The Folger Shakespeare Library already has two copies of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, published in 1570, so why would we want another, especially as it is only volume 1, of a two-volume set? The answer provides a good example of how we decide what rare items to add to the collection.
We purchased this volume in June from Bonham’s auction house in London. Two things about it piqued our interest. One is the binding of beautiful stamped leather dating from the period of the book. My colleague, Frank Mowery, Rare Bindings Specialist, has had a close look at the volume and describes it as having a 1570 London decorative roll binding. A roll was a hand tool rather like a pizza cutter, but with a design on the roll which could be embossed into leather. Several medallion head rolls are used on the binding of this volume, that is, there is a design of a head within a circular medallion, rather like the profile portraits on classical coins. For those of you who are binding junkies, Frank has identified the rolls as Oldham, Plate XLVII, HM. a (6) #775; Oldham, Plate XLVII, HM. a (3) #772; and Oldham, Plate XLVII, HM. a (6) #775. (Oldham refers to James Basil Oldham’s English Blind-stamped Bindings.) The book had two clasps, hinging from the front cover and catching on the back. The leather straps are gone but the brass catch plates are still in place.
The second intriguing aspect of this volume is an elaborate, six-line inscription on the verso of the title page, written in a decorative hand.
It records the birth of James Pytt “at Wandsworth in Surrey betwene xi and xii of the clock in the fore noone” on 21 June 1575. The Pytt family was obviously of some standing, as the child’s godfathers are listed as Sir James Dyer and Sir James Hawes. Sir James Dyer, “Lord chief Justice of the Comon Plees,” was also a scholar with deep knowledge of the law. Sir James Hawes, “Lorde Maior of London,” held that post between 1574 and 1575. He had been an Alderman and was a master clothworker. Since they both died in 1582 when the boy was seven, they could not have had much influence on his upbringing as was expected of godparents. 1 The woman named as the baby’s godmother, Martha Willforde, shares the last name of his mother, Elizabeth Willforde, and is likely related to the child through her. 2
It has been suggested that the book was given as a christening present, which would be a bit unusual. More typical presents at the time would have been silver, in the form of cups or plate, or some other remembrance. For example, a letter in the Folger dated August 12, 1617 from Walter Bagot orders his servant to send a piece of silver to his new godchild. We also know that a gentlewoman named Joyce Jeffries “gave ribbons and silks, silver tankards, bowls, and money to thirteen godhildren between 1638 and 1647,” as recorded in her accounts. 3
A closer look at the volume suggests that it was probably not a christening present but an item of value nevertheless. At the top of the title page is inscribed “Edwarde Pytt” along with “Semper idem” and the price of the book in 1573, 21 shillings. (“Semper idem” is the masculine form of Queen Elizabeth’s motto, “Semper eadem,” and means “always the same.”) He was obviously a man of means, because 21 shillings was a lot to spend on a book, even one that is 14 inches high, 10 inches wide, 3 ¼ inches thick, and weighs much more than the new baby! Modern scholars estimate that a copy of Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” would have sold for 10 to 15 shillings, the equivalent of about three-weeks work “for a skilled craftsman.” 4 The higher price of Pytt’s volume likely included the fine binding.
I’d like to suggest the following scenario. Edward Pytt purchased this book just three years after it had been printed, and it obviously would have taken pride of place in his Wandsworth home, south of the Thames. I’m guessing that when his son James was born in 1575, Edward marked this important occasion by carefully inscribing details of the birth and christening on the verso of the title page, right over the large woodcut of Queen Elizabeth’s coat of arms.
Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs,” detailing the history of the church in England, and especially the sufferings of the Protestants under Mary Tudor, was an important and popular book. In 1571, a year after the expanded second edition was published, the English church officially ordered that copies be supplied to all cathedrals and senior clergy, and eventually parish churches were also required to have copies. Next to the Bible, it was perhaps the most important book in the realm, both religiously and politically. The fact that Edward Pytt had a copy of his own indicates his loyalty to the English crown and church, as well as his prosperity.
Plenty of research questions remain about this book. For instance, what do the markings in the book tell us about how it was read? And what do we know about books that might have been given as christening presents? We hope some of you will make more discoveries that will add to the rich history of this volume.
- Bonhams’s catalog provides some information about the two men as well.
- More information about the Pytt family can be found through the Kyre Park charters.
- As recorded in David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997), 159. See also The Business and Household Accounts of Joyce Jeffreys, ed. Judith M. Spicksley (Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2012).
- David Loades, “The Early Reception,” in The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). Available from: http//www.johnfoxe.org (accessed 08. 30.12).
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What a great article on such an interesting book. Goes to show that the historical value of a text is tangled up with individual copies of it. A library like the Folger can’t have too many of them.
Lee Piepho — October 23, 2012
That certainly was Mr and Mrs Folger’s attitude about the first folio.
Deborah J. Leslie — November 3, 2012
Wonderful and thoughtful article. Thank you.
Carole Levin — November 19, 2012