The Worckes of Thomas Becon (1564)

by Jake Arthur

In the hunt for women’s marginalia, the libraries of one of the oldest colleges in Oxford is not the likeliest port of call. Unlike more recently established institutions, many of these august libraries acquired their early modern books at the time of their initial publication. If those volumes were thumbed—or, more to the point, annotated—it was by Merton students, dons, and scholars; and as most Oxford and Cambridge colleges did not admit women until the twentieth century, all of these would have been men.

But in the hunt for women’s marginalia, there is also such a thing as hidden gems. As part of the Marginalia and the Early Modern Woman Writer, 1530–1660, led by Professor Rosalind Smith (ANU), we were fortunate enough to consult all the English-language volumes in our research period held at Merton College, Oxford. Among the many volumes annotated by men, there are several annotated by women which must have passed through hands outside the college environment before making their way to Merton.

One of these gems is The worckes of Thomas Becon (1564), a Protestant reformer. At first glance this appears to be exactly the kind of volume that would not have women’s marginalia; it is a large, expensive folio very much in keeping with the kind of acquisitions Merton and its fellows made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Its initial annotations are in a strong secretary hand with tendencies suggestive of a male reader, such as a strong command of Latin. Nonetheless, under an imposing portrait of Becon, we find the repeated signatures of one ‘Elizabeth Groom’.

sig. AAAAiv, t.p. verso of ‘The thyrd parte of the Bookes’

Alongside her five signatures and some of her initials, we also find what looks to be a set of hastily written musical notation, using the lines of the decorated plinth illustrated on the recto side as a kind of makeshift stave. Additionally, we get under another of Elizabeth’s signatures, her same hand writing the name of the volume’s author in majuscules almost as imposing as the portrait above it: THOMAS BECON.

All this is compelling enough, but the hand of these italic signatures seem likely to match a piece of marginalia earlier in the volume, one that like the stave notation also suggest a musical inclination.

On fol. cclxvii (verso) of The Sickemans salve, containing religious and moral instruction to sinners, we find what appears to be Elizabeth Groom (the only italic hand in the volume) extracting lines of verse.

fol. cclxvii (verso) of The Sickemans Salve

The text is partly crossed out but it reads:

Ioy to the person of my loue though her do me disdaine
Fixt are my thoughts and cannot be remoued but
Still i loue in vaine oh shall i loose the sight
of my ioy and harts delight or shall i sease my
sute oh or shall i sttrive to tuch oh it ware to much
[she is forbid]en frut

These lines read like an amorous complaint poem, with a lovesick male suitor pining for his unavailable beloved. That the verses appear here under a section of Sick Mannes salve about sin and the desire for redemption seems incongruous. After all, Becon instructs the reader on how to rid oneself of sin, not how to pine for it. And yet, the verses explore the kinds of sin that might make one turn to counsel in the first place. Indeed the last line’s reference to ‘forbidden fruit’ introduces an element of religious interdiction that might send one, chastened, to read their Becon.

As the photo above shows, the last line of the marginalia has been cut off, probably due to rebinding. The reason we can reconstruct it is that the verses originate from a popular ballad that also came to be collected in later books of song. The ballad is represented multiple times in the excellent English Broadside Ballad Archive, where it is dated between 1609-1632; that website contains a performance of how the ballad would have sounded (link). The ballad was one of many songs collected in the 1662 Cantus, Songs and Fancies compiled by T.D. (likely Thomas Davidson).

Why did Elizabeth Groom use a folio volume of devotional instruction to write down these ballad verses? Did the large print volume simply offer attractively ample margins? Or did she perhaps choose this page because of its counterbalancing moral instruction, or because its printed marginal reference to Psalm 130—an archetypal religious complaint—chimed with the plaintive sentiments of the ballad?

Other tantalizing questions arise, too. Was she writing the ballad down from memory, as perhaps would explain her erratic approach to lineation? Or was she instead copying it down from a broadside or perhaps a book of collected songs?

These verses must have felt valuable enough to Elizabeth to be worth copying, collecting, and preserving in this way. This is itself interesting, especially because the ballad is clearly written from a male persona to a female beloved. Are we, then, to interpret Elizabeth as imagining herself the forbidden fruit desired by a male beloved; or is she perhaps using the ballad to imagine herself in the agential position of the male speaker and desirer, bringing suits and striving to touch? After all, we know from women’s manuscript songbooks that women tended to collect and perform both male- and female-persona lyrics.[1] We can only speculate that part of the appeal of these other-gendered verses was the ludic and perhaps emancipatory possibility of women singing oneself into other minds and circumstances, including male ones.

Marginalia are a window into a person’s mind. Annotations on a page show a mind at the work of reading and responding to reading. Other marginal marks are still more spectral; they can hint at an emotional state, like the boredom of a doodle, or the determination of practicing a signature. The marginalia in this volume are a burst of readerly life in the middle of a grey disquisition against sin: it evokes the enjoyment of music, the heartache of rejection, the imagining of desiring or being desired—no less than ‘joy’ and ‘disdain’ within one line.

There is a trove of interest in Merton College Library, but Elizabeth Groom’s sparky verses are a singularly unexpected find. We are lucky to have found her.

We would like to acknowledge The Warden and Fellows of Merton College Oxford for allowing us access to the archive and for the generous use of these images.

Source: Merton College Oxford, shelfmark 12.E.6. Images by Jake Arthur, reproduced with permission.

[1] Jake Arthur & Sarah C. E. Ross (2022) “‘Presenting a Book to Orinda’: Anne Twice, Katherine Philips, and John Oldham in New York Public Library, Drexel MS 4175,” The Seventeenth Century, 37:4, 565-589, DOI: 10.1080/0268117X.2021.1969999, cf. page 4.


2 thoughts on “The Worckes of Thomas Becon (1564)

  1. Pingback: Reblogged from Early Modern Female Book Ownership – The Worckes of Thomas Becon (1564) | Jenni Hyde

  2. Melissa Marsh

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this. Have come across and been thinking about women’s marginalia in my own researches recently and the questions raised here about how we read marginalia, how we reconstruct the actions of hand, eye, pen from the marks left, and what these say about the state of mind of the inscriber – all chimed with my thoughts.


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