Skip to main content
The Collation

A Blessing to Booksellers

In her 1616 mother’s advice book, The Mothers Blessing, Puritan author Dorothy Leigh exhorts her readers: “Teach a childe in his youth the trade of his life, and he will not forget it, not depart from it when he is old.”1 This well-known Bible verse explains the lifelong project of labor for spiritual learning required for the practicing Christian. Leigh’s godly advice applies to her readers at all stages of life as they learn the precepts of faith in youth through their adulthood until their old age when they shall reap the fruit of their spiritual labor in death. Mother’s advice books were a popular genre used to supplement parental instruction, which means we often see the evidence of young readers in these books.

Dorothy Leigh. The mothers blessing. Or, The godly counsell of a gentle-woman, not long since deceased, left behinde her for her children. London: 1640. Folger STC 15408

The title page of the work addresses the importance that this book holds for both parents and children, as it “Contain[s] many good exhortations, and godly admonitions, profitable for all Parents to leave as a Legacy to their Children, but especially for those, who by reason of their young yeers stand most in need of Instruction.”2

Verso of title page, Folger STC 15408

Elizabeth Bewe is my name
And with my pen I wrote the same
An if my pen had been better
I had wr[i]te every letter

One of these readers of “young yeers” makes her mark in the Folger copy of the 1640 edition of Dorothy Leigh’s book. A girl named Elizabeth Bewe left two short poems on the only blank pages in the book. On the final flyleaf, a young man by the name of Thomas Bewe (possibly her brother) joins her in making his presence in the book known. By the childlike handwriting and simplicity of Elizabeth’s sentiments, it seems likely an adult in her life sat her down with Leigh’s book to teach her how to be a godly child.

An under-explored aspect of The Mothers Blessing that separates it from the rest of mother’s advice books is the author’s emphasis on the medium of print and the success of the book in that area. The Mothers Blessing was first published in 1616 and regularly reprinted twenty-eight times through 1729.3 The high number of printed editions of Leigh’s book echoes her thoughts on the task of godly writing: “If all the sea were inke, and all the iron in the world were pennes, and all the creatures writers, they could never declare the great benefits, the great blessings, and the great mercies given unto us in Christ Jesus our Lord and Saviour.”4

For Leigh, it is her duty at least to attempt this impossible task—despite the seeming futility of her exercise, she pens her godly book. The printing press and its large output of her books brought the author much closer to using the sea of ink than she could have anticipated. Because of the impressive number of print runs for The Mothers Blessing, Leigh’s book belongs among Protestant devotional steady-sellers.5 As Ian Green defines it, a steady-seller “sold best and most consistently over a period of decades”6 and these books “are best understood through numbers of editions; and these numbers far outweigh editions of poetry or drama published in the period.”7 The sheer magnitude of editions kept The Mothers Blessing in the public’s consciousness long after its initial print run.8 Because of its popularity, others sought to capitalize on the success of Leigh’s book.9

While she should receive complete credit for writing a book that could withstand so many reprints and survive for generations, Leigh had nothing to do with the solidification of her book in print as we know from the title page—she was “a Gentlewoman not long since deceased.”10 The longevity of The Mothers Blessing could not have been achieved without the printers and publishers (and purchasers) who ushered Leigh’s work into print and the homes of generations of families. These men let Leigh’s work speak for itself without their mediation through a printer’s letter to the reader—a unique case among mother’s advice books and early printed books, in general. A short study of the stationers responsible for the success of The Mothers Blessing helps us understand the successful history of Leigh’s book as a devotional steady-seller.

On 26 February 1616, John Budge (freed 21 January 1606) entered “a booke called, the mothers blessing written by Mistris Dorathy Leighe” into the Stationers’ Register.11 London, 1876, 269. Budge sold books out of his shop at the sign of the Green Dragon by the great South door in the churchyard at St. Paul’s Cathedral and at Britain’s Burse, otherwise known as the New Exchange.12 Both shop positions were in high-traffic areas frequented by male and increasingly female shoppers of all classes, providing a prominent place for the display of Leigh’s book.13 Budge produced six editions of The Mothers Blessing in as many years. He then signed over the right to print the book to Master Robert Allott, a publisher whose shop, the Black Bear, stood four stalls away from the Green Dragon.14 Allott purchased the rights to print The Mothers Blessing, along with thirty-nine other titles, on 4 September 1626.15

According to the Record of the Court of the Stationers’ Company, on that same date, 4 September, “Mr Parker having resigned his estat in mr Budges Copies they are to be entred to mr Allott.”16 Because Parker no longer wanted his interest in John Budge’s business, Robert Allott took over the forty titles in which Parker held stakes. Allott then proceeded to publish four editions of The Mothers Blessing.17 After he had finished his round of printing Leigh’s book, Allott signed it over to Thomas Lambert, a noted ballad seller, on 26 April 1634.18 Lambert only published one edition of the book in 1636 from the Horseshoe at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital gate, most likely because the text did not fit the purview or location of his business. Therefore, on 12 April 1639, Thomas Lambert signed the license over to Master Thomas Dainty, who did not choose to print the book.19 Instead, he reassigned it to Master Andrew Crooke (freed 26 March 1629) on 2 September 1639. When Andrew Crooke began as a freedman in the Stationers’ Company, he took over Robert Allott’s shop, the Black Bear, from his widow Mary. He ran the shop from 1632 to 1639 and was its final occupant.20 Crooke then moved to the sign of the Green Dragon and published from there after 1640.21

Over the next 30 years, Crooke published six editions of The Mothers Blessing.22 These movements demonstrate that Leigh’s book was sold from the same two shops throughout the majority of its print history. The position of the book within the churchyard of St. Paul’s within the same few stalls contributed to the book’s status as a steady-seller. Readers would always know where to find the book and would be able to purchase it at the humming center of commerce and worship of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

scanned microfilm of the title page of a book

Image of Norden’s book. Image caption: John Norden. A Poore Man’s Rest. London: 1620. British Library copy courtesy of Early English Books Online

Remarkably, Leigh’s steady-seller was not the only book to follow this same exact trajectory. A Poore Mans Rest, a prayer book by the cartographer and devotional writer John Norden,23 passed from John Budge to Robert Allot, then Thomas Lambert, Thomas Dainty, and finally ended up in the hands of Andrew Crooke.24

Leigh’s and Norden’s books were always reassigned to the next publisher together with the exception of their initial printings. The first known edition of Norden’s duodecimo tract can be traced to 1620, although the title page of this edition indicates it was the eighth. The evidence suggests it was originally a close contemporary with The Mothers Blessing which had reached four editions by this time.25 Norden’s tract also qualifies as a steady-seller with twenty known editions.26 The last publisher to hold both of these licenses, Andrew Crooke, purchased them right before a drop-off in prayer-book sales. According to Ian Green, this slump began around 1640. He speculates that the sale of independent prayer books plummeted due to Archbishop William Laud’s push for The Book of Common Prayer’s sole use in church services which helped centralize church authority and tried to squash individual prayer practices.27 These publishers, regardless of their religious leanings, knew they could rely on the steady stream of sales of the popular devotional writings to propel their business.

An interesting correlation between Norden’s and Leigh’s works is their almost obsessive interest in prayer. The majority of Leigh’s book gives instructions on how to pray, when, how much, and the various distractions from prayer; Norden’s book supplies the prayers, which the booksellers could provide as a natural pairing with Leigh’s promotion of individual prayer composition. Because both books were printed in duodecimo for portable and cheap reading, had a similar focus on prayer, and were generally passed between printers together, it seems advantageous for these books to be paired at the bookseller’s shop.28 These two books may or may not have been considered complements to one another, but it appears publishers knew to rely on the status of these books as steady-sellers in maintenance of their businesses.

The Mothers Blessing was printed five more times after 1640, with four of the editions published in the eighteenth century.29 The most striking aspect of the many editions of the book is how surprisingly stable the text remained over the course of its one hundred year history. The title page, even in the eighteenth century, refers to “Mris. Dorothy Leigh” as “not long since deceased,” even though she died before the first edition of her book over a century earlier.30 Maintaining the reference to Leigh’s death on the title page gave the book the weight of a final will and testament which deserves to be treated with respect. The original dedication to Princess Elizabeth also appears in all the reprints of the book through the eighteenth century. It appears that no printers or publishers tried their hands at editing Leigh’s text in a substantive way—in fact, exactly the opposite. Those involved with the production of The Mothers Blessing preserved the text quite carefully for each generation of new readers.

  1. Proverbs 22:6 (Geneva). Dorothy Leigh, The Mothers Blessing in Women’s Writing in Stuart England: The Mothers’ Legacies of Dorothy Leigh, Elizabeth Joscelin, and Elizabeth Richardson, ed. Sylvia Brown. Thrupp, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1999, 31. For the purpose of continuity, all citations from The Mothers Blessing will come from the 1999 critical edition of Leigh’s text edited by Sylvia Brown with original spelling. Because Leigh’s text is stable throughout its many editions (with the exception of the 1616 title page), I have chosen to use Brown’s non-invasive critical edition. All further citations of Leigh’s work in Brown’s edition will be cited under Leigh’s name. References to any other editions of Leigh’s work will be noted. This passage is cited by Dorothy Leigh in Chapter 11 with the marginal gloss: “Children to bee taught, betimes, and brought up gently.” All biblical passages used by Leigh are rendered in the Geneva translation.
  2. Ibid., Title Page.
  3. Only sixteen extant editions of The Mothers Blessing remain between 1616 and 1674. For no clear reason, scholars’ sleight of hand often caps the dates for Leigh’s print run at 1645 or 1674. It should be noted how impressive it is that Leigh’s book continued to be printed into the eighteenth century, not covered up simply because the dates do not correlate with the typical time frame for the early modern period.
  4. Dorothy Leigh, 40.
  5. Ian Green, 637. Green includes Dorothy Leigh’s book in his comprehensive list of steady-sellers.
  6. Ibid, viii.
  7. Matthew Brown, The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, 7.
  8. “Leigh, Dorothy (d. in or before 1616),” Jocelyn Catty in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, DNB online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, Oxford: OUP, (accessed August 1, 2013).
  9. Gervase Markham opportunistically rebranded his household advice as a sequel to The Mothers Blessing, published the same year as Leigh’s fifth edition in 1622. A Second Part to the Mothers Blessing: or A Cure Against Misfortunes. London: G.P. for Thomas Dewe, 1622.
  10. Leigh, 15.
  11. Edward Arber, ed. A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London 1554-1640, Volume III.
  12. A.W. Pollard and G.R. Redgrave, A Short Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad 1475-1640, Volume III. London: The Bibliographic Society, 1991, pp. 232-259.
  13. Jean E. Howard, Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy, 1598-1642. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, 36-38.
  14. Peter W. M. Blayney, “The Bookshops in Paul’s Cross Churchyard” in Occasional Papers of the Bibliographical Society, no. 5. London: The Bibliographical Society, 1990, 77. Budge printed The Mothers Blessing again in 1617, twice in 1618, 1621, and 1622 (ESTC).
  15. Arber, 129-130.
  16. William A. Jackson, ed. Record of the Court of the Stationers’ Company. London: The Bibliographical Society, 1957, 189.
  17. 1629, 1630, 1633, 1634.
  18. Arber, 291.
  19. Ibid, 437.
  20. Pollard and Redgrave, 232.
  21. Arber, 448.
  22. 1640, 1641, 1656, 1663, 1667, 1674.
  23. John Norden was a follower of the Elizabethan reformed church, an unlikely companion for Leigh’s text. The title, however, linked the two books because of their shared interest in personal prayer life. “Norden, John (c.1547–1625),” Frank Kitchen in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, (accessed November 4, 2013).
  24. Arber, 448.
  25. John Norden, A Poore Mans Rest. London: John Budge, 1620.
  26. Ian Green, 642.
  27. Ibid, 274.
  28. For a lengthier discussion of the inner workings of booksellers’ stalls, see Gary Taylor, “Making Meaning Marketing: Shakespeare 1623” in From Performance to Print in Shakespeare’s England, eds. Peter Holland and Stephen Orgel. Hampshire, England and New York: 2006, pp.55-72.
  29. 1707, 1712, 1718, 1729.
  30. “Leigh, Dorothy (d. in or before 1616),” Jocelyn Catty in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, DNB online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, Oxford: OUP. (accessed April 6, 2013).