Book of Common Prayer (1694), The Holy Bible Containing the Old Testament and the New (1695)

Women’s ownership inscriptions are plentiful in Bibles and Books of Common Prayer. This little 6″ leather-bound volume contains evidence of at least six generations of women owners.

We begin with Jane Neame, who signs the book four times using three different styles and dates her earliest inscription “1702.” On the front flyleaf verso, she has written “A Prayer to be used at our coming in to publick.” Beneath the prayer are the 1731 inscriptions of Jane Baker. The uppercase J is formed identically to the J in the inscription on the upper edge of the facing recto page and we can infer that Jane Baker was Jane Neame’s married name.

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Next we have Elizabeth Youngman. She writes, “This Book was given to me … by my Aunt Elizabeth Baker and Cousin Sarah Baker August the 22. 1776.” Elizabeth Baker was presumably a relative of Jane Neame Baker, perhaps a sister or a daughter.

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We then jump ahead forty years, when Ann Williams of Dover records that the book is given to her by her father on “November th 8[?] 1816.” Beneath the gift inscription, she adds a book curse, warning that when the thief dies, “the lord will say where is that book you stol a way.”

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Book-cursing Ann Williams appears to have passed the book to her daughter. The next dated inscription reads, “Mary Ann Keigwin this book was given to me by my dear Mother on the 1st May 1861.” The final inscription was made by Mary Ann’s daughter, Florence Keigwin MacCartney “after the death of her dear Mother Mary Ann Keigwin who died on this 28th day of January 1895.”

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Finally, the book contains undated inscriptions from John and Elizabeth Broadbent.

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Source: Book offered for sale by eBay seller atlantavintagebooks1, 4/10/19. Images used with permission.

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).

Sir Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1638)

Though Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia was popular among readers of all sexes, the surviving copies often contain women’s ownership inscriptions. This 1638 edition was owned by Joseph and Elizabeth Campbell. Elizabeth has signed the verso of one page “Elizabeth Campbell with my hand.”


Source: Book offered for sale by G.W. Stuart, Jr., 6/10/19. Image used with permission.

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. 

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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.