There are lots of ways to determine who might have owned an early modern book or manuscript, including handwriting evidence, bindings, marginalia, and so on. When we’re lucky, early owners and readers will have claimed their books with clear ownership marks.
Peter Beal identifies three major kinds of ownership marks. Of these, the most familiar is probably the illustrated bookplate, which we still use today. Printed examples survive from as early as the mid-fifteenth century by famous artists like Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Hans Holbein. However, printed bookplates were more common on the continent and didn’t catch on in England until the mid- to late-seventeenth century.
Printed book-labels are similar to bookplates, but they’re usually smaller and don’t include illustrations or much information beyond the owner’s name. Peter Beal has identified what may be the earliest English example, “a small typeset black-letter one, reading ‘John Bickner owneth this Booke,” in a copy of Erasmus’s Institutio principis Christiani. Most of the time, though, printed bookplates or book-labels in early modern manuscript miscellanies were added by later owners or libraries.
Inscriptions and signatures are much more common in miscellanies, and are often more fun.
Signatures could belong to individuals and groups:
And could range from simple…
…to more detailed…
…to the extreme:
Henry must have wanted to assert his ownership clearly, but when I shared this image on Twitter last fall, others proposed some interesting alternative hypotheses:
The words “Henry” or “Hunlock” appear six more times on the next five leaves, sometimes in variant spellings:
Beal says that ownership descriptions “should be distinguished…from random names scribbled into books, down margins, on blank spaces, or elsewhere in the volume, in a random fashion or possibly in childish or semi-literate hands,” which he characterizes as “the bibliographical equivalent of graffiti,” but Henry Hunlock’s book shows that it is not always easy to differentiate clearly between the two. And either way, signatures and inscriptions give us evidence that an individual at least had access to a manuscript, even if it takes further research to determine exactly what the nature of that access was. Sometimes, signatures tell us who compiled a manuscript. Other times, as Victoria Burke has shown, owners acquired manuscript books that had already partially compiled by someone else, but inscriptions and signatures show that the new owner was engaging with and possibly adding to its contents.
And in some (hopefully rare) cases, we see that someone didn’t own a book at all!
I suspect Robert Thomas’s friends didn’t let him borrow their books too often.
Except for the two bookplates otherwise credited, all photos by Erin McCarthy courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Beal, Peter. A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology, 1450–2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Burke, Victoria E. “Reading Friends: Women’s Participation in ‘Masculine’ Literary Culture.” In Early Modern Women’s Manuscript Writing: Selected Papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium, edited by Victoria E. Burke and Jonathan Gibson, 75–90. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
Hackel, Heidi Brayman. Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.