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Reviewed by:
  • Sir John Harington and the Book as Gift
  • Natalie Zemon Davis (bio)
Jason Scott-Warren , Sir John Harington and the Book as Gift (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 286 pp.

Scott-Warren makes a substantial contribution in this book to what he calls "the social history of writing" and gives coherence to the disparate publications, manuscripts, and letters of a lively Renaissance gentleman and courtier. Born in 1560 into a family whose properties dated from the Henrician dissolution of the monasteries, Harington spent his life between his Somerset estates and the courts of Elizabeth I and James I. His writings range from a translation of Ariosto's epic Orlando Furioso, to his witty and somewhat scatological book on the introduction of the water closet, to a manuscript on the rights of the Stuart James to succeed to the English crown. Scott-Warren pulls these and other compositions together by considering them as material objects, carefully constructed by Harington as gifts to appropriate recipients at carefully chosen moments. A central thread is his quest for a high post in the government, a goal never achieved but never abandoned. For example, for the water closet book of 1596, New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, Harington got a presentation copy to the powerful Lord Treasurer William Cecil through a letter to Cecil's sister-in-law Elizabeth Russell, "my best Lady that have even from my Childehood ever so specially favored me."

In a riveting chapter, Scott-Warren takes Harington from the public stage [End Page 146] to the household and family. His source is a decorated copy of the fine 1591 folio edition of Harington's translation of Ariosto, to which Harington added fifty-two handwritten epigrams. The book was a gift made in 1600 both to his mother-in-law Jane Rogers and his wife Mary, the mother to keep the book till she died, at which time it would pass to Mary, her "heir femall." The frank poems create a picture of a family marked by exciting and disturbing tension over issues from sex and progeny to the passage of property—the latter born out by quarrels that erupted after the mother-in-law's death a year later.

Scott-Warren's study demonstrates how much can be learned from watching authors put their books in play as gifts, not only for the love of others but also to advance their interest and create a desired image of themselves.

Natalie Zemon Davis

Natalie Zemon Davis's books include The Return of Martin Guerre, Fiction in the Archives, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, Women on the Margins, Slaves on Screen, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, and, most recently, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Toynbee Prize in social science, she is Henry Charles Lea Professor Emerita of History at Princeton University and, currently, adjunct professor of history, anthropology, medieval studies, and comparative literature at the University of Toronto.



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pp. 146-147
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