practices. This complex scenario did not produce a clear opposition between the oral and the literate or between the popular and the elite, but instead created a series of conceptual uncertainties, at the heart of which was a different kind of question: who or what constitutes “the people,” and what about “the public”?

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