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Writing in Books

Like many of us do today, the owner of this book carefully inscribed his name in it: “Thys boke is myne Prince Henry.” The boy who would grow up to be Henry VIII was probably around eleven when he laid claim to the book, an age appropriate for early modern schoolboys to study Cicero. There are annotations and glosses throughout the book, probably written by Henry and his tutor, the poet John Skelton.


While part of the excitement of this book is its remarkable owner, marginalia by all sorts of readers can provide insight into how books were used. The extensive inscriptions in this copy of Euclid’s Elements reveal its nature as a working textbook, with mathematical exercises and proofs written in the margins in the various hands of its owners.


While readers felt free to annotate these books, some printed books directly encouraged their users to write in them. Almanacs were often bound with blank leaves for their users to take notes. By creating a form that recorded the day-by-day details of individual lives, such almanacs can be seen as starting a new form of autobiographical writing. The development of new writing technologies further shaped writing possibilities. Shown here are a set of erasable tablets bound into an almanac—made from specially coated paper, they could be written on with a metal stylus, washed clean, then used again. Not only can such writing tablets be reused, they also make writing portable. Rather than needing to carry quill, ink, blotting sand, and penknife, a writer needs only tablet and stylus.


The writing left in books by their readers—and the technologies that enable those writings—provide valuable insight into how books were used, insight that in turn can help us better understand past cultures and our own relationship to books.


Cicero. Commentum familiare in Ciceronis officia. Lyon, 1502.

Euclid Elements. Latin. Venice, 1482

Writing tables. London, 1604.

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