The Folger Shakespeare Library Presents A Manuscript Miscellany

A Summer 2005 Institute
Directed by Steven W. May

“Let them Compleately Learn”: Manuscript Clues About Early Modern Women's Educational Practices

Emily Bowles Smith
Georgia Perimeter College

During the early modern period, formal schooling was reserved for boys. Humanist pedagogy was disseminated through printed texts and by tutors to boys. Girls rarely had access to an institutional education, although some women had exceptional educations. Mary Evelyn, Lucy Hutchinson, Anna Maria van Schurman, Bathsua Makin, and Catherine Trotter were all trained to some degree in languages, arts, or sciences, and their literary productions—circulated in manuscript or in print—provide striking examples of the profound effects of that education. But the polished and public texts of women who received privileged educations only tell us part of the story of women's education. Women's manuscript exercise books, notebooks, receipt books, and other domestic papers give us access to the interests and writing practices of ordinary women. Oftentimes these manuscripts combine academic and practical subjects in ways that surprise modern readers.

Women did learn to write, despite the arguments against teaching them, such as those articulated by Richard Mulcaster (the first headmaster of England's largest grammar school). Often, penmanship was learned together with mathematics rather than with reading, as it is today. Many printed manuals combine the teaching of arithmetic with the development of a fluid italic handwriting style. The many published guides included several by Edward Cocker, such as Penna volans or The young mans accomplishment being the quintessence of those curious arts writing & arithmetick (1661), The Tutor to Writing and Arithmetick (1664), and, with Edmund Wingate, The clarks tutor for arithmetick and writing (1671).

None of these printed manuals explicitly indicates that it would have anticipated a female readership; probably they did not. Such educational materials would have been largely restricted to a male audience. Yet Sarah Cole's arithmetic exercise book, Folger MS V.b. 292, comprises some drawings identical to those engraved in Cocker's The Tutor to Writing and Arithmetic. In light of this connection to a printed antecedent, it is useful to consider the nature and composition of such a book. A manuscript exercise book is best defined as a subcategory of the copy book. The exercise book is the production of a student, probably working from a template provided by an instructor, and reflects the assiduous attention of a young scholar interested in producing a beautiful volume as well as in providing correct answers to problems within the text. Authorship can only be thought of as collaborative: the instructor's template aggregates designs, problems, definitions, and perhaps poems from a wide range of print and manuscript sources.


Sarah Cole dates and titles her exercise book (Folger MS V.b.292) on an ornate page decorated with cherubim. The page reads:

      Her Book
      Scholler to Elizabeth
      Beane Mrs in the Art
      of Writing. Anno 1685

Mary Serjant, another of Elizabeth Beane's pupils, similarly named Beane as her mistress in "the Art of Writing and Arithmetick" in an exercise book held by the Beinecke Library (Osborn Shelves MS fb.98). In her exercise book, Cole has worked through a variety of arithmetical problems. Far from scratched exercises, the pages of her book have been illustrated and given ornate headings. Each heading introduces either a list of definitions, moral distiches, word problems, numerical tables, or equations.

Word problems occupy much of Cole's exercise book, and they center on household operations like bartering. Clearly her arithmetical education was designed to prepare her to become a good helpmeet for her eventual husband, for it seems to hinge on domestic functionality. The range of skills that Cole was assigned to master suggests that she was preparing to manage a fairly large, well-to-do household.

Cole's calculations were done in conjunction with elaborate handwriting and drawing exercises. The headings to each page and the mnemonic devices that Cole has reproduced throughout the book seem as important for their format as for their content, and the final product beautifully displays Cole's acquisition of skills in both arithmetic and calligraphy. Although the text is an exercise book, its elaborate presentation and its fine binding suggest that the product was intended for a readership beyond her instructor. Perhaps Cole wanted to be able to share her successfully completed exercises with her family and maybe a small circle of friends? Cole must have invested much time practicing her writing and her arithmetic before setting down the drawings, definitions, and problems in this book. Two pages of calligraphic drawing and an ornately decorated title page precede Cole's sequence of illumination and illustration that provides a constant visual context for her arithmetical exercises. In nearly two hundred pages of drawings, calculations, and compositions, there are no apparent cross-outs, smudges, or erasures.

The intermeshing of calligraphy and arithmetic is illustrated, for instance, on folio 5. On this page, as on all of the pages of the exercise book, Cole has meticulously divided the space and assigned specific functions to each part of the page. Although the page contains no actual sums, she has laid it out in such a way as to allocate room for definitions, mnemonics, and the morals of mathematics:

      Arithmetick the Art of Computation
      By Numbers which brings many Consolation.
      Those who True Reckonings from false Discern
      Arithmetick Let Them Compleately Learn.
      By This the Merchant and the man of Treade
      By Ignorance or Skill are marr'd or made
      Yet in this Art Therse none thats so accute
                                       As all Its Excellencies To Compute

Like many other seventeenth-century students, Cole is improving her writing skills while inculcating moral virtues. In her case, though, the moral distiches that she has copied advocate that she "Compleately Learn" arithmetical principles, which become neatly bound up in her pedagogical program.

The poems interspersed throughout Cole's exercise book do not appear to come from a standard arithmetic book, a possible indication that Beane wrote this and other poems for Cole to copy. When looking at her exercise book, we can potentially locate traces of literary agency among a small community of female writers comprising Beane, the probable poet and teacher, and Cole, the student, calligrapher, and problem solver.

On the final page of her exercise book, Cole has illustrated the centrality of writing on folio 199 , the final page of the exercise book to contain actual computations. The page has been neatly divided into five segments of unequal size. On the bottom right-hand corner of the page, Cole has drawn a hand engaged in the process of writing with a quill. She has sketched the disembodied hand beginning with the top of its shoulder. The elaborate flourishes of her design evoke an ornate costume, beginning with a puffed sleeve that narrows and then reopens a bit to form a fabulous cuff from which the writing hand emerges. Cole has managed to create a hand that merges with the quill. One finger can be distinguished alongside it but the other is simultaneously finger and quill: the fingernail rests on top of the dark quill but then transforms into the same sort of loops that she has used to indicate the feather. Remarkably Cole has drawn a pen engaged in impossible labor. The loops, contiguously extending from this box into the box above it, appear far too high to be the work of this fictive arm. In fact, the doodles are more than twice the size of the arm, and they also resemble the doodles scattered on other sections of the page including those that comprise the hair, head, and upper body of a figure that looks roughly proportionate to the arm. At the end of her book, Cole seems to be acknowledging—and accessing—the power of the pen.

Cole's exercise book possesses many traits we would associate with a formal education. It was carefully and neatly compiled; it recognizes an instructor by name and title; and it holds a record of completed, revised assignments. Early modern women's educations did not always occur in such a neat, programmatic, or even pedagogical format, though. Sometimes women acquired and expressed their knowledge in non-pedagogic texts like receipt books. For an early modern woman, a receipt book usually comprised recipes alongside (as is so often the case in the messy world of domestic papers) poems, letters, autobiographies, and other documents. The books provided ample space for creativity and adaptation; even when women received their receipt books already divided into sections for cookery and medicinal recipes, they could flip the books upside down, add new categories, skip pages, and otherwise refashion the books to accommodate their needs and impulses, both on practical and creative levels.

Constance Hall's receipt book, Folger MS V.a.20, demonstrates a less systematic assemblage of graphic skills than we have seen in Cole's exercise book, but the receipt book seems similarly to have functioned as a pedagogic tool of sorts. Hall seems to have acquired handwriting lessons along with recipes from the many nameless contributors who have written out recipes in her book. The title page of Hall's book has been carefully ruled and elaborately decorated to read:

      Her Booke
      of Receipts Anno
      Domini ~ 1672

This is a book with an overtly expressed purpose: for Hall to collect recipes. More subtly, though, the book provides Hall with a space to practice her own calligraphic script and drawing. Without the adroit technical mastery so clearly evident in Cole's work, the text nevertheless reveals the complex workings of a woman's mind in the act of incorporating knowledge acquired through books or from teachers into her everyday experiences.

Multiple hands appear throughout Hall's receipt book, probably indicating that she asked others to contribute recipes to the book. The unsigned contributors for Hall's book must have fostered a community of knowledge sharing, much as Elizabeth Beane did by providing her students with poems and problems to copy onto beautiful pages in their flourishing calligraphic hands. In Hall's receipt book, though, it is difficult to distinguish when new writers enter the discourse and when variant handwriting styles reflect Hall's own handwriting exercises. Some of the receipts have been copied in cursive italic hands that range from careful and fluent to sloppy, which suggests that multiple scribes added their contributions to the collection. Other receipts, however, have been written out in self-consciously artistic lettering as in the receipt for "Aqua Mirabilis" on folio 11 or in the carefully ruled section of medicinal receipts. Subtle designs, line breaks, and flourishes showcase an author or a group of authors exploring the possibility of bringing one form of knowledge to bear on another.

Hall's book of receipts beautifully displays the ways in which writing could serve as a participatory and practical act for early modern women. Of the group of individuals whose hands appear in MS V.a.20, many seem as interested in adding a degree of presentational beauty to the book as in providing usable culinary and medicinal knowledge.

Cole's arithmetic exercise book and Hall's receipt book offer evidence of two slightly different ways in which women found connections between their day-to-day existences, their education, and their writings. Produced outside of the formal domain of institutional education, these documents suggest the vital interactions between pedagogical practices and domestic functionality in women's education. By looking at women's exercise books and receipt books like these, we can reconstruct some of the ways in which women incorporated educational practices into their lives—and ways in which, through the practices taught to them, women could adapt educational practices in order to assemble their own modes of self-expression.

Suggested Reading:


Anon. An introduction for to lerne to recken with the pen. London, 1539.

Cole, Sarah. Arithmetic exercise book (1685), held by the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS V.b.292).

Cocker, Edward. The Tutor to Writing and Arithmetic. London, 1664.

Fane, Rachel. Notebook, held by the Centre for Kentish Studies Maidstone, Kent (U269 F38/1 No. 14). Page from the notebook reproduced with commentary and transcriptions by Caroline Bowden in Reading Early Modern Women: An Anthology of Texts in Manuscript and Print, 1550–1700. Helen Ostovich and Elizabeth Sauer, eds. New York and London: Routledge, 2004, 74–77.

Hall, Constance. Receipt book (1672), held by the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS V.a.20).

Noon, Edward. Brachyarithmia or The rules of arithmetick in a short and easie method Written in a variety of useful hands. London, 1690.

Serjant, Mary. Arithmetic exercise book (1688), held by the Beinecke Library (Osborn Shelves MS fb.98).

Wingate, Edmund. The clarks tutor for arithmetick and writing, or, A plain and easie way of arithmetick. London, 1671.


Bowden, Caroline. "The Notebooks of Rachael Fane: Education for Authorship?" in Early Modern Women's Manuscript Writing: Selected Papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium. Victoria E. Burke and Jonathan Gibson, eds. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004, 157–80.

Burke, Victoria, Elizabeth Clarke, and Sara Pennell, "Workshop #13: Early Modern Goods and Women's Manuscript Compilations: Poetry and Recipes," in Culture and Change: Attending to Early Modern Women. Margaret Mikesell and Adele Seef, eds. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003, 207–08.

Clarke, Danielle. The Politics of Early Modern Women's Writing. New York and London: Longman, 2001.

Ezell, Margaret J. M. Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

——. Writing Women's Literary History. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Ferguson, Margaret W. Dido's Daughters: Literacy, Gender, and Empire in Early Modern England and France. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Pennell, Sara. "Perfecting Practice? Women, Manuscript Recipes and Knowledge in Early Modern England," in Early Modern Women's Manuscript Writing: Selected Papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium. Victoria Burke and Jonathan Gibson, eds. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2004, 237–58.

Reading Early Modern Women: An Anthology of Texts in Manuscript and Print, 1550–1700. Helen Ostovich and Elizabeth Sauer, eds. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.