Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England

Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England

Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England

Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England


In a recent sale catalog, one bookseller apologized for the condition of a sixteenth-century volume as "rather soiled by use." When the book was displayed the next year, the exhibition catalogue described it as "well and piously used [with] marginal notations in an Elizabethan hand [that] bring to life an early and earnest owner"; and the book's buyer, for his part, considered it to be "enlivened by the marginal notes and comments." For this collector, as for an increasing number of cultural historians and historians of the book, a marked-up copy was more interesting than one in pristine condition.

William H. Sherman recovers a culture that took the phrase "mark my words" quite literally. Books from the first two centuries of printing are full of marginalia and other signs of engagement and use, such as customized bindings, traces of food and drink, penmanship exercises, and doodles. These marks offer a vast archive of information about the lives of books and their place in the lives of their readers.

Based on a survey of thousands of early printed books, Used Books describes what readers wrote in and around their books and what we can learn from these marks by using the tools of archaeologists as well as historians and literary critics. The chapters address the place of book-marking in schools and churches, the use of the "manicule" (the ubiquitous hand-with-pointing-finger symbol), the role played by women in information management, the extraordinary commonplace book used for nearly sixty years by Renaissance England's greatest lawyer-statesman, and the attitudes toward annotated books among collectors and librarians from the Middle Ages to the present.

This wide-ranging, learned, and often surprising book will make the marks of Renaissance readers more visible and legible to scholars, collectors, and bibliophiles.


In 1985, Roger Stoddard published his seminal catalogue, Marks in Books, Illustrated and Explained, and his opening sentences set an agenda that has challenged a generation of scholars, librarians, conservators, and collectors: “When we handle books sensitively, observing them closely so as to learn as much as we can from them, we discover a thousand little mysteries…. in and around, beneath and across them we may find traces … that could teach us a lot if we could make them out.” Over the last two decades, students from across the humanities and information sciences have been increasingly concerned with making out, and making sense of, the mysterious marks that get left behind in books as and after they are produced. Stoddard’s book coincided with—and to some extent helped to initiate—a new phase in the history of reading as a proper discipline (or interdiscipline), in which readers’ marks featured as a general source of evidence for a wide range of practices, moving well beyond the traditional interest in erudite commentary and the narrow search for the signatures and source materials of famous writers.

My own work in this field began with a famous (or rather infamous) reader, the Elizabethan polymath John Dee. in studying Dee’s massive library and the active uses to which he put it, I worked very closely with one particular category of readers’ marks: manuscript “marginalia,” or notes written in the margins and other blank spaces of texts. My project on Dee has taken its place in what is now a substantial series of case studies: these have been devoted either to the marginalia and related notes produced by individual readers (including Gabriel Harvey, Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, William Blount, William Drake, Michel de Montaigne, Johannes Kepler, and Guillaume Budé) or to the notes by different readers in multiple copies of a single text (Heidi Brayman Hackel has devoted a chapter to the readers’ marks in 151 copies of Sidney’s Arcadia, and Heather Jackson to the marginalia in 386 copies of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, while Owen Gingerich has published a best-selling book on his thirty-year hunt for annotations in all of the 600 surviving copies of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus). But there has been a pressing need for bigger pictures and broader brush-strokes. Jonathan Rose’s frustrations are typical among recent reviewers of work in this field:

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