John Lyly, Sixe Court Comedies (1632)

By Emily Fine

Sixe Court Comedies is only the third example on this website (so far!) of a woman owning a copy of early modern plays. Yet, as Kitamura Sae discusses, early modern women purchased playbooks, gave and received them as gifts and, in some cases, were involved in printing them. Clearly, we have more work to do to find these women and their playbooks!

Sixe Court Comedies is a collection of plays by English playwright John Lyly: Endymion, Campaspe, Sapho and Phao, Gallathea, Midas, and Mother Bombie. It was printed by William Stansby for Edward Blount, who, along with William and Isaac Jaggard, also printed Shakespeare’s First Folio.

This copy of Sixe Court Comedies has three indications of potential ownership. Thomas Baynard inscribed his name on the title page and the first page of Act 1, Scene 1 of Endymion. The title page also contains a faint “W,” perhaps belonging to the William Sainbourne whose name can be found at the end of the volume.

On the verso side of the final page, he wrote “M Willam Sainbourne his book.” Lower on the page, “Mr. William” appears again, presumably the same person. This final page also includes the name of a Mrs Mary Meller, who experimented with the style of her signature. She wrote her name out in full twice, and twice abbreviated it as Mrs M M. The stylistic variations of each of these signatures suggest she may have been practicing a new signature and perhaps, for that matter, a new name.


John Lyly, Sixe Court Comedies (1632). STC 17088 copy 2. title page recto, B1r, and 2D12v. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Photographed by Emily Fine.

Further Reading

Kitamura Sae, “A Shakespeare of One’s Own: Female Users of Playbooks from the Seventeenth to the Mid-Eighteenth century.” Palgrave Communications 3, 17021 (2017).

Simon Patrick, The Parable of a Pilgrim (1667)

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This devotional work was written by Simon Patrick, a theologian and author of many works of biblical commentary. He eventually became Bishop of Ely. A woman named Sarah Barnes (?) wrote her name on the title page of the work, as we often see with names on title pages splitting up the inscription into two, so it is spread out. Though it is hard to make out, there seems to be a year ending in 63 at the end of the inscription, perhaps 1763. If that is the case, this book would have been close to a hundred years old when she owned it.

Source: Book offered for sale on eBay, 6/18/2019 by bookseller Neil Summersgill. Images reproduced with permission.

Sara Maria van der Wilp, Gedichten (1772)

By Lieke van Deinsen

Fig. 1

The publication of Sara Maria van der Wilp’s volume of collected poems, Gedichten (1772), led to one of the juiciest controversies in Dutch literary history. The author portrait (fig.2) Van der Wilp initially included in the book produced a torrent of criticism and resulted in a fierce argument in the public press between its painter and the poetess. After several contemporaries reached out to the Amsterdam poetess and told her she “looked like a shrew; a dragon of a wife, […] an impertinent Whore, with Breasts like the udders of a cow,” Van der Wilp decided to commission a new portrait from a competing artist (fig.3) and urged her readers to destroy the first portrait. 

Many of her readers, however, seem to have ignored the poetess’s explicit request. Most surviving copies of the edition contain both portraits. Interestingly several readers added handwritten notes, taking a position in the controversy. On the whole, their judgement did not favor Van der Wilp, and only a few seemed pleased with the volume. A noteworthy exception  appeared to have been Wobbegien Smit (b. 1767). Born in Meppel, Wobbegien married the local merchant Egbert van Veen (1767-1815) in 1788. In 1818, a few years of her husband’s passing, Wobbegien wrote multiple inscriptions of her name in her copy of Van der Wilp’s Gedichten: ‘Wobbegien Smit haar boek in jaar achttien honderd en achttien’ (Wobbegien Smit her book in the year 1818) and ‘Wobbeggien Smit zijn Boek’ (Wobbegien Smit his Book). In addition, she included two inscriptions with the surname of her late husband (‘Wobbegien van Veen’). Apparently, Wobbegien used Van der Wilp’s controversial book to practice her writing  and try to establish her own distinctive signature. 

Fig. 6

Source: Atria, Institute on gender equality and women’s history (Amsterdam), NED 54 1772-B. Photographs by Lieke van Deinsen, reproduced with permission. 

Further Reading

Lieke van Deinsen, ‘Visualising Female Authorship. Author Portraits and the Representation of Female Literary Authority in the Eighteenth Century’, Quærendo 49:4 (2019) , pp. 283-314. 

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1761)

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This tattered copy of the twelfth edition and second volume of Defoe’s famous book was offered for sale on eBay earlier last year. It features a signature of a woman called Susan Havens, surrounded by flourishes and pen strokes, next to the Preface. We don’t know anything about her and are not able to date the signature precisely, but this is yet another instance of a woman proudly inscribing a book to show it is hers.

Source: Book offered for sale on eBay by countryblacksmith on 7/24/19. Images used with permission.

Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent, A Choice Manual, or, Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (1682)

By Michael Powell-Davies

A Choice Manual, or, Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery was a hugely popular collection of medical and culinary recipes, ‘collected and practised by the Right Honourable the Countess of Kent’, Elizabeth Grey (1581-1651). First published by the compiler ‘W. J.’ in 1653, two years after Grey’s death, the book was repeatedly updated and republished throughout the latter half of the seventeenth century, with a final 22nd edition published in 1726. Although published as a single work, the volumes are divided into two parts, the first containing the manual of medical recipes, and the second containing ‘A True Gentlewoman’s Delight’, which contained the culinary recipes and was preceded by its own title page.

This copy of the eighteenth edition of the book, published in 1682, contains evidence of female ownership in the form of two inscriptions made by Anne Howe and Maria Burton.

Anne Howe’s inscription appears on the back of the title page and reads: ‘Anne Howe her booke given her by the Right hon[oura]ble Lady Howe her mother Aprile the 17 1617’. As this book was first published in 1653, Howe perhaps received this book in 1716 or 1717.

The recto of the copy’s second flyleaf bears the inscription: ‘Maria Burton July the 8: 1835’.

Source: British Library, 7462.a.31. Photographs by Michael Powell-Davies, reproduced with permission.

Patrick Simson, Historie of the Church (1634)

By Daniel Woolf

Patrick Simson or Symson was a Scottish Presbyterian minister of anti-episcopalian views who nonetheless enjoyed good relations through most of his life and career as Minister at Stirling with both James VI and several Scots aristocrats. The son of Andrew Simson, himself a reformer, Simson’s life and career is discussed in a biography by G.W. Sprott for the DNB, revised in the ODNB by Duncan Shaw.

Simson’s Historie of the Church is a relatively derivative work, published after his death by his brother Archibald. Simson’s sources are indicated in one of the several “tables” that precedes the start of the book, at sig. ***4v.  His authorities include the “usual suspects” of church history at the time, most obviously Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, but Simson had also a good grasp of patristic and medieval authors, and consulted contemporary or recent writers such as William Camden (Annales) John Stow and John Speed. He also lists catholic authors such as Cardinals Baronius and Bellarmine.

The book appears to have been well received and had reached a third edition by 1634. In 1656, the volume in question, from which the images are taken, came into the hands of Elizabeth Ashe who, if her signature offers any clue, was a practiced writer. The year in which she acquired the book was of course an interesting one, witnessing the end of Cromwell’s experiment with rule by Major-Generals, the calling of the second Protectorate Parliament, and negotiations toward readmission of the Jews to England.

Subsequent owners of the book, identified by signature, included two (presumably) males, one somewhat indecipherable one in 1882, and one C[harles]. E. Gibbs  (29 Oct 1902) whose stamp also appears on the title page. There are annotations in the volume, mainly in pencil, and in a modern hand.

The book came into my hands in 2016 from the antiquarian book dealer finecopy. The binding appears to be original, was in poor shape when I acquired it, and has since been restored professionally. It is destined eventually to join the Schulich-Woolf Rare Book collection in the W.D. Jordan Special Collections Library at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Source: Privately owned book. Photos by Daniel Woolf, reproduced with permission.

Aphra Behn, The Counterfeit Bridegroom (1677)

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We have only showcased a few books on this website so far that were both owned and written by a woman, and as we have seen in the case of Hannah Woolley, attribution can be problematic. Here is another instance of problematic attribution: a play that has been attributed to Aphra Behn. The Counterfeit Bridegroom, published  in 1677, is an adaptation of No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s (1613) by Thomas Middleton. However, the play was published anonymously and Behn’s authorship has been questioned, and we cannot know if this particular female reader even knew this was perhaps a play by Behn. A woman named Millisent Smith wrote her name twice on a page, once at the very top and once upside down next to the text. The handwriting looks as if it may be that of a young person. The positioning of the writing next to the prologue and the double presence of her name suggests she may have been practicing her signature, a way of claiming ownership that disregards the actual content of the book. It is difficult to date the handwriting, which may well be later than the seventeenth century.

Credit: book in the Boston Public Library collection. Images taken from Early English Playbooks, 1594-1799, reproduced with permission.