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Library display case Queen's College

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Literary Matter in Early Modern England

This exhibition explores the material lives of literary texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Then as now, books were valued for the force of their ideas or the beauty of their writing. But they were also understood as objects whose meanings were shaped by highly material processes of production, circulation, and use.

The items in these cases invite you to consider the labour of printers, the handwriting of scribes, the responses of book owners, or even the presence of dried flowers between two pages as integral to what early modern literature was and is. Writers were inspired by the material circumstances in which they read and wrote, and literature of this period is full of references to the many processes of making texts.

Some of the items included here have had many owners before ending up in the college’s library; others have been here since they were first printed or bound. All of them show marks of use which include annotations, additional pages pasted in, and holes showing where the book was once chained in the Upper Library. Together, these examples show us a rich variety of the ways in which early modern people interacted with their books.



Miles Coverdale, Goostly psalmes and spirituall songes drawen out of the holy Scripture (London, 1535)



Designed for a form of Protestant worship that reinforced God’s message through song, Miles Coverdale’s Goostly psalmes was the first printed English book of metrical psalms, preceding even Sternhold and Hopkins’s famous volume. Coverdale hoped that godly singing would replace ‘hey nonny nonny, hey troly loly, and such like phantasies’ (fol. 2v). The Queen’s College possesses the only extant copy of this important book. It probably survived because it was hidden in the middle of a sammelband, a group of texts bound together into one volume.

Goostly Psalmes (Sel.d.81(4))

Margaret Cavendish, Philosophical and Physical Opinions (London, 1663)



When Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623?-73) gifted her Philosophical and Physical Opinions to The Queen’s College, she ensured that its fellows could enjoy the most authoritative version of her writings. This chapter explains the process of masculine arousal, but it mistakenly locates men’s ‘Appetite towards the Woman’ in the ‘Womb’. At Cavendish’s instruction, a skilled amanuensis has replaced the printed word ‘Womb’ with the marginal note ‘parts proper for it’. Ground mica in the sand used to blot ink causes this handwritten emendation to sparkle.


By the Queene. A proclamation for the suppressing of seditious bookes and libelles (London, 1584)



One of many hundreds of state proclamations issued under the authority of Queen Elizabeth I, this proclamation seeks to stop the spread of texts seen as dangerous to the state. An obvious problem is that naming these books might incite interest. Possessors of such books are simply supposed to recognize sedition when they see it and turn in the books to local authorities. The contents of these books thus turn them into dangerous materials, objects that will be not only read but secretly shared, hidden, and, the state hoped, suppressed and destroyed.


George Herbert, The Temple: Sacred poems, and private ejaculations, sixth edition (Cambridge, 1641)



George Herbert (1593-1633) was a priest and poet. His influential collection The Temple invites the reader to imagine herself entering an Anglican church and meditating on its architectural elements. Herbert’s poem ‘The Altar’ takes this experience a step further by resembling the object it describes. But, rather like the church furniture of the mid seventeenth century, ‘The Altar’ changed over time. Readers of the 1641 sixth edition were confined to typographical boundaries around ‘The Altar’ that did not appear in the 1633 first edition.


‘The Altar’ from George Herbert, The Temple: Sacred poems, and private ejaculations (Cambridge, 1633)

Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13183 (source: LUNA Folger Digital Image Collection)


image from George Herbert, The Temple, 1st. ed

Used Books

The humanist learning that dominated the English renaissance emphasized the need to absorb and digest the work of others, particularly classical authors. This meant that reading was active, not passive, and readers left all kinds of marks that show how they used and interacted with their books. A user or users) of the Beaumont and Fletcher folio (1647, Sel.b.207) has underlined passages that they liked, corrected errors, cross-referenced ideas, and begun an index of place names in the volume. Past owners of Bibliotheca apostolica Vaticana (1591, Z.e.126) have annotated much of the text, as can be seen in the image below) and one has even pasted in a number of other sheets, in manuscript and print, to turn this into a composite object. Books could be used in more unexpected ways, too. In the college’s copy of the second and third volume of Ben Jonson’s Works (1640/1, Sel.b.160) we found some pressed flowers: the heft of Jonson’s collected works has been used to preserve some specimens of the meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris).


Angelo Rocca, Bibliotheca apostolica Vaticana (Rome, 1591)



This book, a guide to the Vatican library as well as a history of libraries and language, was donated to Queen’s by Thomas Barlow, Provost from 1658 to 1675. The book has been inscribed by former owners including the poet and clergyman John Donne (1572-1631), who has signed the titlepage at bottom right. Donne’s motto, taken from Petrarch, appears crossed out at the top: 'Per Rachel ho servito, & non per Lea’ (‘I have served Rachel, not Leah’, that is, I have pursued the contemplative rather than the active life). Donne’s extensive library was dispersed after his death, and his past ownership of this book in Queen’s is a new and exciting discovery.

Ben Jonson, The workes of Benjamin Jonson (London, 1640/1)



This opening shows a page from Timber, or Discoveries: Jonson’s printed commonplace book, in which he copied out existing ideas about literary production that he had found useful, and expanded on them with his own. Writing was often compared in the period to the judicious gathering of flowers, and authors liked to play on the confluence of poesie (poetry) and posies (of flowers). Just two pages before a reader has pressed these buttercups, we find this:

‘Some words are to be cull’d out for ornament and colour, as wee gather flowers to straw houses, or make Garlands; but they are better when they grow to our style; as in a Meadow, where though the mere grasse and greennesse delights; yet the variety of flowers doth heighten and beautifie.’


Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Comedies and Tragedies (London, 1647)

Sel. b. 207


Despite its name, the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio of 1647 in fact contains the work of many early modern English dramatists. Its large format and impressive design deliberately recalled Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623. This copy, which entered the college’s collection in the early twentieth century, shows annotations from earlier periods. Elsewhere in the book, one user has made a note of languages spoken in the plays (Spanish, Irish, French, and ‘Beggars Languages’); in this opening, s/he notes the page numbers in which foreign places are mentioned.


The Sidney Psalter

MS 341


This manuscript contains translations into English of the 150 Psalms of David. The first 43 were begun by the poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86); after his death, his sister Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (née Sidney; 1561-1621) revised Philip’s translations and completed the rest. These extraordinary poems were not published in print until the nineteenth century, but were widely circulated in manuscript. This copy from the early seventeenth century was written by two or more people, probably professional scribes. This opening shows the work of one scribe, including attempts at initial letters, flourishes, and errors. You can also see the variety of metrical patterns on display: the Sidneys chose a different metre or stanza form for every psalm, showing off the possibilities for poetry of the English language. John Donne judged the psalter ‘the highest matter in the noblest form’.