A “prity one”: Frances Wolfreston’s copy of Thomas Heywood’s The English Traveller (1633)

The early modern reader Frances Wolfreston (1607-1677) has attracted a considerable amount of attention from scholars in recent decades. “Frances wolfreston her bouk,” she often wrote in her copies of seventeenth-century publications. Intriguingly, Wolfreston sometimes left short critical remarks in her books, rare and invaluable assessments of literature from a woman in early modern England.

If you’re reading this, you might know that these books aren’t all in the same place, which poses a challenge (or travel opportunity) to those who want to know more about Wolfreston’s reading habits. Dispersed among many research libraries, her collection includes the only surviving 1593 copy of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, which Johan Gerritsen discussed in pioneering 1964 article, as well as a Folger copy of Chaucer’s Workes (which Sarah Werner discusses here), a UPenn Q3 copy of Shakespeare’s Othello (which Werner also wrote about here), a book called The Schoole of Vertue at the University of Illinois and a copy of Mary Wroth’s Urania at Illinois State (both of which Sarah Lindenbaum wrote about here), and Boston Public Library copies of  The Merchant of VeniceThe Taming of the ShrewEastward Hoe, and A Pleasant Conceited Comedy, Wherein is Shewed, How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (jointly discussed here by Lindenbaum, Lori Humphrey Newcomb, and Jay Moschella). In some cases, she indicates where she bought her books, or from whom. If you want to know more about these and other “bouks,” Paul Morgan’s 1989 article is an essential source, for it includes a list of 106 printed books owned by the Wolfreston family, with 95 of them inscribed by Frances.

This week, I came across Wolfreston’s copy of Thomas Heywood’s  The English Traveller at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA (RB 64122). The catalog specified that this particular copy featured the book plate of Robert Hoe and that its binding was signed “Matthews.” Upon opening it, however, I was delighted to find both an autograph and a brief critical assessment from Wolfreston, who was 26 years old when The English Traveller was published. This was two years after she married the landowner Francis Wolfreston (as many have noted, this story isn’t one without a little name confusion; the Wolfrestons had children named Francis, too). Lindenbaum has told me that this copy of The English Traveller was included in a Sotheby’s sale of 1856 and that there are several other Wolfreston-Hoe books at the Huntington Library, though this Heywood playbook’s whereabouts have been obscure. On the first page of the play’s text, you can clearly read “francis wolfrest[on] / her bouk” (sig. A4r), and below the play’s prologue on the facing page, “prity one” (sig. A3v).


By “prity,” Wolfreston may have meant something along the lines of cleverly done, ingenious, or artful (OEDadj. 1b) quite likely mingled with “pleasing; attractive or charming” (adj., 2b). To be sure, the fathers and sons in this tragicomedy ultimately reconcile, though a character named Mistress Wincott does die of grief after an secret affair with Young Geraldine’s best friend Dalavill (scandalously, Young Geraldine had been attracted to Mistress Wincott the whole time, with Mr. Wincott completely oblivious). Perhaps Wolfreston was won over by the comic subplot, which features – I kid you not – a scene in which drunken revelers collectively hallucinate a shipwreck inside another character’s home. Have I convinced you to read The English Traveller?

If you won’t take my word for it, know that Wolfreston generally had good things to say about Heywood’s works. She left an approving remark in the playwright’s Second Part of the Iron Age, and in her copy of A Pleasant Conceited Comedy, she wrote “a exeding prity on[e].” I should add that although scholars sometimes group Othello with The English Traveller on accounts of the plays’ common domestic themes, Wolfreston saw a distinction between them. Shakespeare’s play was “a sad one” and Heywood’s a “prity one.” (By the way, see Werner’s thoughtful reflections on Othello as, or as not, a “sad book.”) In this case, a reader’s annotations offer not only a declaration of ownership or a flash judgment, but commentary about tragicomedy, a dramatic genre that pointed in different directions. Following a thoughtful suggestion from Lindenbaum, I also was able to track down what could be Wolfreston’s copy of another Heywood playbook at the Huntington Library: The Foure Prentises of London (RB 54919). Its title page is missing, however, and though I looked carefully I found no inscriptions. Hopefully we come across more of this interesting woman’s “bouks.”


Recap @ NU: “In the Shadow of Shakespeare: 400 Years”

This post offers a recap of “In the Shadow of Shakespeare: 400 Years,” a single-evening exhibit and program on non-Shakespearean anniversaries held on April 7, 2016 at Northwestern University, and coordinated by the NU Early Modern Colloquium. Photos are courtesy of Elizabeth Rodriguez, English PhD candidate at NU and producer and host of the podcast Rude Tudors.


One of 2 copies at Northwestern: Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Comedies and Tragedies (London, 1647). Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, L Kestnbaum B379p.

2016, as you probably know, has been defined largely as “the year of Shakespeare.” All over the U.S. and the English-speaking world (and beyond), universities, schools, libraries, theaters, and cultural institutions of all kinds – even restaurants (!) – are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. “Too much, or not too much: That is the question,” began a December 2015 Wall Street Journal article on this year’s worldwide celebration. For those answering “Not too much,” the First Folio is coming or has come to a city near you, thanks to a program put together by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

And if we can understand all this excitement as a kind of Renaissance earthquake jolting us from our modern sensibilities (one can hope), Chicago is arguably its epicenter. With 850 events at 120 sites across the city, and featuring more than 1,000 artists from around the world, Shakespeare 400 Chicago is an impressive feat. As someone who studies the literature and culture of the Renaissance, I’m lucky to live in the midst of all Chicago’s Shakespearean enthusiasm, and I’ve also been glad to participate in writing for City Desk along with several of my colleagues and other early modernists in the greater Chicago area. Like a number of universities, Northwestern has its own program, too: ShakespeaRevel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll 19 items included in this open exhibit featured a label written up by a PhD student. The display highlighted Beaumont and Cervantes, but also featured a broader context: works by King James I, Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Purchas, Edmund Spenser. The stationer William Stansby was responsible in some way for several of these items.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANU faculty and students examine early printed books selected for “In the Shadow of Shakespeare.”

But in coordinating “In the Shadow of Shakespeare: 400 Years” at Northwestern, and in a way intended not to undermine, but to accompany and expand these citywide festivities, my early modernist colleagues and I wished to ask: “What else?” and “Who else?” Here, we hoped to join the  conversation surrounding the Beaumont400 Conference at King’s College London, the “Dare to Tell” Ben Jonson conference at the University of St Andrews, and Cervantes programs at the Newberry Library, the University of Pennsylvania, and other institutions too numerous to list (see #Cervantes400). We know Shakespeare’s life came to an end in 1616, certainly. But what about the Elizabethan theater entrepreneur Philip Henslowe, whose diary has been a major source for our knowledge about Renaissance drama? He died the same year. Or Francis Beaumont, Shakespeare’s playwright contemporary, also dead in 1616? Or the English writer and voyager Richard Hakluyt, who died that year as well?

Of course, 1616 also witnessed the publication of Ben Jonson’s Workes, a dramatic folio without which it is difficult to comprehend the importance of Shakespeare’s First Folio (even as we dust off forgotten copies here and here). The year 1616 also saw the opening of the Cockpit Theater in London. Going beyond England, what about Miguel de Cervantes, Spanish playwright arguably as influential as Shakespeare in the history of Western literature? Died in 1616. Or Tang Xianzu, a Chinese playwright responsible for the Mudan Ting (The Peony Pavilion) and commemorated in a recent edited collection? There’s another. And what about 500 years ago? Thomas More’s Utopia and Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso both saw print for the first time in 1516.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMiguel de Cervantes, The [Second Part of the] History of The Valorous and Witty-Knight-Errant; Don-Quixote, of the Mancha, trans. Thomas Shelton (London, 1672-75), Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Large 863.3 C41dXs.4

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“In the Shadow of Shakespeare” attracted faculty, students, & staff from Art History, Classics, English, French & Italian, Gender & Sexuality Studies, NU Libraries, Spanish & Portuguese, and Theater and Drama.

To broaden this year’s 1616 conversation in Chicago (and beyond), “In the Shadow of Shakespeare” featured a PhD student-curated exhibit of 19 early printed books featuring some (not all) of the figures listed above. In this way, it built upon ongoing collaborations at Northwestern between humanities faculty, graduate students, and librarians, especially Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries in 2014-15.  Significantly, it also included a series of brief talks by early modernist faculty from diverse fields: William West (English and Classics), Jeffrey Masten (English & Gender & Sexuality Studies) Dario Fernandez-Morera (Spanish & Portuguese), Sylvester Johnson (African American Studies & Religious Studies), Kelly Wisecup (English), Paola Zamperini (Asian Languages & Cultures), and Sophie Lemercier-Goddard (visiting this month from the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon).

Limited to five minutes apiece, each speaker posed insightful and provocative questions: If we’d retained seventeenth-century dramatic tastes and valued Beaumont above Shakespeare today, what might we quote instead of “To be, or not to be?” What can we learn from closely examining the clothing in Simon van de Passe’s 1616 engraving of Matoaka (Pocahontas)? How could an electronic edition of Samuel Purchas’s writings expand our knowledge of early modern culture, religion, and race? What were the dramatic afterlives of More’s Utopia? Beginning in Shakespeare’s London and expanding outward to the Mediterranean, the Atlantic World, and the Far East, “In the Shadow of Shakespeare” illustrated the many advantages of delving into a single year in time – across countries, languages, and modern departmental disciplines – and using local collections to inspire curiosity and intellectual exchange. Perhaps we’ll do it all again in 2023, while the rest of the world zeroes in ever-closer on the First Folio.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe exhibit also featured this messy copy of Spenser from the same decade. Do you like early handwriting? Edmund Spenser, The faerie qveen. The shepheards calendar (London, 1617), Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Large 821.3 S74f1617.

Beyond the people mentioned above, there are many people to thank for the success of “In the Shadow of Shakespeare.” The Early Modern Colloquium is deeply indebted to: Scott Krafft, Jason Nargis, and the library staff at the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections; Tonia Grafakos and the Northwestern Preservation staff; Sarah Pritchard, Dean of Libraries and Charles Deering McCormick University Librarian; Kasey Evans, English Department faculty liaison to the EMC; graduate students Anne Boemler, Meghan Costa, Rebecca Fall, Lee Huttner, Simon Nyi, Raashi Rastogi, Jason Rosenholtz-Witt, and EMC Co-Coordinator Emily Wood; at the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, Postdoctoral Fellow Danny Snelson, Graduate Assistant Ira Murfin, and Director Wendy Wall; for library logistics, Suzette Radford, Kolter Campbell, Clare Roccaforte, and Drew Scott. Finally, support for this program came from all the EMC’s 2015-2016 sponsors, including English, French & Italian, the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, Religious Studies, Science in Human Culture, Spanish & Portuguese, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, and Ed Muir.

Phase 1 Report: “Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries”

As some of you know, I’ve been working and communicating this summer with a number of librarians, undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members at several universities across the Midwest. Our collective goal has been to report certain eligible Special Collections items — namely, printed materials published between 1473 and 1700 in the English language or in English territories — to the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC). The effort to increase awareness of these Midwestern copies of early printed books is beneficial both to scholars of the Renaissance and to the libraries that hold them. “Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries,” has recently reached the end of its first phase, and not without some significant success. What follows is a summary and report of this progress as we prepare for phase two. (I’ll be talking more about all this next month, both at the IIT Digital Humanities Series and at the Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities & Computer Science.)

First, a word on where we began. A comparison of reported items at eight private, prominent institutions in the Northeastern United States to those of the Midwestern universities making up the Humanities Without Walls consortium reveals a general discrepancy in numbers:

IL 1473-1700

HWW 1473-1700 [initial]2Institution Codes (ESTC)

Both tables reflect reported holdings as of May 2014, and remember here that although the ESTC includes items published up to the year 1800, we are limiting ourselves to 1700 for the sake of ease. Although the reported ESTC holdings of the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, and the University of Minnesota stand in relatively the same ballpark as those of Ivy League institutions (that is, the 5,000+ range), most HWW institutions appear to have fewer than 2,000 items. Northwestern’s holdings, for instance, amount to just under 200 according to this chart. My own work at Northwestern Special Collections, however, and my realization that many of the items I paged were not listed in the ESTC, strongly suggested to me that this picture did not reflect actual holdings at all. I suspected that this was also the case at Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and other institutions in the HWW consortium.

The first round of the Global Midwest Initiative project that I proposed aimed to address this issue at Northwestern and to stimulate simultaneous projects at other HWW institutions. Working first with Gary Strawn and Sigrid Perry at Northwestern, I devised a list of 2,687 Special Collections items eligible for inclusion in the ESTC. Then, with a team of skilled Northwestern undergraduates — Hannah Bredar, Erin Nelson, and Nicole Sheriko — we reported the items to the catalog one by one, flagging doubtful items for a later, second pass. The project thus operates as an effort in both cataloging and pedagogy.

By the end of the firspiet phase of this project, we had entered 1,231 items to the ESTC, raising Northwestern’s representation in the catalog for the interval 1473-1700 from an initial 188 items to 1,419 items.  The pie chart to the left offers a view of the total 2, 687 items in our starting list, the work we completed, and the work remaining. This portion will include the 1683-1700 items, which we have not yet reached, as well as the “hard cases,” which are currently flagged for deeper assessment in the archive during the project’s second phase.

The project has seen substantial success thus far. However, there is still much more to do. We invite others to join with Northwestern, Iowa, and Wisconsin in an effort to make visible to ESTC users the many Renaissance books that the American Midwest has to offer. Feel free to get in touch with any questions or suggestions as we prepare for the next round.


News: “Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries”

As some of you may know, I recently received a grant through the “Global Midwest” Humanities Without Walls Initiative. A Mellon-funded program, HWW unites humanities centers at 15 research universities in the Midwest and is designed to stimulate inter-institutional collaboration. (You can read more about it here.)HWW-Logo-web

The project I proposed, “Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries,” hopes to do two things over the next few months: 1) register Northwestern’s Special Collections holdings, at least for now the printed matter issued 1473-1700, in the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC); and 2) develop relationships among HWW-institution faculty, graduates, and undergraduates who have investments in some combination of Renaissance literature, book history, and digital humanities. You can find my sub-page on the HWW Wiki here.

I’m very happy to report that I just got the project off the ground  this week. My highly-recommended research assistants Erin Nelson, Nicole Sheriko, and Hannah Bredar recently joined me for an orientation session outlining the project’s objectives and workflow. As I mentioned, our task will be to register about 2600 early printed books into the ESTC, thereby putting our institution’s rare books “on the map” for scholars and students around the country and around the world. This is done by the process of matching, or correctly identifying and updating records on the ESTC’s back-end based on a carefully curated list of our holdings. Special care must be taken in the case of multiple issues or states, fragmentary printed matter, sammelbände, and incorrect catalog information (should we be able to pick it out). Modern facsimiles require some caution as well, since NU’s catalog does not always designate them as such (for instance, the Upcott typographical facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio [1807] is dated “1632” in the library record.)  Discussing these “hard cases” in the Special Collections reading room was one of the purposes of our orientation sessions. At this stage, I have divided the first 1600 items between the four of us, and although Erin and Nicole will be working remotely for the majority of the job, Hannah and I will be on point to verify a record in the archive, if need be. (And need there will be.) You can expect to read about some of our triumphs and challenges here.

I’ve  also begun to communicate with scholars at a few other Midwestern institutions about the prospect of spreading this effort. If you feel your institution’s Special Collections holdings aren’t well-represented in the ESTC (or, if you just don’t know what you have), feel free to get in touch. Ideally, this initiative will be able to demonstrate that the Midwest is actually a profoundly good place to study Renaissance book history (or, to do rare book research more broadly).

I’ll close here with a few key thank-yous. I’m very grateful to Northwestern’s Kaplan Institute for the Humanities for bringing this project into being. I also have Ben Pauley (Eastern Connecticut State U), Ginger Schilling (UC-Riverside), and Northwestern Special Collections Librarians Sigrid Perry, Gary Strawn, and Scott Krafft for their diligence, patience, and encouragement. Gary was instrumental in providing a list of NU’s Special Collections holdings, and Sigrid has provided critical help since the consultation stage. And of course, I’m indebted to the usual suspects in the Department of English, as well as my wonderful assistant book historians, Erin, Nicole, and Hannah, who will likely be adding guest postings here about what they find during the course of their work.

ASMR and the Pleasures of Book History

What follows in this post is much more anecdotal than usual; it might also seem absurd or ridiculous next to my other Vade Mecum entries. But I’m very curious about a possible relationship between the pleasures of book history and a very strange physiological sensation that I’ve had since I was a child. If that sentence doesn’t daunt you, gentle reader, read on.

When I was in elementary school, I started getting this weird feeling in my head. It still happens now, but I was probably around the age of seven or eight when I first noticed it or started paying attention to it. Far from a painful headache, it was a warm, calming, tingling sensation that spread out from the crown of my head down my scalp and into my neck and spine. I had no idea why it happened, but as I got older and went through high school and college, I began to associate it — at least, in my own mind — with personal, one-on-one moments of detailed instruction, explanation, or directions. For instance, my second-grade teacher tracing her hand on paper to make a Thanksgiving turkey decoration would trigger the feeling. Or, my ninth-grade art teacher demonstrating a complex painting technique to me after class would bring it forward. I associated the feeling with learning and with my teachers, with quiet or whispered speaking, and with certain sounds, visuals, and thought patterns. Mainly, at school.

I remember attempting to explain this sensation to family and friends on multiple occasions, but no one could quite understand. In college, I spoke about it with one friend who claimed that she’d felt the same feeling too. (Please bear with me; I know this sounds strange.) This was really exciting for me to hear, but we lacked any kind of terminology to talk about it. Basically, we didn’t know what it was, so the fact that we both had it seemed more of a coincidence than anything else. I’ve since gone about my life, reading and writing here, watching hockey there, socializing with friends, and traveling whenever possible. But I’m frequently on the lookout for moments that trigger that weird, pleasurable sensation for which I had no point of reference or explanation.

Until yesterday, that is. I learned that I’m far from alone in experiencing what is known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. Wikipedia’s entry defines ASMR as “a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and/or cognitive stimuli.” The materials cited for this Wiki-entry are startlingly new, the earliest article having been published in February of 2012. Tracing my way through these news stories and a recent radio episode of This American Life, I listened to and read about others who experienced roughly the same perplexing sensation during childhood and the great difficulty of classifying, understanding, or even explaining it adequately to family and friends. The ASMR “community” online is actually quite substantial, as can be seen from hundreds and hundreds of YouTube videos of people – often, women, though not always – who play certain roles, whisper, speak in an explanatory manner, and use inanimate objects to create soft, soothing noises. The view-counts for these videos are staggering. As Andrea Siegel explains on This American Life, it might seem at first that these videos are sexual or pornographic, but they’re not; on the contrary, rather than arousal, they inspire a sense of peace, almost a stoner-like high.

As I learned about this and watched a couple of the trigger-videos, I immediately recognized my sensations, and I began to think about my love for books and the bibliographical threads of my research in graduate school. What if ASMR, I wondered, has some kind of connection to my deep interest in material books? My scholarship concerns Renaissance printing and bookmaking, and requires me to visit research libraries like the Newberry where I handle and study 400-year-old artifacts. These books often have roiled vellum bindings or exposed stitching jobs; the letters of the text have been stamped into the watermarked leaves in a very three-dimensional way; traces of readerly practice or use are visible in 16c or 17c marginalia. To these quiet, whispery reading rooms, I bring a set of developed, but hardly complete bibliographical methods that often depend on sequential instructions and great attention to physical detail. In fact, I can recall moments in my own bibliographical training in which I experienced ASMR, though I had no name for it at the time.  Could this research, let alone my general love for books and my own (unfortunately expensive!) book-collecting habits have any relationship to ASMR? I definitely know, now more than ever, that I experience this pleasurable brain-tingling. But is it possible that this sensation, triggered commonly by inanimate objects, whispered descriptions and instructions, sweet or particular smells, and certain mental connections, has something to do with my investments in bibliography and book history?

I will probably never be able to answer that question, but I find it deeply provocative. I also wonder how many other bibliographers or book historians out there experience ASMR, in or outside the archive. As my colleague Rebecca Fall has suggested recently in a NUDHL blog post, Renaissance reading involved a very sensory set of practices hardly limited to the visual; she wonders furthermore how this knowledge comes to bear on how we read in the 21st century. “When we read with our whole bodies, it seems,” she says, “we learn better—or at least I do.” I do as well, and scribble on any copy I get my hands on (barring the archive, that is). But while Fall is interested mainly in the tactile here, I wonder about how other sensations come into play when we do book history. And I wonder about how ASMR might offer some kind of increased incentive for bibliography and archival investigation. My research isn’t only interesting to me — it feels good.

If my isolated case still seems strange, I’ll conclude this post by pointing to some videos on YouTube. Hardly conclusive, this picture is meant mainly to be suggestive about ASMR and the pleasures of books. A good number of the role-playing videos, some created upon YouTube users’ requests, suggest that booksellers and librarians are common activators of ASMR. This particular clip features a young man playing the part of a librarian; his whispering, his accent, his explanations of the books’ content, and the page-turning sounds are designed to stimulate the sensation in viewers.  Another video simply shows a bookshelf, and the sounds of the books being taken down and perused by the video’s creator deliver the sensation. Here, a video creator rakes her fingernails against two books’ bindings; this clip has a place among many other “tapping and scratching” book videos. While contemporary books appear in many of these videos, some include older or rarer artifacts. For instance, in this video, which is nearly an hour long, the creator examines an 1892 edition of The Scarlet Letter with a very unstable, damaged binding and a 1907 edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles.  “The Aberdine University Press, Limited,” whispers the reader-narrator at the end of the clip. The bibliographical accuracy of the whispered commentary in these videos could easily be criticized as lacking, and the notion underlying this post might seem equally absurd. However, I think that these clips speak to a broader and perhaps more consequential issue: a particular physiological sensation that we are only beginning to comprehend and its relationship to the world of books.