Du Bartas, His Devine Weekes and Workes (1605)

There is a tendency to treat books Seriously with a capital S, whether one is a scholar studying book history or is a book owner oneself, carefully inscribing one’s name on the inside cover or making serious notes in the margin. What we often miss is the playfulness that books can inspire. Rosalind Smith’s work has shown that early women’s books often abound with doodles, scribbles, and other marginal ‘trifles.’

This 1605 edition of Joshua Sylvester’s translation of Du Bartas’s Devine Weekes and Works is imperfect, lacking the title page and indeed the entire quire A, and beginning only on leaf B2. As we well know, most owners signed their names toward the front of their books on pastedowns, title pages, and flyleaves, so if this copy was once signed in this way, all of that provenance is long gone.

However, one reader made her lasting mark on page 528 in a circa eighteenth-century hand: “Ann Davis her hand and pen Shee Will bee good but god Knows When and[?].”

This kind of rhyming ownership inscription was not uncommon with eighteenth-century book owners, both male and female. What I love about this variation, which I’ve seen before, is its cheekiness. Like the title of Suzanne Hull’s bibliography of books marketed to women, women in this time period—and well beyond—were expected to be “chaste, silent, and obedient.” Davis’s jocular inscription seems to announce, ‘I’m capable of living up to the expectations for my sex, but you may be waiting awhile!’

Ann made another annotation on page 612: “I love thy pure lily hand / Soft and Smooth.” These are the first two lines of the end stanza to ‘An Ode of the Loue and Beauty of Astraea.’ Did these lines particularly strike her or was she simply echoing them out of boredom or a desire to practice her script?

Due to the commonness of her name, Ann’s identity is a mystery. Something about the irregularity of her hand suggests a young girl to me, perhaps between the ages of eleven and fourteen, still perfecting her handwriting and fashioning an identity for herself. In any case, her rough, playful inscription is the antipode of the meticulous calligraphic ownership inscriptions we have previously featured on the website.

Source: Book offered for sale by Rare Tome in April 2022 and since sold. Images used with permission. UPDATE: Molly Yarn has confirmed that the book has now found a permanent home in the Rasmussen Hines Collection. Thank you, Molly!

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