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. § continue reading

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. § continue reading

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.
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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! § continue reading

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. § continue reading

“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.
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