So my favorite Chaucer, as I’ve mentioned before, is inscribed by Frances Wolfreston and recorded as a gift to her from her mother-in-law Mary Wolfreston. And as we know from her will, discussed in my last post, Frances left her library to her third son with the instructions that it be made kept distinct from the family’s other collections and made available for borrowing by her other children. As a result, her books were passed on through generations of the Wolfreston family. Elsewhere in this book are the inscriptions of two later family members: “T. Wolfreston anno D[omi]no 1717″ and “J. Wolfreston ejus liber anno D[omi]ni 1718.” The book itself is bound in an 18th-century reversed-calf binding that is inscribed on the front cover with “S. Wolfreston.” For me, that’s already a treasury of information about how this book was valued and passed on through a family.
But it gets better! The Wolfreston annotations are simply the traces of what happened to the book after it passed into Frances’s hands after 1631. The Chaucer is full of other annotations, annotations that are more detailed and perhaps more indicative of the readers’ relationships to Chaucer’s texts. Check out the blank leaf reproduced below, covered with inscriptions:
Most prominent are three verses signed by Dorothy Egerton:
Saynct james in hys epistle sayeth vy are all offendours many Wayes but those that offende not in ther tongues Are trulye blessed. the tongue sayeth he is a small membr[e] but it Worketh wonders. Hitherto saynct james. DOROTHE EGERTON
He is neyther riche happye nor Wyse
that is abondeman to his owne avaryce
Fauour is decetful and beautye is a vayne thynge but the Woman that feareth god she shall be blessed. proverb 30
There is also the inscription of ANNE VERNON just after Dorothy’s quotation of Saint James, some other words in a small, upside-down secretary hand at the bottom of the image, and lots of smudged-out words.
Who are these other people? Dorothy Egerton (who, you will have noticed, did not spell her name the standard way we do today) married Thomas Vernon; Anne Vernon is obviously a family member through that marriage. And the connection to Mary Wolfreston, Frances’s mother-in-law? Her family name before she got married was Egerton. Not only did the Chaucer pass through the Wolfreston family hands, it passed through the Egerton family into the Wolfreston family. And its users left their traces all along the way.
More next time about those traces, their connection to Chaucer’s poems, and what this book might have to tell us about readers and the networks they form through books.