Tagged: Frances Wolfreston

the serendipity of the unexpected, or, a copy is not an edition

My last post focused on my frustration with the assumption that digitization is primarily about access to text:

But access is not all that digitization can do for us. Why should we limit ourselves to thinking about digital facsimiles as being akin to photographs? Why should we think about these artifacts in terms only of the texts they transmit? Let’s instead think about digitization as a new tool that can do things for us that we wouldn’t be able to see without it. Let’s use digitization not only to access text but to explore the physical artifact.

I spent the remainder of that post brainstorming some suggestions about what digitization might enable other than access to text, and there were some great comments about the ramifications of textualizing the digital that I’m still mulling over. In this post I want to offer some examples of why we might want to look at books rather than digital surrogates as a way of approaching the relationship between digital and physical from another angle.1

So why might we want to look at physical books rather than digital surrogates, other than a fetish of smell and a sense of the magical presence of the original? Here are a few examples that start to get at what physical books offer that digital surrogates miss.

The making of the book

One of the things that we learn from examining books is how they are made. There are all sorts of things you can see in physical books that reveal their making: watermarks and chain lines in the paper (which can help date a book, as Carter Hailey has shown2 ); sewing structures in bindings (which can reveal if pages have been cut out or added in later); and pasted-in cancels or errata slips (which show changes made due to correct errors or in response to censorship).

It’s true that some of these features could be incorporated into digital surrogates; as my photo above shows, it’s absolutely possible for digital images to reveal paste-ins such as this one. But it’s also true that most users of digital surrogates of early modern books rely on EEBO, in which the equivalent page appears thusly:

The text might be the same, but there is no indication in the EEBO reproduction that the text appears on a slip of paper that has been pasted onto the page (although a keen eye might notice that the lines are not quite square with the rest of the page). If all you care about is text, that’s fine, but you’re missing a key part of the book’s history. And what happens if you were looking at a copy that didn’t have the errata slip (not all copies did)? You might never know it was an option–see the later section, “a copy is not an edition” for more on that.

My larger point here is that while digitization could convey some aspects of this category of information, they generally do not.

The history of the book’s use

The best thing about old books, I think, is their longevity and the traces of the history that they carry with them. Inscriptions, marginalia, doodles, vandalism, erasures, cutting out images and leaves–none of those are captured if your focus is solely on the text, and all of them have something to tell us about how a book was used.

(This is an image of one of the Folger’s three copies of Sacro Bosco’s Sphaera Mundi; this one happens to be heavily marked up, with additional diagrams penned in and plenty of annotations, but the other two are significantly less annotated. It looks yellow, by the way, because I took the photo myself, sans flash, per Folger requirements. There’s not a whole lot of light in the Old Reading Room, and I did a sort of half-hearted job of color-correcting my picture.)

Here’s a detail from a blank leaf from the middle of a 1550 Chaucer Works that’s covered in marginalia. I count at least four hands in this picture, three sixteenth-century and one twentieth-century. There’s other marginalia in this book, too:

So add two more hands (this time a seventeenth-century and a twentieth-century one that is mistaken about the date) to the collection of readers who have left their traces in this book. And then there’s this, from the same volume:

So that’s one more inscriber (although he doesn’t appear to have been an owner of this book). There’s also the cover of the book, with two more names incorporated into the binding, eighteenth-century descendants of Frances Wolfreston. I’ve written about this book and this collector before, so I won’t go on further here. But this kind of passage through history tells us not only about one particular family and one particular book, but gives a window into different responses to and uses of Chaucer’s poetry.3

I suppose it’s possible that digitizing could capture this; if I can take pictures of these inscriptions, there’s no reason a digitization project couldn’t. Oh, except time and money. This is a big book of more than 300 pages, and only one of two copies we have of this imprint, and one of five copies of this edition, and one of I-don’t-know-how-many mid-sixteenth-century copies of Chaucer’s Works. Are we talking about a project that will digitize all pages, cover to cover, of all these books? Who’s going to fund that? Is it worth funding that as opposed to, say, funding digitizing all the books that were once owned by Ben Jonson?

The serendipity of finding the unexpected

This sounds a lot like the sort of paean to open stacks and browsing that you hear from some book fetishists. But I’m talking about something a bit more complicated, I think. When you look at a digital surrogate, someone has already made the decision for you about what you want to see and how you are going to use it. There’s no reason you can’t use the surrogate differently, but every choice they’ve made impacts your ability to circumvent it. For instance, some of the biggest digitization projects out there don’t include blank leaves or pages in their digitization. ECCO is the chief culprit that comes to mind: they prioritize text, and so their surrogates start with the frontispiece or title page, then move to the dedication/preface/letter to the reader/start of the text. But you know what’s missing? The blank verso of the title page. Does that matter? I don’t know. It might. It depends on what you’re looking for. But you’ll never know that you might be looking for an answer that depends on that blank presence if you don’t know that it’s not there.

Jeffrey Todd Knight has written about this serendipity in his most recent article, “Invisible Ink: A Note on Ghost Images in Early Modern Printed Books”4. His focus is on ghost images left behind when some of the Pavier Quartos were bound together in early collections with non-Shakespearean works, so that an image of the title page of Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness appears faintly on the verso of the last leaf of Henry V. Knight draws out some of the implications of what this means for the Pavier Quartos and our understanding of Shakespeare book history–go read the piece yourself–but he also makes a broader argument for the need to consider the invisible, reminding us that “it has been easy to forget that text reproduction technologies, at every level, carry biases”:

The onscreen interfaces that give us Shakespeare and Heywood’s plays today are not transparent windows onto the text themselves; they define and regulate a field of visibility, as do all forms of curation going back to the early copies, which also carried biases.

What I would emphasize is that we don’t know what we’re missing until it’s possible to see it. We can’t see the blank pages or the invisible ink if we’re experiencing a book through decisions that have already eliminated the possibility of seeing them.

A copy is not an edition

This is true for all books, but especially early modern books: no two copies are the same, whether through the process of how they were printed or their subsequent use by readers. The practice of stop-press changes5 being made at any stage of production, and at multiple stages of production, and the habit of mixing sheets so that “uncorrected” sheets can appear in the same copy as “corrected” sheets, means that any book that had changes made during the printing process will exist in different states. Nor are those states typically indicated on a book’s title page or (depending on how important a book is seen as being and how well cataloged it has been) in its bibliographic record. You can only find these variants by looking at multiple copies of a single edition–hence the brilliance of things like the Hinman collator, the Lindstrand Comparator, the McLeod Portable Collator, and Hailey’s Comet, all devices that allow their user to compare multiple copies of books without actually reading them. (Reading, as any copy editor will tell you, will only distract you from what you’re actually seeing on teh page; collators–or, as I like to think of them, the original textual/machine hacks–let you look instead of read.)6

Why do we care about these textual variants? We might care because they tell us something about how the book was made, because it might say something about economic or societal pressures (if they were changes introduced in response to something other than correcting an error), or because the presence of and differences between states might help us understand the range of textual meaning available.

One example of the stop-press changes can be seen in the second quarto of Hamlet, in which Hamlet’s lines to Osric exist in three states, two of which can be compared in the Shakespeare Quartos Archive:

We are in no danger of missing the many textual variants of any of Shakespeare’s plays. But imagine if we were talking about, say, a Webster play, or a poem in praise of Queen Elizabeth. Those have not been as extensively, even fanatically, collated as Shakespeare’s works have. Nor have the funds been lavished on reproducing many digital surrogates of a single edition, as they have with Hamlet.

Remember above when I pointed out that some copies of The General History of Virginia have an errata slip, but others do not? If you encounter a digital surrogate of a copy that has the slip, you will treat that copy as if it represents the entire run of that edition, as if all copies of that edition of General History have errata slips. What is the characteristic of a single copy becomes a characteristic of the edition. But a copy is not an edition; what is unique to a copy is not common to the edition.

This list of possibilities has gone on long enough. Nearly everything I write about on this blog dwells on what we discover from looking at one copy of one book. If you’re curious to see more examples of what you might find from looking at physical books rather than digital surrogates, try some of the following posts in addition to the ones I link to above about blanks and Frances Wolfreston: “an armorial binding mystery“, focusing on overlapping book stamps; “essayes of a prentise“, about the significance of the binding on a volume of James I’s writings; “David and Goliath, redux“, about finding the same pattern of embroidered bindings; and “bibles for historical occasions“, in which I think about, um, bibles used on historical occasions.

I would love to hear more thoughts from you on this subject, particularly of lucid examples of what we can learn from looking at physical books beyond the sort of intangibility of emotions that books can evoke.

  1. I don’t really like the opposition between digital and physical that this phrasing suggests, as I’ve written about before, but since it’s hard to find another formulation, I’m going to stick with it for now. []
  2. See his article in Shakespeare Quarterly (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/shq/summary/v058/58.3hailey.html) or the open access, simplified version in the Folger Magazine (http://www.folger.edu/documents/FolgerMagazineCarterHailey.pdf). []
  3. There’s a great piece by Alison Wiggins on marginalia in Chaucer that draws on some of the books at the Folger; “What Did Renaissance Readers Write in their Printed Copies of Chaucer?” The Library 9:1 (March 2008): 3-36. []
  4. Knight, Textual Cultures, 5:2 (Autumn 2010): 53-62; http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/textcult.5.2.53 []
  5. These are usually called stop-press corrections, but as bibliographers will tell you, some of the changes are not corrections in the sense of fixing an error and it can be hard to tell which of two, or three, states is the first and which the latest. []
  6. Interested in learning more about where you might see a collator in real life? Check out Steven Escar Smith’s “‘Armadillos of Invention’: A Census of Mechanical Collators” Studies in Bibliography 55 (2002): 133-70; http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-sb?id=sibv055&images=bsuva/sb/images&data=/texts/english/bibliog/SB&tag=public&part=2&division=div []

Is Othello a sad book?

Some time ago, you might recall, I had a bit of a fascination with Frances Wolfreston. (I know, and I totally agree: what’s not to be fascinated by?) From those posts came a lovely missive out of the blue–a colleague at Penn sent an email telling me that they also have one of her books:

Right there at the top of the first page of the text is that familiar inscription, “frances wolfreston her bouk,” but added onto this, in the same hand but a now fainter ink, is something even better: “a sad one.” The book in question is Othello (in this case, the 1655 edition, otherwise known as Q3, or the third quarto). I love the personalization of the inscription–we’ve seen Wolfreston inscribe her name in other books, but it’s not as often that we come across her commentary. And as commentary goes, this note was a productive one for me. The story of Othello is certainly a sad one. But is it a sad book?

Back when I used to teach plays to undergraduates, they would often refer to “the book” as in, “My favorite moment in this book was when the Duchess thought she was holding Ferdinand’s chopped-off hand!” My response was always to insist that the play isn’t a book! and that to conceive of that moment as happening in a book instead of on stage was to fundamentally misunderstand what was happening and how it was made it happen. My perspective then was as a performance scholar: books are objects that you read and they work differently than plays. We might read plays–and with some plays, such as early modern drama, we read them obsessively and too often never watch them nor imagine them performatively–but plays work differently on stage and any good play draws on techniques that make meaning only in performance.

In that sense, Othello is not a book. It’s a play. On the other hand, we do often use the word “book” to refer not to a specific book but to mean a more general story. When I ask my friends, “Have you read any good books recently?” very rarely am I interested in whether or not they have a specific physical object in mind; usually I’m wondering whether or not they have a story to recommend to me (and too often, they don’t!). In this fashion, describing Othello as a sad book is entirely accurate. It is sad. (And infuriating.)

But Wolfreston’s inscription makes me wonder (again) about the ways in which the physical form of books affect how we read plays. How does a playbook differ from a play performance? And how might a playbook represent performance through its mise-en-page?

One obvious place to start thinking about this question is stage directions, a particularly glaring occasion when stage action meets the printed page. I don’t think we always pay a lot of attention to stage directions other than to sometimes mock them for what editors are suggesting or to criticize them for their incompleteness (indicating entrances but no exits, for instance, are a common feature of early modern English playbooks). But while the content of stage directions certainly matter, so does the way in which they are presented on the page.

Consider this stage direction from the 1623 Folio Titus Andronicus:

It looks, I think, pretty familiar (zoomable image). The text is centered and italicized (thus differentiating it–as the speech prefixes are also set off–from the spoken text). This is a pretty detailed direction, indicating the main characters in the action (that “with others” is entirely typical) and, unusually, indicating the precise location through which the characters should be entering: one door and the other door. You might want to note that this direction mixes terms: characters are referred to as within the fiction of the story (the direction uses character names, not actor names) but the location refers to theatrical location (the upstage doors to the tiring house). But that, too, isn’t unusual–it’s no different than the directions for characters to appear “aloft” or for sounds to happen “within.”

So that’s a typical stage direction. But consider how this moment is represented in the 1594 quarto edition of the play:

It’s the same text (zoomable). But here the layout is noticeably atypical, with the two entrances represented on the page akin to how the blocking would have been on stage: one group on one side, the other group on the other side, the face-off of the brothers indicated with the face-off of the brackets. We don’t usually see stage directions like this. Jonathan Bate’s 1995 edition for the Arden3 series does reproduce the layout of the quarto direction, but most editions do not. And why not? I would assume both that it does not seem important to the editor and that its atypicalness makes editors wary. Familiarity might breed contempt, but usually it breeds comfort. A stage direction that we can read over without dwelling on allows readers to focus on the dialogue–the part of the play that scholars (and general readers) usually prioritize.

My point in comparing these two examples is to highlight the ways in which our habitual sense of what a stage direction looks like obscures other possibilities for how we might think of the printed playbook as conveying–or being capable of conveying–performance practices. If this sort of opposing entrances could be represented in this way, what other possibilities are out there, ignored by modern editors and scholars?

There’s a lot more to be said on the issues I’ve raised here, including the history of the 1594 Titus (the sole existing copy of which is at the Folger; see the catalogue record for more details) and more thoughts on how we read printed plays. I’ll follow up this most with some more along these lines. But in the meantime, if you know of any examples of early printed drama–or, heck, even later printed drama–that seems to you to be doing something different with the interface between print and performance, I would love to hear about it!

And last, some very necessary additional credits and information:

Thanks to Peter Stallybrass for taking and sending on the photo of Wolfreston’s Othello to me. You can see this book at the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library‘s Furness Collection (shelfmark EC Sh155 622oc). If you haven’t encountered it before, Penn has a lovely rare books library with lovely librarians (and I don’t just say this because of all the hours I spent in the air-conditioned sanctuary of Furness). They have a nice online image collection that you can browse as well as a digital text and image collection that has some great teaching tools.

As for the plays I’ve mentioned, I have to confess that very rarely did my students identify Ferdinand’s severed hand as their favorite moment. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, get thee to Duchess of Malfi immediately! It’s only now that I’m realizing that I chose a theme of lopped-off body parts to connect my examples in this post (okay, not so much Othello, but still…). And if you don’t know what that refers to, get thee to Titus Andronicus immediately! If you’ve downloaded the software for the Folger’s digital collection (as opposed to using it through a browser), you can pull up the entire quarto of the play as a digital book (do a shelfmark search for STC 22328). You can also do the same for the complete folio (shelfmark STC 22273 Fo.1 no.05), though you can also access the digital book through the Hamnet catalogue entry. Then you can read and zoom the entire play to your heart’s content!

Montelyon’s sword

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the social lives of books and how they take on meaning through our uses of them. That’s come in part from the moving Yom Kippur service I was at and the use of a rescued Lithuanian Torah scroll. More on that, and how it has been making me think about the lives of books and readers, in a future post.

But for this post, a much smaller look at a book from our period and the social and emotional life it suggests. So: Emanuel Ford’s The famous historie of Mountelyon, Knight of the Oracle, and sonne to the renowned Presicles King of Assyria. The Folger’s copy of this book is, unsurprisingly given my recent theme, one that was owned by Frances Wolfreston, and it has her characteristic inscription on leaf A3r: “Frances Wolfreston her bowk.”


What I like about this particular book is that she seems to have given it to her son Francis, who also carefully inscribed it on the first leaf: “Francis Wolferston his Booke.” (You can see bleed-through from the other side, on which a later Wolferstan decendant has inscribed his name and has repeated the title of the book.)


In 1652, the year that Francis has dated his inscription, he would have been fourteen years old. And later on in the book is the sort of marginalia that I imagine a 14 year-old boy reading a romance would want to draw: the hero’s spear and sword.


I love that Frances bought this book, and then passed it on to her son, and that both of them marked it as their own. The fact that she gave it to him when he was still young, rather than him inheriting it as an adult, as was true of the other books that his brother was willed, makes it seem so much more evocative of a parent-child relationship. Or maybe it’s that drawing of the sword that gets to me. The Chaucer is a big important book, and the marginalia only confirms what I think we already know from looking at it. Frances and Francis’s inscriptions make this book, which would otherwise be a slight romance, into something more tantalizing and meaningful.

not only Wolfrestons!

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
Dorothee Egerton

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.

Frances Wolfreston, book collector

Earlier this month I promised some more posts on Frances Wolfreston and her copy of Chaucer’s works that we have at the Folger. It’s one of my favorite books at the moment, so there will be lots more coming, but here’s some starting information about Wolfreston’s books. 

Frances Wolfreston (1607-1677) seems to have started collecting books after her marriage in 1631 to Francis Wolfreston (1612-1666)–or at least she started inscribing them after her marriage, since none of them appear with her maiden name, Frances Middlemore.* Nor are there any books inscribed by anyone else in the Wolfreston family prior to her marriage; in other words, she didn’t seem to sign books that were already in her husband’s collection, but built her own library of books.

Paul Morgan characterizes Wolfreston’s books as “the leisure reading of a literate lady in her country house.” They include plays and poems, but also jest-books and religious works.** Among the books bearing her signature are Heywood’s Rape of Lucrece, Lodge’s Wits Miserie, Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice, Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie, Catholic and Anglican catechisms, many of John Taylor’s poems, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Richard II. Most prominent among her collection is the surviving copy of the first printing of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, subsequently owned by Edmund Malone and now held at the Bodleian. (You can see an image of the title-page of that book here, with her faint inscription just to the right of the printer’s device.)


Her books clearly were important to her, since she singled them out in her will with careful instruction about their care and use:

And I give my son Stanford all my phisicke bookes, and all my godly bookes, and all the rest conditionally if any of his brothers or sisters would have them any tyme to read, and when they have done they shall returne them to their places againe, and he shall carefully keepe them together. 

Her collection of books, inscribed and passed on to Stanford, and then through his descendants, remained at Statfold House until they were auctioned off by Sotheby’s in 1856. A number of the books include not only her inscription, but those of her children and other family members. Taken together, Wolfreston’s collection can teach us not only about her own personal taste, but about books and social networks. Plus, there is a real thrill in seeing the signature of the same person over and over again–it’s a reminder that there are real readers who held and treasured these books that we now study. I’ll talk more about the collection’s integrity and the familial traces left in them in a future post.
*Not enough Francis/Frances names for you? Frances Wolfreston’s mother was Frances Middlemore, and the eldest son of Frances and Francis Wolfreston was, yes, Francis Wolfreston. Incidentally, Frances’s second son was named Middlemore (her maiden name), and the third son was named Stanfold (her mother’s maiden name).


**Much more information about Wolfreston can be found in Paul Morgan’s “Frances Wolfreston and ‘Hor Bouks’: A Seventeenth-Century Woman Book-Collector” The Library, 6th series XI (1989): 13-219. Especially notable is Morgan’s legwork in tracking down over one hundred books from Wolfreston’s collection; that list is included as an appendix to his article.

“Frances Wolfresston hor bouk”

My last post lamented pristine books that remained uncirculated and lonely on their shelves. This post is a teaser for future posts examining how very much we can learn about the ways that books circulate in readers’ lives.


Above is a detail from a 1550 edition of Chaucer’s collected works. On a leaf in the middle of the volume is carefully inscribed “Frances Wolfresston hor bouk geven her by her motherilaw Mary Wolfreston”.


That in and of itself is a rich testament to the circulation of books. But there is more to be discovered. If you examine the Folger’s catalogue entry for this volume, you will notice that one of the associated names is “Wolfreston, Frances, 1607-1677, inscriber”. If you follow that link, you will discover that the Folger has an additional 10 books signed by Frances Wolfreston in its collections. Frances Wolfreston, you will soon realize, was an early modern book collector and her library of books, nearly all carefully inscribed with “Frances Wolfreston her bouk”, can be found dispersed among some of the greatest library collections today. Another post will be devoted to exploring her and her collection.


One more tidbit teaser: you will also notice when looking at the catalogue entry that there are lots of other inscriptions recorded as being in this book. There are a number of other Wolfreston family members, suggesting that this volume was passed on down through the family; there are also a collection of other signatures from a different family suggesting that it was similarly passed down through their family. More about that, too, in the future.


In the meantime, two quick quirks that I like:


In her inscription, Frances spells her last name differently than how she spells her mother-in-law’s. Her son Francis settled on yet a different spelling, choosing primarily to record his name as Wolferstan. We all know that early modern spelling was full of variants. But so, too, were early modern names. It seems very strange by our standards today: ask any other Sarah whether her name is spelled with an “h” or without the “h” and you’ll discover that we are all very insistent on the importance of that difference.


Quirk two: when you follow the link for Frances Wolfreston to find other books that she owned in the Folger collection, what you actually find is that the Library appears to differentiate between those in which she is an “inscriber” and those in which she “signed”. No difference in the books themselves. It’s just a nice reminder of the many ways in which books are handled by many different people, and those human differences and foibles leave their traces everywhere.