Words in a Nutshell

Miniaturizing Texts in Early Modern England


  • Lucy Razzall Christ's College, University of Cambridge




early modern, England, nutshell, metaphor, Iliad, Bible, print culture


After Philemon Holland’s influential English translation of Pliny’s Natural History was first published in 1601, the Iliad-in-a-nutshell mentioned by Pliny became a commonplace motif of virtuosic compression in early modern England. Engaging with the popularity of this image, this article will explore its implications in early modern print culture. Although the frequently-appearing Iliad-in-a-nutshell might seem but a convenient rhetorical flourish, this article proposes that closer attention to it in the context of the small or miniature might help us to consider broader questions about the intertwining of physical and literary scale in early modern printed books as both texts and material objects. It argues that the miniature book, and more general desires to condense large works such as the Bible into smaller volumes, are not merely virtuosic or frivolous, but a manifestation of a wider anxiety about the relationship between physical size and literary weightiness.

Author Biography

Lucy Razzall, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Bye-Fellow and Director of Studies in English, Christ's College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.


Primary sources

Gosson, Stephen. 1579. The School of Abuse, Conteining a plesaunt invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Iesters, and such like Caterpillars of a Commonwelth. London: Thomas Woodcocke.

Holland, Philemon. 1634. The historie of the world: commonly called, The naturall historie of C. Plinus Secundus. London: Adam Islip.

Lye, Thomas. 1673. Reading and Spelling English made Easie. London: A. Maxwell for Thomas Parkhurst.

Reynolds, Edward. 1638. Meditations on the holy sacrament of the Lords last Supper. London: Felix Kyngston.

Shakespeare, William. 1623. Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount.

Stow, John. 1580. The chronicles of England from Brute vnto this present yeare of Christ. London: Ralphe Newberie.

Taylor, John. 1614. Verbum Sempiternum. Together with Salvator Mundi. London: John Beale for John Hamman.

Weever, John. 1606. An Agnus Dei. London: Val. Sims for Nicholas Lyng.

Secondary sources

Aston, Margaret. 2004. “Lap Books and Lectern Books: The Revelatory Book in the Reformation.” In The Church and the Book, edited by R.N. Swanson, 163–189. Woodbridge: Boydell. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0424208400015801

Bachelard, Gaston. 1994. The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look At How We Experience Intimate Places. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Bromer, Anne C., and Julian I. Edison. 2007. Miniature Books: 4,000 Years of Tiny Treasures. New York: Abrams.

Disraeli, Isaac. 1881. Curiosities of Literature. A New Edition, edited, with memoir and notes, by his son, the Earl of Beaconsfield. 3 volumes. London. Frederick Warne & Co.

Kearney, James. 2009. The Incarnate Text: Imagining the Book in Reformation England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Mack, John. 2007. The Art of Small Things. London: British Museum Press.

Razzall, Lucy. 2017. “Small chests and jointed boxes: Material texts and the play of resemblance in early modern print.” Book 2.0 7: 21–32. https://doi.org/10.1386/btwo.7.1.21_1

Scholten, Fritz. 2017. Small Wonders: Late Gothic Boxwood Microcarvings from the Low Countries. Rotterdam: Rijks Museum.

Stewart, Susan. 1984. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Squire, Michael. 2011. The Iliad in a Nutshell: Visualizing Epic on the Tabulae Iliacae. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Welsh, Doris V. 1989. A Bibliography of Miniature Books (1470–1965). New York: Kathryn I. Rickard.

Wetter, Evelin and Fritz Scholten, eds. 2017. Prayer Nuts, Private Devotion and Early Modern Art Collecting. Special Issue of Riggisberger Berichte 22. Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung.

Wolfe, Jessica. 2004. Humanism, Machinery, and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



How to Cite

Razzall, L. (2019). Words in a Nutshell: Miniaturizing Texts in Early Modern England. Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, 9(2-3), 139–149. https://doi.org/10.1558/post.35977