The Rule of Exercises of Holy Living (1650) and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651), here bundled together, were popular works by the Anglican and Laudian divine Jeremy Taylor, who had been chaplain of Charles I and was, by the early 1650s when these works were first published, retired to become a private chaplain in Wales, where he developed strong ties to Richard Vaughan, 2nd Earl of Carbery. Taylor is well known to scholars of early modern women for his connection with the poet Katherine Philips, at whose instigation he wrote a work on friendship.
At the time of writing the two works, Taylor was probably living at Carbery’s estate, Golden Grove, and, as John Spurr tells us, the latter work had some personal resonance: “Poignantly Holy Dying was intended as tribute to the countess of Carbery, but before Taylor could finish it, she died in childbirth on 9 October 1650. Taylor preached and later published a funeral sermon for the ‘dear departed Saint’. When he came to dedicate Holy Dying (which was entered in the Stationers’ register on 23 June 1651, while Thomason dated his copy 3 September 1651), Taylor added a personal note by remarking on his own sad experience of grief. Apparently his wife, Phoebe, had died in the first half of 1651″ (ODNB).
This particular copy of the two works was printed in 1682. It contains an undated bookplate with the name “Bourne” and four ownership marks: one above the bookplate show the intials “G. D. B.” (with the B. perhaps referring to Bourne?), and another above frontispiece has been crossed out. It reads “John Raworth,” presumarly with a note of the price, 5 shillings 6 pence.
Two signatures appear on the title page: Anthony Raworth signed and dated his signature 1714, and, most importantly for our purposes, Rosamond Raworth signed with the phrase “her Booke.”
A set of practical manuals on how to live and die a good Christian, this book must have been meaningful to the Raworth family since it was signed by three of its members. It is intriguing to think of how an early modern woman reader might have felt especially moved by the connection of Holy Dying with the death of two important women in Taylor’s life.
Source: Book offered for sale on eBay by dmhammond, 12/1/2020. Images reproduced with permission.
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The digital search for early modern women’s reading leaves one black and blue: the blue of an unclicked hyperlink, a potential lead that tantalizes with symbolic hope; more often, the black of unclickable plaintext—a definitive, de-legitimizing dead end. As an archival historian in the digital age, I find myself charting these errant paths like a manic cross between a Spenserian knight and one of Pavlov’s dogs. Armor dented but valor intact, salivating over every crumb of evidence that offers a clue to the burning question: Who was she?
I recently emerged, bruised if technically victorious, from another such adventure. The volume is a copy of the 1667 posthumous edition of Katherine Philips’ poetry in the Special Collections at Carnegie Mellon. It bears two competing ownership inscriptions on the opening flyleaf: the first, browned and bleeding with age, proclaims the book “Ex Libris | Henrici: Goughe”; a second, just below, rejoins, in a darker, sharper italic, that it is “Mrs Mary Gough. | Her Book. | 1700.” The binding is unremarkable, unadorned contemporary calf.
These squabbling signatures are reconciled by a marital union about which little information survives. While a variety of internet searches for “Mary Gough” prove fruitless on their own, a single search for “Henry Gough” produces a hit immediately. It details not only the arc of Gough’s political career from Staffordshire High Sheriff to a Tory Member of the House of Commons, but that he “married Mary Littleton, the daughter of Sir Edward Littleton, 2nd Bt. [likewise hyperlinked], of Pillaton Hall, Staffordshire in 1668” (Wikipedia). Gough must have bought the book sometime between 1667, when it was published, and 1700, when he either gave it to his wife or she claimed it for her own.
Here, the archival impulse bruises itself by repeatedly bumping up against the digital dead end of Lady Mary Littleton Gough (1651-1722). A renewed search for leads, revised to include the maiden name obtained via her husband’s Wikipedia page, yields nothing but a portrait and an incomplete genealogy.
Lady Mary, like so many early modern women, is unlinked. Meanwhile, her husband, a minor figure in Parliament, and her father, recipient of a title ranked below the peerage, are amply documented. What does this disparity mean? The experience of informational paucity in relation to early modern women in the context of today’s technologies makes a staggering impression upon the historian: it reduces so many women’s lives to unmoored names and biographical dates adrift in a sea of information, sometimes towed along by the reputational freight of a male relative, often a husband or father.
Although the world wide web is neither all-inclusive nor infallible, the slippage of many women’s histories through its titanic net conveys the vestiges and consequences of a social infrastructure which yokes women primarily to domestic roles and men. This infrastructure, of course, prevails across periods. The historic devaluation of women’s lives echoes loudest in the information age—a silence in the midst of a cacophony of data. Men’s lives, including those that are not particularly of note, are often well-documented by contrast—and, more fundamentally, presumed to be worthy of documentation. While we can recover Henry’s Parliamentary career in considerable detail, we know only that Mary bore sixteen children (Mimardière).
A counter-narrative to this digital pattern emanates from the object itself. This book’s unfinished dedication offers the most promising link between Mary Gough’s name and untold history, but it is a broken one. The dangling preposition “To,” evidently in her hand and smudged diagonally downward to the left (perhaps she was left-handed?) invites speculations that she may have stopped in the act of gifting the book to someone else. (One might alternatively entertain the idea that “To” is the first word of an unfinished epigraph or quotation, but the neatness of the entire inscription and the lack of stray marks elsewhere in the book advocate against it being an idle doodle.) The fragmentary inscription is evidently contemporaneous with Mary Gough’s ownership mark above, and the question of why she would mark the book as hers and simultaneously inscribe it to another recipient is answered by the need to identify herself explicitly as the giver, given her husband’s foregoing ownership mark. The lack of an ex dono formulation might be explained by supposing that she was not Latin-literate, consistent with her use of an English ownership inscription in contrast to her husband’s ex libris.
This speculative fantasy of gift-giving is catalyzed by the book itself. Katherine Philips’ poetry focuses heavily on bonds of friendship generally, and female friendship in particular—might the intended recipient have been a woman? Why did Gough leave the inscription incomplete? Was she interrupted, or did she change her mind? This volume is not only evidence of a woman reading a woman writer, but an emblem of women’s links to the wider world: their creation, loss, preservation, and attempted recovery.
It has been over a decade since William H. Sherman optatively coined the term “matriarchive” (53-67). Since then, passionate and innovative projects like the Early Modern Female Book Ownership Blog, the Perdita Project, RECIRC, and, for later periods, the Women in Book History Bibliography and Alison Booth’s tremendous Collective Biographies of Women, have gotten underway the project of uncovering and curating an impressive breadth of material. Also noteworthy is the Twitter hashtag #fembib, which has provided a means to link researchers studying women in the archive. This wave of groundbreaking work puts us in a position to re-evaluate the contours and meanings of such an archive. It circumscribes, as Sherman anticipates, presence and absence. The matriarchive today is a space where empty spaces are eloquent. It is defined by—and encodes—a view of the consequences of social choices regarding women’s lives: that is, how centuries of these choices and attitudes shape not only what we see of the past, but how we see it. This is true of how we imagine not only women, but non-white subjects, in British history.
On the one hand, there is enormous scope to “liberate … [many women] from their long period of textual house arrest” (Sherman 67). On the other, British societies from the early modern to the modern periods have colluded in creating an equally formidable graveyard, an elusive space which presides over the metamorphosis of women from participating (albeit second-class) members and potential archival subjects, into evacuated names appended to men’s histories. This haunted space now curates the present’s link with the past.
I owe a debt of gratitude to curator and colleague Samuel Lemley for his generosity in drawing my attention to this volume.
Source: Special Collections, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, PR3619.P4 O637. Images reproduced with permission.
The Blessed of the Righteous Opened (originally published 1668), bound here with The Vanity of This Mortal Life, is a religious tract by the Presbyterian minister and former chaplain to Cromwell, John Howe (1630-1705). He could not agree to the settlement of the church after the Restoration and became an itinerant minister. He was, according to David Field, a “leader of non-conformists,” a moderate Calvinist, and “one of England’s most influential religious figures of the late seventeenth century” (ODNB). This particular edition of one of his most popular works was printed by the female printer Anne Maxwell, now well known as a printer of many of the works of the prolific Margaret Cavendish, an utterly different type of author than John Howe.
The endpaper of this text by Puritan John Howe is inscribed “Ex Dono Sarah Browne.” Beneath Sarah’s signature, John Dale has twice written his inscription and dated the first one “April 28, 1711.” Although Sarah’s inscription is not dated, it appears contemporaneous to John’s. This is one of the examples on our blog of a book that was not owned, but given by a woman. This type of gift positions both giver and recipient of a work like Howe’s in terms of a shared religious affiliation. If John Dale was the recipient of the book, the fact that he signed his name twice and included a date suggests he appreciated the gift.
Source: Book offered for sale by Jeff Weber Rare Books in April 2019. Images used with permission.
Bibles were among the books most frequently owned in early modern households, and they have often featured on our blog. As Femke Molekamp has noted, “The Bible lay at the heart of early modern female reading culture” (1). While the Geneva bible was the most important of the different bible translations to English women in the sixteenth century and continued to be popular in the seventeenth century, the King James Bible became a formidable rival and was, as is true of the Geneva Bible, not only read and used, but also personalized with bindings with clasps, as seen in this 1630 edition.
Early modern readers not only read and annotated bibles but also used them to record their family history. As repositories of genealogy, Molekamp has helped us to think of how bible pages were transformed from devotional subject matter, to be read individually or aloud with family and other members of the household, into historical archives and spaces for recording dates of birth and death. This is also the case in this particular copy of the King James Bible, where family history, interestingly, is not recorded on the front fryleaf or in the back, but right in the middle.
Several female names are present in these annotations: Ann Hawkins is recorded as having died in 1784 (a month is missing). What seems to be the same hand records other family members: Anne Eyer, born in 1709; Thomas, born in 1711; John born in 1714; Elizabeth, born in 1717; and Mary was born in 1721. Probably an earlier attempt at recording these dates is seen on another page, only recording the births of Anne and Thomas.
It is always tricky to identify individuals, even with such detailed information, without being able to visit parish records, but FamilySearch locates some of the individuals listed, whose parents were Thomas and Elizabeth Eyres and all of whom were christened in Portsmouth in the Saint Thomas Church: Anne Eyres was christened on 28 July 1709; her younger brother Thomas, on 12 November 1711, and John on 29 March 1714. I have not found Mary or Elizabeth or further relevant dates.
Even with these identifications, we do not know if a woman (maybe their mother) wrote the names in the bible. We also do not know when the inscriptions were made or who recorded the death of Ann Hawkins in 1784, which is possibly the married name of Anne Eyres. But the use of the Bible, even in what seems like a casual way, to record dates that are important to a particular family shows both that the book was cherished as a repository of information and the expectation that it would be handed down generations. The last annotation seen here was made 154 years after this Bible was produced and published.
Even though we don’t know whether the annotator was female and what the exact relation of Anne, Elizabeth, and Mary was to this particular Bible, the presence of female names lays a kind of claim to the book for the female reader and gives women a permanent place in a material object that was valued highly by its owners. Female marks of ownership, in other words, can include not simply the statement of whose book you are looking at, but in a larger sense, can be the simple act of recording someone’s existence in a book, permanently inscribing that person’s importance to it.
Offered for sale on eBay by Rarebiblesandmore in July 2020; since sold. Images reproduced with permission.
Femke Molekamp, Women and the Bible in Early Modern England: Religious Reading and Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
This dated inscription, “Elizabeth man her Book 1696/5″, is inscribed on a rear endpaper—”upside down (as though the book was open mistakenly from the rear),” says bookseller Miranda Garno Nesler. Man probably made the inscription, which uses Lady Day dating, in early 1696. “Esq.r” has been inked below the inscription, whether by Elizabeth (who forms her capital E differently in her signature) or someone else, perhaps to emphasize that Man was a higher-ranking member of the gentry.
The book also contains the armorial bookplate of collector Fairfax Rhodes (1845–1928).
Thomas Manton (1620-1677) was a Puritan preacher who was well known for his sermons. He had preached before Parliament in the late 1640s and served as chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. In the later 1650s, he was a rector at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, but even though he favored the Restoration of Charles II, he could not subscribe to the sweeping terms of the Church of England after 1660 that asked for loyalty to the Laudian principles of the king. He ended up briefly imprisoned in 1670 and no longer working in clerical office afterwards.
When Elizabeth Man put her signature in the book in 1696, those tumultuous days were over and under the reign of William III Puritan sympathies were much more acceptable.
Source: Book was offered for sale by Whitmore Rare Books on 3/21/19, but has been sold at the time of this posting. Images used with permission.
This small-sized bible, printed in duodecimo format, would have been easy to transport and carry, and it was clearly a cherished object. The binding is lovely, carrying the initials of what was presumably the first owner, William Ainge, who also signed his name on the flyleaf in 1707.
Bibles like this one were very popular, and many households would have had one. Sometimes they are heavily marked up and show signs of much use, but this one seems to have been kept clean and preserved with care. An inscription, showing it had a female owner, Elizabeth Ainge, reads, “Elizabeth Ainge / Ex Dono Georgij / Ainge Patrii sui / 27 November / 1731” (Elizabeth Ainge / As a gift from George / Ainge her Father).
Bookseller Patrick Olsen suspects that William Ainge is possibly the person baptized in Stratford-on-Avon in 1649. I have found two baptismal records for children named Elizabeth born in Stratford-on-Avon at roughly the right time, both to George (b. about 1696) and Martha Ange. One was born on January 16, 1727 and died in that same year. A second was born on February 21, 1730 and also died young, on March 8, 1731. Since the inscription in the bible was made in November of that year, this seems a dead end. Perhaps the descendants of William Ainge of Stratford moved, the dates in the records are not correct, and we have to look further. Since Ainge is not an unusual name in early modern England, identification for now has to remain a matter of speculation.
Regardless of the precise identification of the owner, this bible shows that bibles were cherished and owned by female readers, and this one indicates a loving transmission from father to daughter of a book that had been passed down through the generations.
This two-volume second edition of the famous epistolary novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was published in translation in London and contains particularly interesting provenance. As a small inscription on the title page shows, the book was owned by Henrietta Masterman (1766–1813).
Henrietta Masterman, the daughter of Henry Masterman, lost her father at age five and became an heiress of Settrington. In 1795, she married Sir Mark Sykes (1771–1823), a baronet, MP for York, and book collector, whose magnificent collection was auctioned in 1824, as shown in this catalogue.
We don’t know when Masterman acquired Goethe’s book or to what extent its style and subject matter influenced her writing, but given her use of her maiden name in the inscription, we can speculate that she had it in her possession before 1795.
Henrietta was herself an author. She wrote a collection of stories, a book of poems, and two Gothic novels, the most successful of which was Margiana, or Widdrington Tower (1808), published anonymously and set in the fifteenth century. Its dark narrative of murder, love, and deceit was much enjoyed by Jane Austen, who wrote in a 1809 letter:
“We are now in Margiana, & like it very well indeed. – We are just going to set off for Northumberland to be shut up in Widdrington Tower, where there must be two or three sets of Victims already immured under a very fine Villain.”
A bookplate shows the book was later owned by Barbara Hylton-Madge, the mother of poet Charles Madge.
Source: book offered for sale in September 2020 by Simon Beattie, described in detail in his Goethe catalog. Images reproduced with permission.
This edition of poetry by Robert Wild, a clergyman who was both a Presbyterian and a Royalist, was published in 1671. The poem “Iter Boreale” (March from the North) was dedicated to General George Monck to honor him for his march to London, which led to the Restoration of Charles II to the throne. This edition, which includes other political poetry, such as a tribute to Christopher Love, a Presbyterian who was executed in 1651 for plotting to restore Charles II to the throne, and eulogies on Presbyterian members of the Westminster Assembly and other key figures, must have been meaningful to Royalist readers, who could read the poems to look back on a turbulent era.
The modest inscription of a woman named Sarah Nicholas in a 1671 edition of a collection of Robert Wild’s poetry appears to date from the 18th century. If so, her reading of the collection suggests a possible religious and political affiliation, and, at the very least, an interest in the history of the Civil Wars and their aftermath.
Source: Book offered for sale by Stephen Rench, 4/4/19. Images used with permission.
This book bundles together three volumes in which Scottish Minister and Theologian David Dickson (c. 1583–1663) offers his commentary on the psalms, including A Brief Explication of the First Fifty Psalms, A Brief Explication of the Other Fifty Psalms, and A Brief Explication of the Last Fifty Psalms, all printed in this second edition in 1655. At the time of publication, Cromwell was Lord Protector in England, and Dickson was known for having played a role in the fight against episcopal rule of the Church of Scotland and having been present at the welcoming of Charles II there in 1650. He would refuse to take the Oath of Supremacy at the Restoration in 1660. These acts would presumably have been meaningful to the earliest owners of the book.
In 1759, when Mary Butler of Lancaster signed the book, this copy was over a hundred years old and Dickson’s part in the Civil Wars a distant memory. She signed her name with the addition of the phrase “her book” along with place and date and some flourishes underneath. Additional dates appear above her name with some faded signatures from previous owners.
I have not been able to trace who Mary Butler was, given that it is a common name. But explications of psalms had long been popular among Protestant women readers, who used them for contemplative purposes. The first of the three works by Dickson was dedicated to two women, Margaret Douglas, the Marchioness of Argyle (1610–c. 1678), and her daughter Lady Anne Campbell (d. before 1660), the wife and daughter of Scotland’s de-facto leader during the Interregnum. In it, Dickson specifically addresses the mother-daughter bond in ways that must have appealed to female readers of different generations:
the daughter finding her self led by her Mothers hand, in her tender youth unto Christ the Saviour, looketh on her as her mother twice; and the Mother having power and place to draw the vaile of her daughters virginall modesty, retirednesse, and prudence, which concealeth much of the lustre of accomplishments from the sight of others who stand at a greater distance, doth look upon her notable endowments, and growing graces, as more then a recompence of all the paines sustained in bringing forth, and bestowed upon education of such a plant so wel fitted for that which is most desirable in earth and heaven
Though I have not found more female signatures in it, this particular copy of Dickson’s work was clearly much read and has been heavily annotated with notes in what looks like a different hand from Mary Butler’s.
Like other devotional books, this copy shows that it was used for many years and passed down generations of readers, which included women.
Source: Book offered for sale on eBay by W. Johnston on 7/27/2020. Images reproduced with permission.
“When I reflect upon the number of books already in print upon this subject, and with what contempt they are read, I cannot but be apprehensive, that this may meet the same fate from some, who will censure it before they either see it or try its value.”
Thus begins Elizabeth Raffald in her dedication of The Experienced EnglishHousekeeper, “To the Reader.”
Mrs. Raffald need not have worried. First published in 1769 in Manchester, the book went through six more editions published in London during her lifetime, and many more pirated ones. Later it influenced the ever-popular nineteenth-century household book by Isabella Beeton.
Elizabeth Raffald – born Whitaker – in 1733 in Yorkshire tells us that she “spent fifteen years in great and worthy Families, in the capacity of a Housekeeper, and had the opportunity of travelling with them.” One of these families was that of Lady Elizabeth Warburton of Arley Hall in Cheshire to whom the book is dedicated. Elizabeth Whitaker married the Warburton’s gardener, John Raffald, and they moved to Manchester in 1763. There she ran a sweet shop, taught cooking, created a Directory of Manchester (streets and merchants), and in her “spare time” had nine daughters. She vouches for the accuracy of her work by saying that “every sheet [was] carefully perused as it came from the Press, having an opportunity of having it printed by a Neighbour, whom I can rely on doing it the strictest Justice.” By the second edition, her copyright was purchased by Robert Baldwin of London, who continued to publish the book.
The copy of Raffald’s book at The Second Shelf bookshop shows the signature of “Eliz. Raffald” at the beginning of Chapter 1. A clue to this signature is provided at the bottom of the title page. The 1769 first edition published in Manchester reads on the title page: “The Book to be signed by the Author’s own Hand-writing, and entered at Stationers Hall.” Her signature appears at Chapter 1. Beginning in 1771, the copies published by Baldwin in London read “N.B. No Book is genuine but what is signed by the Author.” Sure enough, the copies with the imprint London, dated 1771, 1773, 1775, 1776, 1778, 1780, 1782, 1784, and 1786 all have this signature at Chapter 1. The only problem is that Mrs. Raffald died in 1781. The 1782 edition dropped the “No Book is genuine” line from the title page, but someone else went on signing until 1786! By the 1788 edition, the signature is also gone. (I looked at copies on ECCO, all from the British Library except the 1778 edition from the University of Kansas library.)
Another copy of the book, dated London 1789, was recently offered on eBay by the “Mad Librarian.” This copy has the signature of a former owner, Anne Beard, on the front flyleaf. It’s fun to think that she might have been an ancestor of cooking maven James Beard, but we’ll probably never know.
Recording early modern female book inscriptions can be as frustrating as it is fascinating. While one of the more satisfying aspects is making seemingly invisible women visible enthusiasm can be curbed by the fact that it is almost impossible to find information about the individual concerned, especially women readers at non elite level. So what is the point of pursuing research with clear limitations? What can we take from female book inscriptions, particularly if there are no additional marks other than a name on the title page?
In truth, not much. But that is not to say the exercise is pointless. At the very least, female book inscriptions raise the profile of the genre and encourages researchers to keep pushing the boundaries in early modern women’s book ownership. Though information about readers at the lower end of the social spectrum might yield little return there are nevertheless opportunities by engaging with the text.
Jane Dobson’s copy of Abel Boyer’s lexicon (now in Armagh Robinson Library) is a case in point. We know nothing about Dobson or her family but her ownership of the ninth edition of Boyer’s highly popular work The Compleat French-Master for Ladies and Gentlemen (1725) is striking for two reasons. First, it clearly shows Dobson was well educated as indicated by her eagerness to develop her linguistic capabilities. Second, it suggests that she not only purchased books for intellectual rather than material purposes, but she also likely had multiple books in her custody. Indeed, Dobson was plainly well acquainted with lexicographical works in circulation.
Boyer was established in the field of compiling dictionaries. He was born in Castres in 1667 but undertook most of his studies in the Netherlands on account of his Protestant convictions. At the age of twenty-two, he moved to England where he struggled to make ends meet. It was not until he became acquainted with Allen Bathurst, later Earl Bathurst, that his fortunes changed when he assumed the role of tutor. It was through the Bathurst family connection that he subsequently found himself working in the English court.
In the early 1690s Boyer was appointed tutor to the young Duke of Gloucester, the only surviving son of Queen Anne and the royal consort, Prince George of Denmark, but the boy tragically died at the age of eleven in 1700. It is interesting that Boyer continued to keep the dedication to the prince on the title page in subsequent editions, perhaps indicating how close the two men had become over the course of the duke’s studies.
When Boyer’s work was first published in 1695 its full title was The compleat French-master for ladies and gentlemen being a new method, to learn with ease and delight the French tongue, as it is now spoken in the court of France. It was sub-divided into three parts: grammar, vocabulary, and “a short and plain French-Grammar, for ladies and young gentlemen that do not yet understand Latin.” By 1725, the book’s appeal extended to a wider readership. The ninth edition expanded to include phrases and dialogues “on all manner of subjects,” dialogues of wit and humour, examples of French poetry, a collection of French songs, choice proverbs in both English and French, and a selection of “the best French books, fit for a Lady’s, or Gentleman’s Library.”
Thus, Dobson’s ownership of The Compleat French-Master highlights a keen interest in languages. She may have been eager to learn (or improve) her linguistic skills whether it be for the purpose of conversing in a second language or expanding her literary interests. Indeed, the latter option is a distinct possibility. Research has shown the growing popularity of French writers in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain and the Netherlands. In the case of Britain, moreover, French female authors like Madame de Scudéry, Madame de Villedieu, and Madame de la Fayette were notably prominent in English private libraries. (For those interested in the extent to which French female authors circulated in the Anglophone world you can explore the freely accessibly RECIRC database.) This is not to claim that Dobson read or collected works by female authors. Once again, we cannot say with any degree of certainty. However, digital humanities projects led by Prof. Marie-Louise Coolahan (RECIRC) and Prof. Alicia Montoya (Mediate) have given us plenty of scope to explore what people read in the early modern period.
Source: Images reproduced by kind permission of the Governors and Guardians of Armagh Robinson Library.
 Alicia C. Montoya and Rindert Jagersma, “Marketing Maria Sibylla Merian, 1720–1800: Book Auctions, Gender, and Reading Culture in the Dutch Republic,” Book History, Volume 21 (2018), pp 65, 67.
 Marie-Louise Coolahan and Mark Empey, “‘There are Numbers of Very Choice Books’: Book Ownership and the Circulation of Women’s Texts, 1680–98,” in Jennie Batchelor and Gillian Dow (eds), Women’s Writing 1660–1830: Feminisms and Futures (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp 139–55.
Up and down the country, in early modern Britain, the houses of the better-off contained books. Our knowledge of the ways they kept them, and how many they kept, relies more on various kinds of secondary evidence than on surviving examples; houses which have not been pulled down over the centuries have been remodelled, and libraries that were once together are long since dispersed. We used to think that the emergence of library rooms in houses was more an eighteenth- than a seventeenth-century development, but scholars like Mark Purcell and Susie West have pushed back the boundaries and we now realise that we could have walked into many gentry houses in the middle of the seventeenth century and found dedicated spaces where books were kept. They might be called studies, or closets, and the lady of the house often had her own where she could retire to read the books that might legally belong to her husband but were certainly regarded as hers.
We know, from inventories, the contents of some of these closets – Elizabeth Sleigh’s 1647 list has been edited for PLRE, and Mark Empey has published the contemporary book list of Lady Margaret Heath. There is a common profile to these kinds of gentry closet collections – something between 50 and 100 books, all in English, with a heavy preponderance of theological and devotional titles, alongside a sprinkling of practical, household, horticultural, or recreational books.
Shown here is what I think is a typical example of the kind of book we would find in a lady’s closet of this time. It belonged to Lady Elizabeth Brooke, whose epithet in her ODNB entry is “exemplar of godly life”; she was born in 1602 and died in 1683, after a long life spent mostly at Cockfield Hall in Suffolk, where her husband Sir Robert Brooke took her to live in 1620.
In her case, we don’t have a library inventory, but we know that she led a book-soaked life and wrote devotional works herself (which only partly survive). Her funeral sermon noted her piety, her charity, and her learning, particularly in theology: “she could oppose an Atheist by Arguments drawn from Topicks in Natural Theology, and answer the Arguments of Papists, Socinians, Pelagians, &c” (ODNB). That learning was clearly based on many hours in her closet, with books like this copy of John Preston’s Life Eternal (1631).
The text is a detailed guide to salvation, based on the moderated Calvinist philosophy that suffused the early seventeenth-century Church of England; I think it’s hard for us to really understand, today, how many hours ladies like Elizabeth spent pondering questions of election, uprightness of heart, and temporary faith.
The book is nicely bound, not ostentatiously, but suitable for a lady, and has clearly been well read, with manuscript numbering throughout added in the headlines to mark out the individual sermons and manicules here and there in what I would guess to be her hand.
Elizabeth Brooke had a long life and we might consider it a privileged one – she was born into a wealthy family, and her bread would have come more from servants than from the sweat of her brow. But by modern standards, it was also one with more than its fair share of tribulation. She spent the last 35 years of her life widowed, lost all but one of her 7 children at various ages between infancy and 30, and was said to have been so affected by the death by drowning of her last surviving son, in 1669, that her friends feared she would die of grief. Time and again, working on early modern book owners, of both sexes, the narratives we read are those of regular and multiple infant mortality, death in childbirth, lives cut short by smallpox, and a degree of uncertainty around death and disease that they coped with as a constant backdrop to their lives. In the current times, the reflections from this mirror of the past are perhaps particularly worth contemplation.
Source: book in private ownership. Photos by David Pearson, reproduced with permission.
 R. J. Fehrenbach, “Lady Elizabeth Ireton,” in R. J. Fenrenbach and J. L. Black (eds), Private Libraries in Renaissance England 8 (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2014), pp. 281–92; Mark Empey, “Lady Margaret Heath,” Private Libraries in Renaissance England: A Collection and Catalogue of Tudor and Early Stuart Book-Lists, Vol. 10. Gen. Eds. R. J. Fehrenbach & Joseph L. Black (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2020), pp. 263–85.