Edmund Spenser, The Fairie Queene (1596)

By Alison Fraser

While Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was written for Queen Elizabeth I, the epic was meant for female readership beyond Elizabeth and offered early modern women “a remarkable degree of interpretive agency,” as Caroline McManus has demonstrated.[1] This copy of the second edition of the first part of The Faerie Queene (1596)—from the Rare & Special Books Collection of the University Libraries at the University at Buffalo—demonstrates how one late early modern woman asserted her intellectual agency and physical ownership of the text through a full-page bookplate.  

Mrs. Elizabeth Percival’s tipped-in bookplate distinguishes her from the later male owners of this book, who left their (considerably smaller) bookplates adhered to its boards. The bookplate, bound in and trimmed to appear as though it is part of the book’s original signatures, faces the title page. Its placement ensures that future readers will acknowledge Percival’s intellectual and physical possession. In case they miss it, she also wrote her name in now much faded ink on the title page itself.

The design of Percival’s bookplate was popular in the early eighteenth century, and many of the earliest known bookplates of women readers follow a similar template. In the ornately decorated border, it announces, using majuscule, “The Noble Art and Mystery of PRINTING was first Invented / in the Year 1430. And Brought into ENGLAND in the year 1447.” The bookplate itself has a colophon; it was “Printed at the Theatre in Oxford, March 25, An. Dom. 1721.”

Despite appearances, however, bookplates such as Percival’s may not signify ownership: in her 1895 study of women’s bookplates, Norna Labourchere argues that it is “doubtful” that women’s full-page bookplates served the same purpose as ex-libris bookplates, noting that “the labels themselves often appear as if they have never had been placed within the covers of a volume” and “no libraries have been traced to any of these ladies.”[2] Instead, she theorizes, “printers kept a stock of blank plates, and filled in the name of the customer, with the date, address, etc.” filled out as appropriate, as souvenirs. Since this copy of The Faerie Queene was rebound by Riviere and Son in the early twentieth century, it would be difficult to say for certain that Percival had bound in the plate with the book. However, given that Percival inscribed her name on the title page, it seems reasonable to argue that this was indeed her book. Whether or not full-page labels like Percival’s served as ex-libris bookplates, they did have the function of putting women’s names into print and creating social currency around book ownership.  

Uncovering who Elizabeth Percival was, and what volumes her library might once have held (if any), is a discovery for the future.

Source: Rare & Special Books Collection of the University Libraries at the University at Buffalo. Images reproduced courtesy the Rare & Special Books Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.


[1] Caroline McManus, Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women. Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2002: 147.

[2] Norna Labouchere, Ladies’ Book-plates: An Illustrated Handbook For Collectors and Book-lovers. London: George Bell & Sons, 1895: 2. https://archive.org/details/b29008463/page/2/mode/2up

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