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Used Books

Marking Readers in Renaissance England

By William H. Sherman

Publication Year: 2009

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Material Texts


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xx

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...


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1. Introduction: Used Books

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pp. 3-24

‘‘Mark my words.’’ So the authors, editors, and printers of English Renaissance texts exhorted their readers; and mark they did, in greater numbers than ever before and more actively, perhaps, than at any time...

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2. Toward a History of the Manicule

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pp. 25-52

Readers who mark their books have always tended to develop systems of signs, a visual shorthand for breaking texts down into manageable sections or signaling key subjects and claims at a glance. In 2002 the Levenger Company published a table on itsWeb site to share the techniques...

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3. Reading the Matriarchive

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pp. 53-68

After several decades of innovative and committed feminist scholarship, the voices of women writers from the English Renaissance are more audible than ever before.1 But the women readers of the period remain elusive, and the new methods and materials that have given the history of...


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4. ''The Book thus put in every vulgar hand'': Marking the Bible

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pp. 71-86

As we approach the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the King James (or Authorized) Version, historians of the printing revolution and the Protestant Reformation have put us in an ideal position to appreciate the process by which the Bible became a layperson’s...

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5. An Uncommon Book of Common Prayer

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pp. 87-110

Alice’s question applies not just to Victorian storybooks but also to Elizabethan prayer books, and this chapter offers one of them as an object lesson, a curious devotional volume that not only contains pictures and conversations but raises a series of searching questions about the uses of...


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6. John Dee's Columbian Encounter

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pp. 113-126

On at least two occasions, the Elizabethan polymath John Dee (1527– 1609) encountered the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (ca. 1451–1506). The medium was Columbus’s son Ferdinand, and they met in the margins of Ferdinand’s famous Historie . . . della vita, & de’ fatti...

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7. Sir Julius Caesar's Search Engine

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pp. 127-148

To study readers’ notes is to work at the fringe of the tapestries that weave together books, lives, and events. Most of the threads now come away as single strands, providing us with glimpses of color or texture and the agents who produced them but with little sense of the larger patterns...


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8. Dirty Books? Attitudes Toward Readers' Marks

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pp. 151-178

This book has been concerned with the kinds of marks that Renaissance readers made in and around their books and with the kinds of things we can learn from them. This final section will consider the fate of those marks as they have come down to us today, passing through auction...

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Afterword: The Future of Past Readers

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pp. 179-182

In spring 2006 the National Library of Scotland launched its new magazine, Discover NLS. The photograph on its cover (Figure 36) caught my eye and the image of the young girl—I will call her Miranda—has stayed with me ever since. By now there is nothing particularly unusual about...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 183-184


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pp. 185-222


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pp. 223-250


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pp. 251-256

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pp. 257-259

In 1599, when Martı´n Del Rio finally published the Six Books of Investigations into Magic he had started some twenty years earlier, he began with a ‘‘Prologue, explaining why this treatise has been difficult to write, but why it was necessary to do so’’—or, in the more elegant phrasing of the...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203448
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812220841

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Material Texts
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Roger Chartier, Joseph Farrell, Anthony Grafton, Leah Price, Peter Stallybrass, Michael F. Suarez, S.J. See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794702150
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Used Books

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Marginalia -- England -- History -- 16th century.
  • Renaissance -- England.
  • Books and reading -- England -- History -- 16th century
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