What kind(s) of early modern woman owned books? What size might her collection have been? Myself and Mark Empey are currently working on women’s book ownership in order to tease out these questions (as well the substantive one: which specific books did they own?)
The obvious sources are inventories and booklists – comprehensive stocktakes that were probably undertaken only when a substantial quantity of books were owned. The 1627 catalogue of books owned by Frances Egerton, countess of Bridgewater (1583-1636), (edited by Heidi Brayman Hackel) is a good example, comprising 241 books in manuscript and print. Another is the ‘Catalogue of Books in the Closset in the Passage Room next the Pantry in Skipton Castle’, Anne Clifford’s residence, comprising 63 books in manuscript and print, all predating Clifford’s death in 1676. These, of course, were only the books beside the pantry. The Great Picture triptych (below), displaying her family and Clifford herself in youth and late middle age, proclaims her learning. The importance of books to her PR is evident from the fact that the spines are legible to viewers.
The electronic version of Private Libraries in Renaissance England is an excellent resource for this kind of research. One of the earliest female book owners listed is Agnes Cheke (d. 1549) of Cambridgeshire, a vintner whose probate inventory attests to her owning four books: one bible, a book of sermons and homilies, Edwardian church injunctions, and ‘the bysshope of cullens booke’ (possibly the archbishop of Cologne) (PLRE Ad30). Cheke’s library at her death was valued at five shillings in total. This points us to the limitations of wills as evidence; estimating the resale value of an estate, less commodifiable or valuable items could be excluded from the record.
Donations, gifts, and bequests were more likely to be recorded, and this also skews the surviving evidence. Lady Anne Harington (c.1554-1620), for example, made a bequest in 1616 to the parish library of Oakham, Rutland. This library unsurprisingly tends toward theology, ecclesiastical and canon law. The character of the beneficiary determined the nature of the books bequeathed. The Haringtons almost certainly enjoyed books on more diverse subjects but these would not have been donated to the local clergy.
The most intriguing, promising, and frustrating line of pursuit lies in signatures. Often a victim/triumph of serendipity, the discovery of a woman’s signature in multiple books can open up fresh avenues and engage scholars worldwide. Hence, for example, the ongoing investigations sparked off by Paul Morgan’s 1989 study of the Staffordshire gentrywoman Frances Wolfreston’s library. Morgan identified 106 books as belonging to Wolfreston, mainly via her signature (see the image below in her copy of Chaucer, a gift from her mother-in-law, held at the Folger Shakespeare Library and sourced from Wynkyn de Worde’s 2008 blog).
Since then, many more of her books have been discovered, in particular by Arnold Hunt and Sarah Lindenbaum. One of the latter’s discoveries, Wolfreston’s signature in four printed playbooks held at Boston Public Library, was announced last December by Lindenbaum, Lori Humphrey Newcomb, and Jay Moschella).
Jason McElligott, having noticed a number of books in Marsh’s Library bearing the signature of Margaret Ussher (surely a relative of some kind to the archbishop of Armagh), has been systematically searching for her marks of ownership. The image below, of her copy of the statutes of the University of Oxford (1661), signed ‘Mar: Ussher’, challenges conventional ideas about women’s lack of exposure to, or concern with, the trappings of elite education. McElligott’s forthcoming work will shed light on this Irish woman’s collection.
This kind of scholarship promises to expand exponentially our understanding of female book ownership and literacy but it is potentially never finished. We can never be sure that all surviving books owned by the individual have been found, meaning that we cannot be certain how large or small her library really was. In his discussion of Anne Sadleir’s 1662 donation of an undetermined number of books to the Inner Temple library, Arnold Hunt remarks on the very basic methodology required for this kind of archival research: ‘the only means of reconstructing Mrs Sadleir’s collection is by pulling books off the library shelves and riffling through the pages in search of her distinctive pencil markings or annotations’. Similarly, David McKitterick, in his study of the books owned by Elizabeth Puckering (d. 1689) – part of the bequests made to Trinity College, Cambridge by her husband in 1691 and following his death in 1701 – carries a dual safety warning and shout-out: ‘the following survey is based on a shelf search. It is therefore probable that I have missed a few books bearing her marks of ownership. As some books have been lost or withdrawn from the College library since the early eighteenth century, I should be especially grateful to receive reports of her books elsewhere’.
One method of supplementing fragmentary evidence is demonstrated by Andrew Cambers, who has added 36 to the tally of three books owned by Margaret Hoby (d. 1633) by mining her diary for accounts of her reading – at the same time neatly squaring the circle of ownership versus reading. Caroline Bowden located 38 books owned by Mildred Cooke Cecil (1526-1589) based on her husband William Burghley’s memorial of his wife, his list of her books, and her signature on books held at Hatfield House (as well as information supplied by fellow scholars). Again, it is noteworthy that legacies form an important motivation for record-keeping: Burghley’s memorial listed the volumes donated to St. John’s College, Cambridge; his booklist, the donations made to Westminster Abbey and School, Christ Church and St. John’s College, Oxford.
The pioneering work of David Pearson, in combination with the thousands of heraldic stamps identified in the British Armorial Bindings database, is another route to locating female owners of individual books. For example, the autobiographer and traveller Anne Fanshawe (1625-1680) is identified by her stamps as the owner of Elias Ashmole’s Institution, Laws, and Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (1672); four copies of Querer por solo querer: to love only for love’s sake by the Spanish dramatist Antonio Hurtado de Mendoza (1670, 1671, 1672), translated by her husband Richard and published posthumously; a manuscript copy of her own memoirs (signed and dated 1676); and a copy of Richard Fanshawe’s translation of Guarini’s Il pastor fido (1647).
These different routes to aggregating information about individuals’ book ownership – heraldic stamps, diaries and memorials, donations and wills, and the simple expedient of encouraging modern readers to look out for signatures and share them – suggest there is much more to discover. Libraries are increasingly addressing the growth of interest in this field by experimenting with ways to catalogue the material traces of readers in books (indeed, Sarah Lindenbaum is a professional cataloguer). At the very least, it’s becoming clear that more early modern women owned books than had been thought.
Caroline Bowden, ‘The Library of Mildred Cooke Cecil, Lady Burghley’, The Library, 6 (2005): 3-29.
Andrew Cambers, ‘Readers’ Marks and Religious Practice: Margaret Hoby’s Marginalia’, in Tudor Books and Readers: Materiality and the Construction of Meaning, ed. John N. King (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010), pp. 211-31.
Heidi Brayman Hackel, Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009).
Anne L. Herbert, ‘Oakham Parish Library’, Library History, 6 (1082): 1-11.
Arnold Hunt, ‘The Books, Manuscripts and Literary Patronage of Mrs Anne Sadleir (1585-1670)’, in Early Modern Women’s Manuscript Writing: Selected Papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium, ed. Victoria E. Burke and Jonathan Gibson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 205-36.
____ , ‘Libraries in the Archives: Researching Provenance in the British Library’, in Libraries within the Library: The Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections, ed. Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (London: British Librartuy, 2000), pp. 363-84.
David McKitterick, ‘Women and their Books in Seventeenth-Century England: The Case of Elizabeth Puckering’, The Library, 7th ser., 1: 4 (2000): 359-80.
Paul Morgan, ‘Frances Wolfreston and “Hor Bouks”: A Seventeenth-Century Woman Book-Collector, The Library, 6th ser., 11 (1989): 197-219.