Sleeping beauty and Long Meg: female figures in 18th century chapbooks

This post is written by and posted on behalf of Irina Ticleanu, who undertook an internship in the Foyle Special Collections Library, as part of her MA History course at King’s College London. The internship ran from January to April 2023.

The focus of Irina’s research is the fine collection of 18th century chapbooks, or ‘penny histories’ held in the Foyle Special Collections Library

Irina gave a talk on her work at Shoe Lane Library in London on Friday 19 May 2023; and her research is available to view as an online exhibition.

To the Reader…
If you desire to read of the Cares and Troubles of Kings, the Battles of martial Champions, courtly Tournaments, and Combats of Princes, the Travels of Knight Adventurers, the Sorrows of distressed Ladies, strange Births, and savage Educations, of Friends long lost, and their joyful Meeting again, of Charms and Enchantments, of the Rewards of Traitors and Treasons, of long Captivities and Imprisonments – here they are. And so, gentle Reader, wishing thee much Pleasure in the Perusal, I take my Leave.

Title page of book Long Meg showing woodcut female figureFrom the time of the ancients to the dawn of modern technology, humanity has been drawn by the allure of fables, myths, and legends. Stories that have survived through the epochs of time, such as the legends of King Arthur and his gallant knights and the timeless tale of Cinderella, have captured our imaginations and taken us on inspirational journeys of wonder. Just like the fantastical romances we find at our local bookstore today, chapbooks offered 18th century readers an escape and transported them to these different worlds.

Poignantly, the spaces of time are bridged between the modern reader to those of the past through the endurance of fables, as chapbooks offer a link between our world and that of the 18th century. So, are you ready to take a leap back in time with me?

London is and was a metropolis of cultural and artistic expression, a city rich in history and a place that served as the epicentre of social influence and intrigue. Three hundred years ago, on the cobblestones of Fleet Street, Shoe Lane and Bow-churchyard, where you may have passed, street vendors were selling the latest books, pamphlets, newspapers, ballads and penny histories.

The expansion of the printing trade towards the end of the 18th century and the increase in levels of literacy encouraged the production and distribution of popular culture throughout Britain. From the hubbub of London to quiet provincial villages, England enjoyed chivalric romances, bawdy jokes, and accounts of executions and prophecies, all found within the genre of the chapbook.

What are chapbooks?

My internship project centres around the collection of chapbooks housed in the Foyle Special Collections Library at King’s College London, all of which were printed during the 18th century. As someone who is newly interested in print history, I was unsure on what to expect when I first flicked through a chapbook, yet almost immediately, I was enraptured by the folktales within. Although chapbooks are not associated with literary merit, they offer insight into popular culture.

Woodcut showing an image of two women from Mother Bunch storyMy research examines the depiction of women in chapbooks, such as Long Meg of Westminster, Mother Bunch, the Seven wise mistresses and many others. The exploration of women in these printed materials aims to gain an understanding of how the female figure was viewed and treated during the 18th century.

Chapbooks are small books (measuring about 6 x 4 inches), or pamphlets created from inexpensive and low-quality paper that often has a noticeable texture. The low production costs often see the ink bleed through to the next page. Chapbooks were usually printed on a single sheet of paper, folded into either 8, 12, 16 or 24 pages. Popular between the 16th and 19th centuries, folk tales, ballads, religious tracts, and other forms of entertainment were bound together to make a chapbook or, a penny history.

These stories were sometimes also accompanied by woodcut illustrations which were used as a visual aid for some readers. Many of these woodcuts, however, were either stolen or re-used by printers, so they were simply cut out to decorate ‘the walls of alehouses and homes of the lower orders’ because the images usually did not match the text.

Whilst chapbooks are not very well known in a modern context, they show the printing trade responding to the demands of a variety of readers. I would argue that popular culture became synonymous with chapbooks, as the increased number of purchases made in the 18th and 19th centuries reflects the interests of the masses. Although considered juvenile texts, their rise in popularity offers a window into what content people of the 18th century enjoyed. Indeed, due to the chapbooks being so cheaply produced, they became widely circulated amongst the working class and thus provided a space of dissemination of literature that was not limited to the educated or to the upper classes.

Who printed and sold chapbooks?

Chapmen, pedlars, and hawkers were the main distributors of chapbooks. Lori Newcomb claimed that chapmen played a crucial role in the distribution of chapbooks ‘through social and geographic space.’ Chapmen served as a gateway for readers to connect with each other through different stories, despite social class and gender. Chapmen would travel through ‘geographic space’ by physically going to rural areas to sell chapbooks at the fairs, while in London, they could be found at street corners or delivering these short stories to children from upper class families, therefore travelling through ‘social space’ as well.

Chapbook readership

Woodcut of a woman in a bed chamberThe late 18th and 19th centuries were defined by rigid boundaries, either between social classes or between genders. Each member of society was bound by a certain etiquette or by social norms, not excluding their literary consumption. Chapbooks were originally produced for either children or for the working-class, and their growth in popularity was a result of an increase in literacy rates among the latter.

Meanwhile, the aristocrats and bourgeoisie had access to more advanced pieces of literature. It was interesting to have a look at some 19th century ‘instructions’ for young ladies within the Rare Books Collection at King’s, whereby they warn against the consumption of ‘vain’ romances and instruct on the reading of religious or moral tracts. Yet the governess, Elizabeth Appleton provides an example of a young lady who pretends to have a pain in order to retire to her room and ‘clandestinely peruse a book.’ Appleton likens this young lady’s actions to a man who steals a leg of mutton. Whilst it was considered unlikely for upper class women to read lowbrow vulgar ballads and stories, it is possible that these women secretly defied social norms by reading illicit chapbooks.

Chapbooks offered a platform for female representation in popular culture. In some instances, women were portrayed as heroines. The tale of one such heroine, Long Meg of Westminster, defies conventional roles that society has thrust upon her; she is strong, fearless and fights for the rights of others. Long Meg’s manly demeanour transgresses the rigid social sphere in which she was put. One story speaks of her victory against the Frenchmen in Bologne:

King Henry passing the seas took Bologne; hereupon the Dauphin with a great number of men surprised and retook it. Meg being a Laundress in the town, raised the best of the women, and with a halberd in her hand, came to the walls, on which some of the French had entered, and threw scalding water and stones at them, that she often obliged them to quit the town before the soldiers were up in arms…

The report of this deed being come to the ears of the King, he allowed her for life, eight pence a day.

Although Long Meg represented a new image of the female figure, her tales of triumphs, as Lori Newcomb argues were still ‘categorised … as jest, humorous fiction, and riddles.’ Seen in a comedic light by the 18th century readers, women in such cases were often overlooked or not taken seriously. Long Meg, too, cannot fully escape society’s chains, as seen by her submission to her husband:

After the wars in France “Meg came to Westminster, and married a soldier, who hearing of her exploits, took her to a room, and making her strip to her petticoat, took one staff and gave her another”…”as he had heard talk of her manhood, he was determined to try her” “But Meg held down her head, whereupon he gave her three or four blows, and she in submission fell down on her knees, desiring him to pardon her…therefore use me as you please”

As a modern reader, therefore, I question whether the intention behind her creation was to empower or to mock a woman’s private and intimate sphere. Indeed, whilst Long Meg was a positive development for the image of the female body, the majority of the stories found in chapbooks perpetuated negative stereotypes. The chapbooks rendition of Sleeping Beauty in the wood is an example of how 18th century printers and writers would confine the female figure into two separate identities – the ‘Virgin’ and the ‘Strumpet’. The princess is portrayed as the epitome of ‘damsel in distress,’ cursed by two evil women – the ogress and the wicked fairy. Despite their ‘lovely’ appearance, these two women were both deceptive and manipulative in their actions, whilst the princess remains a passive character within the entirety of the tale. Enter the prince, clothed in gallantry and chivalry; he is depicted as the embodiment of masculinity as he rescues the princess with a kiss. Whilst this story may appear romantic, it perpetuates a binary portrayal of women that was a common theme in throughout many chapbooks of the time and reflects the patriarchal society in which they were produced.

Woodcut of Sarah MillwoodFor centuries, women’s voices have been marginalised, hidden, or ridiculed. Growing up in a generation where the fight for gender equality is still ongoing, I feel it is important to acknowledge those silenced voices of the past, and to understand the struggles they faced, both in society and within literature. This research seeks to understand how women from the working class to the upper class were oppressed and overlooked, and to demonstrate how society has evolved in response to these injustices. A more in-depth account of this study will be found soon on the online exhibition, and at the Shoe Lane Library where I will be giving a talk on female figures in 18th century chapbooks.

Select bibliography

Primary Sources:
The history of Valentine and Orson. London: printed and sold in London, 1795? [Rare books collection PR2065.V3 FAM]
The life and death of Long Meg of Westminster. London: printed and sold in London, 1760?, [Rare books collection PR2065.G8 TRA]
Secondary Sources:
Katherine Barber Fromm. Images of women in eighteenth century English chapbooks, from banal bickering to fragile females. Iowa State University, 2000
Patricia Fumerton. ‘Not home: alehouses, ballads, and the vagrant husband in early modern England, Journal of medieval and early modern studies, 32, Duke University Press, 2002
Lori Newcomb, ‘What is a chapbook?’ in M Dimmock & A Hadfield (eds), Literature and popular culture in early modern England. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2009
Susan Pederson, ‘Hannah More meets Simple Simon: tracts, chapbooks, and popular culture in late eighteenth-century England, Journal of British Studies, 25, no. 1, 1986
Ruth Richardson, ‘Chapbooks’. [], accessed 15/03/2023

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1 Comment

  1. This blog is a treasure trove of valuable information! I love how well-researched and insightful the content is. It’s clear that the author has a deep understanding of the topic and has put a lot of effort into presenting it in an engaging manner. Keep up the great work!

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