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.