Why are we so obsessed with the Tudors? They swagger and romp across our television screens and not a publishing season passes without a pile of hefty new volumes landing on the history table in the bookshops. This autumn brings us The Queen's Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Queen Elizabeth I by John Cooper, Winter King: the Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn and Mary Boleyn: "the Great and Infamous Whore" by Alison Weir. Two of these three make their pitches in their titles: the spymaster applying the thumbscrews in the age of Queen Elizabeth and the sex life of Henry VIII are two staples of the genre. One does, however, hear the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped when the prolific Weir has to resort to Anne Boleyn's sister for her latest true-life Tudor bonkbuster.
Penn has a harder task. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are the two most glamorous and interesting monarchs in English history. Our obsession is built on their charismatic personalities and momentous reigns - the break from Rome, the Spanish Armada and all that. Henry VII, the first of the Tudors, is far less known, far less rewarding to the popular imagination. Yet it was he who brought the Wars of the Roses to an end when he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Penn's is the one book in this batch that will tell you significant things that you did not know.
Henry VII established the new dynasty and laid the foundations for the great cultural, political, administrative and social advances of the 16th century, not least through his patronage of educational institutions. He created the conditions that made possible John Colet's foundation of St Paul's School in 1509, the final year of his reign. A direct line of descent runs from Colet's innovative approach to the teaching of the classics to the humanist scholars who shaped the distinctively English version of the Reformation and on to the mid-Tudor grammar schools that shaped the minds of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
We are right to be obsessed with the Tudors, but many popular biographical treatments unintentionally show that we are interested for the wrong reasons. Henry VIII's bed-hopping and Walsingham's network of informers do not take us to the respects in which the 16th century was the dawn of the modern world.
According to Francis Bacon, in the aphorisms that make up his Novum Organum (1620), "It is gratifying to note the force, the capacity and the consequences of inventions, among which none are more prominent than those three which were unknown to antiquity: printing, gunpowder and the compass." These three inventions, Bacon says, have "changed the face and state of the whole world".
Almost every period in history has at some time been called transitional. The old and the new, the inherited and the innovative, the weight of the past and the lure of the future are held always in balance. But as far as the cultural history of England is concerned, no century better deserves the title "age of transition" than the 16th. Above all, that is because this was the age in which the printing press became central to western culture.
Gunpowder made life more difficult for soldiers, while the compass made it easier for travellers. Both had been around for some time, though they were greatly improved in the 16th century. It was printing, which burgeoned for the first time in the Tudor age, that changed life at every level of the culture. You did not have to be literate to feel the effects: you could not avoid the results of the Reformation, which would not have been possible without printing. There is much to be said for Thomas Carlyle's 19th-century reformulation of Bacon's trinity of innovations: "The three great elements of modern civilisation: gunpowder, printing and the Protestant religion."
Printing, we might say, was the gunpowder of the Protestant religion, the ordnance of the pamphlet wars, by means of which the Reformation and Puritan revolutions were fought. As gunpowder changed military life, so printing changed literary life. The solitary scribe of medieval times was the clerkly equivalent of the solo, chivalric warrior, while the modern author, like the gunner, could only work as part of a team in which different tasks were portioned out to different workers - loading, lighting, firing; providing the manuscript and setting it up in print, running it off, proofreading it, gathering its leaves, pricing and selling it. The analogy is inexact: a notable difference is that gun teams were all male, whereas many of the printers were women - widows or daughters who took over their husband's or father's business. Women contributed substantially to 16th-century literary life as patrons, readers and printers, if only very marginally as published writers.
The most widely disseminated Middle English writings survive in a few hundred manuscripts, each of them individually copied in a highly labour-intensive manner. Any Tudor work that appeared in printed form would have immediately become available in an edition of between 1,000 and 1,500 copies.
Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593) went through nine editions in ten years. This means that somewhere in excess of 11,000 copies of
the poem were disseminated within a decade. Imagine the time and cost of producing 11,000 handwritten copies of, for example, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. With religious literature, the figures need multiplying many times over. By the end of the 16th century, printed Bibles and devotional works in the vernacular would have been present in a high proportion of households; at the beginning of the century, such books barely existed.
A mass-produced printed book is organised very differently from a manuscript. Title pages, dedications, contents tables, indexes, running heads, footnotes and illustrations all affect the way in which we read. The modes of classification that were stabilised by printing-house convention paved the way for the encyclopaedic mentality of the Enlightenment.
Engravings and woodcuts, in place of hand-drawn illustrations, made possible the production of various kinds of textbook. The historian of iconography Frances Yates has suggested that the advent of printing transformed the art of memory. She describes a moment in Victor Hugo's novel Notre Dame de Paris, in which a medieval scholar, long used to working from manuscripts, studies his first book. He then looks out at the great, Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame and pronounces its fate: "this" - the book - will kill "that", the sermon in stone. Yates writes:
The parable which Hugo develops out of
the comparison of the building, crowded with images, with the arrival in his library
of a printed book might be applied to the effect on the invisible cathedrals of memory of the past of the spread of printing.
The printed book will make such huge, built-up memories, crowded with images, unnecessary. It will do away with habits of immemorial antiquity, whereby a "thing"
is immediately invested with an image and stored in the places of memory.
The historian Elizabeth Eisenstein proceeds from this point to suggest that "printing fostered a movement 'from image culture to word culture', a movement which was more compatible with Protestant bibliolatry and pamphleteering". In Protestant culture, the archetype of the spiritual conscience was the solitary individual perusing and meditating upon a text, whereas in Catholicism, it was the encounter between people and priest.
This is not to suggest that print was a vehicle for Protestant ideology alone. The great French thinker Michel de Montaigne was a good Catholic but he was never more himself than when sitting alone in his library. In the third chapter of the third book of his Essays, he argued that "society", or human "commerce", consists of three kinds of relationship - friendship, sexual company and, more constant and comforting than either of these, the companionship of books.
For Montaigne, books are, as it were, both the gunpowder and the compass: "the best munition I have found in this human peregrination". Enough of Tudor sexual commerce; we need more books about the 16th century as the first great age of the book.
Jonathan Bate is Provost of Worcester College, Oxford