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"So rare a use": Scissors, Reading, and Devotion at Little Gidding
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"So rare a use":
Scissors, Reading, and Devotion at Little Gidding

One of these books was sent to Mr. Herbert which, he said, he prized most highly as a rich jewel worthy to be worn in the heart of all Christians and in his letter to them expressed himself thus: that he most humbly blessed God that he had lived now to see women's scissors brought to so rare a use as to serve at God's altar and encouraged them to proceed in the like works as the most happy employment of their times and to keep that book always, without book, in their hearts as well as they had it in their heads, memories, and tongues.

– John Ferrar, Life of Nicholas Ferrar (emphasis added)1

In 1625, in the wake of the failure of the Virginia Company, in which he and his family were centrally involved, Nicholas Ferrar led his extended family from London into a life of retreat north of Cambridge, at Little Gidding. While the family was not by any means cloistered or bound by vows, they did together follow a rigorous discipline of life, one devised largely by Nicholas.2 This discipline consisted of several homologous and complementary activities that combined to define and enact a community ethic, one centering on cooperation, obedience but also mutuality, industry, humility, studiousness, and service. These included daily hours of communal worship, as well as needlework, reading, writing, playing and singing music, scribal and book-binding arts, and, at times, formal dialogue. However, the practice that especially captured this ethic was the construction of Gospel concordances, often referred to as the "harmonies" of Little Gidding. The women of Little Gidding cut and pasted lines and passages from the gospels, organizing them into the single story of Christ, as complete as possible. The concordances bear witness to a lively sense of the theological in the material: they involve both the action of holy industry in the making of the book, and the end of that industry: the holy book itself. They also demonstrate the extent to which holy reading was understood as an active engagement with the text, even to the extent that scissors [End Page 67] became tools of reading. In an important way, the concordances of Little Gidding were interpretive arrangements of text, meant to suggest and enable further rearrangements (though not necessarily material ones) as readers became trained to look for the many possible connections between scriptural places.

The earliest of the extant concordances, now located at Harvard, was relatively simply done, not so decidedly an aesthetic artifact but a devotional activity. Nicholas seems to have designed this activity for his nieces as a holy industry. The women who worked on the concordances ranged in age from 15 to 30 in 1630 at about the time when the first concordances were being made, and the concordances were made until about 1640.3 It is worth noting that the making of the concordances was, then, first a formative discipline. It combined "feminine" hand-work with the biblical literacy, and beyond that, the biblical criticism, normally thought of (though not without exception) as male activities.4 The women cut out and pasted bits of Scripture according to the plan set out by Nicholas, who himself worked from existing harmonized gospels, particularly that of Cornelius Jansenius, from whom Nicholas took the 150 chapter structure of the Little Gidding harmonies.5 The value of the concordances is not chiefly in their originality as arrangement of Scripture, but their witness of hand and heart practices. They stand out as a remarkable instance of the active reading typical of their period, in this case, a reading so active it disassembles and reassembles the text.

As Joyce Ransome points out, the activity of constructing the concordances was important outside of the value of its product because of how it kept hands, and heads and hearts, busy.6 While the boys of the family went to school, the women were occupied with many activities, including work on the concordances.7 They must have had to pay very careful attention to which texts went where, and the activity would have developed particular habits...