Skip to main content
The Collation

The itemized life: John Kay’s notebook


Folger MS X.d.446, p. 1. The top of the first page of John Kay’s notebook: “Iohanes Kaius me Iure possidet”

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s catalog entry for the Kay family papers describes Folger X.d.446 twice: first as “account book, ca. 1561-ca. 1592” and then as “Verses by John Kay, son of Arthur Kay, embodying his experiences as a land owner and husbandman and often taking the form of moral and practical precepts to his heir.” There’s no real surprise in finding both accounts and verses in a single book, particularly when those verses are about husbandry—an area of early modern life where thrift and poetry nestled cozily together. Kay’s book is noteworthy not because it combines these things, but because it does so with both care and a kind of inventiveness, even playfulness. In Kay’s hand, the combination becomes a unique form of life-writing.1

Some pages are all accounts; some all thrifty verses. Some combine both:

Folger MS X.d.446, p. 7. Verses on husbandry, with memoranda in the margins.

Here, we find verse “instruccons of howsbandrye” along with memoranda about Kay’s estate, written on a rotated page, the outer margin becoming the new top.2 General precepts rub shoulders with specific records. In the poem’s fifth stanza, we are told, “A gentleman can not goo gaye / and manteyne costly fare / Except he knowe the shifte & way / Both how to spend and spare”; and in the seventh, “Some grooundes will beare, wheat, barly fayre / Some, graynes of other hewe.” In the margin, we learn that in 1574, Kay “bowght thomus blich to my dowghter for the some of iiC & xxtie poundes,” and that in 1575 he “buyldyd a garnar chamber & wallyd my foyne howse” and gave his son Arthur “one hundrith poundes to bye him an office.”

Not every page includes both financial and poetic material, and those that do follow differing formats. The fourteen-page section containing “instruccons of howsbandrye” foregrounds verse, with carefully written memoranda (covering 1574 to 1592) appearing only in the outer margins. But the section immediately following flips the emphasis. Here, we get several pages dedicated to financial accounts (mostly recording cattle sales), with a few thrifty verses squeezed in. Under notes on the sale of a “fatt oxe” and the payment of half-year wages, Kay writes out “Certayn Intsruccons for a good howskeper to folow,” beginning with: “ffirst serve thi god early, kepe holie his day / vysitt his temple, learn others to pray.”

Folger MS X.d.446, p. 21. The bottom half of a page of financial records followed by thrifty verses.

Combining accounts and counsel, Kay’s book organizes time.3 Records of events and transactions capture the past, while advice poems aim at a stable, prosperous future. Throughout, Kay’s focus is on the relatively recent past and the relatively near future. He records the accomplishments and acquisitions of his father, Arthur. And he offers precepts “to be obseruyd by hym that / dwelleth at Wodsome” (p. 7)—that is, to his own successor. The book’s thrifty counsel, if followed, would lead John Kay’s heir to behave more or less like John Kay’s father. So, for example, we hear about how the elder Kay purchased “denby grainge” (p. 56) and “Lyngardes” (p. 66), and we also get a general “Lesson ffor Landbyers”:

Folger MS X.d.446, p. 6. Part of “A Lesson ffor Landbyers”.

Between these poles—past, future; father, heir—John Kay’s own life comes into view. Anyone who has spent time with a single-author (or single-compiler, or even single-account-keeper) manuscript is familiar with the sense of getting to know the person behind the hand. A habitual turn of phrase, a verse copied twice, a doodle: these can all create the feeling that we have apprehended more than we have actually read on the page. It’s easy to see, or almost see—like a shadow glimpsed out of the corner of the eye—a complex personality embedded in a web of relationships.

Sometimes, though, the sense of encountering a life amounts to more than hints and inferences. As Adam Smyth has taught us, account books and commonplace books are, in a very real sense, autobiographies.4 Whatever else John Kay wanted this collection of pages to do, he seems to have wanted them to record life, or rather, lives. This particular notebook, in its selective eclecticism, experiments with biography. It knits up past with future and links people with land, money, and goods. And, drawing together accounts and poems, lists and verses, it allows John Kay to draft two other lives intertwined with his own: that of his father Arthur, and that of their estate.

It’s this last one, the life or biography of the estate, about which the notebook provides sustained and detailed information spanning three decades. In 1561, John made a new stable, and in 1562, a drawbridge (p. 3). In 1572, he and John Baylie “bowght of Sir Robert Stapleton his manor of honlay” (p. 4). In 1579, “great wynds & Raynes” in September and October devastated harvests (p. 10); years later, in 1592, John records that “I dyd get xxtie loades of hey in vpon one day” (p. 18).

Information on Arthur Kay’s life appears in a few places, but his biography proper takes up a single page: “Memorandum parte of the greattist thinges that my father dyd in his tyme for the advauncement of his howsse”:

Folger MS X.d.446, p. 50. Part of John Kay’s itemized account of the “greattist thinges” his father “dyd in his tyme for the advauncement of his howsse”.

Arthur’s life is bound up in the life “of his howsse.”5 He built a chimney, cleared fields, bought land. John also records notable social interactions: a lawsuit with the “Batersbyes,” and another “costly suyte” entered into with one Yarborough. What’s really striking here, though, is the form Arthur’s biography takes. John explicitly borrows the structure of account-keeping, itemizing his father’s life: “Inprimis he made the hall chymney”; “Item he stubbed almoost the half of the demayn which was all wood”; further down the page, “Item he bowght the denby grainge with all the members therunto belonging.” This is an account—in the sense of a narrative—that borrows the form of an account—in the sense of a record of financial dealings.

If Arthur’s life is continuous with that of his estate, John’s is bound up in them both. In some ways, of course, John’s life is the subject of the whole notebook, appearing in flashes and glimpses behind every line. But on the notebook’s last page, he gives us a full-on autobiographical poem.6 Though not written in the same “account-keeping” style as his father’s biography, this poem repeatedly flags itself as a similar kind of exercise. It is titled “A Brief note or accoumpte of myn owne estate 1592,” and, throughout, the language and habits of account-keeping structure reflections on family, on God, on a long life lived.

Folger MS X.d.446, p. 66. The title and first stanza of Kay’s autobiographical poem, “A Brief note or accoumpte of myn owne estate 1592.”

The first stanza offers a kind of familial, or biological, account-keeping: a list of births and deaths: “My wife and I together mett / according to our Parentes will / Wedded we were at yeares syxtene / When neyther of vs had great skyll / yet dyd the Lord our wantes fulfill / and sent vs children, tenn and fyve / of all xv Tenn are alyve.”

The second stanza shifts from the worldly to the divine, offering an image of God doing his own kind of reckoning:

Folger MS X.d.446, p. 66. The second stanza of Kay’s autobiographical poem.

“Thes tenn and I do here yet Remayn,” Kay writes. They live varyingly in “wealth” or “woe” as God pleases. This state of earthly flux will last “vntill such tyme, he Crowne with blisse / all such as he accompteth his.”

The final two stanzas turn earthward, to the arena where the poet perhaps feels most at home: worldly affairs of land and property:

Folger MS X.d.446, p. 66. The third and fourth stanzas of Kay’s autobiographical poem.

The third returns to the young married couple from the start of the poem—“Our feoffament was but xxtie markes”—and then dips further into the past, returning to Arthur. It informs us he lived until John was forty-eight, and approvingly notes that his program of land-buying provided his heirs with plenty of “elbowrowme.”

The last stanza moves on to John himself. First, it tallies up a lifetime’s greatest expenses: the “charge” of bringing up children, his daughters’ dowers, the costly activities of “marlyng” and “Buylding.” But there is more profit, in this life, than loss. Having raised the specter of great charges, he assures us, “The Cost wherof I have defrayed,” and goes on:

All wey Content, all well apaied
My Lyving also I have Augment
Full Fyftie poundes in peny Rent.

These last lines record expenses paid, and an estate enriched. A final rhyme—Augment, peny Rent—nicely settles John Kay’s accounts.

  1. The Folger’s Kay family papers contain a number of documents in John’s hand, as well as writings attributed to him and apparently copied out by his descendants. Many of the poems and some of the records included in X.d.446 appear in more than one place; some duplications are noted here.
  2. This long poem begins with general precepts, then over the course of several pages lays out good husbandly practices for each month of the year. This structure bears the clear influence of Thomas Tusser, whose A hundreth good pointes of husbandrie (1557) and Fiue hundreth points of good husbandry (1573) were popular during Kay’s lifetime. Kay in fact praises Tusser’s “learnyd layes” in a poem titled “Myne Opynyon of Tusser and Pursfreman Lytel voloumes” (Folger W.b.483, p. 3; see also Folger X.d.445, fol. 3v).
  3. My considering this notebook on its own partly warranted by its consistent mixing of poetic, financial, and biographical material, but it is in many ways part and parcel of a larger and more scattered project of recording personal and family history. It is also possibly a fragment. In W.b.582, p. 32, a later writer describes a (lost? parceled out?) Kay family book that sounds similar in contents to this notebook, but larger in size—an inch-and-a-half thick—and bound in leather. Yet the notebook’s long chronology, from the 1560s to the 1590s, as well as its “bookended” first and last pages (the announcement that “Iohanes Kaius me Iure possidet” on page 1, and the final account of his life, on p. 66) suggests a kind of completeness.
  4. Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England (New York: Cambridge UP, 2010).
  5. For more detail, see the account of Arthur’s activities in W.b.482, pp. 5-13.
  6. The poem appears also in X.d.449, p. 11 and W.b.482, p. 4, where it is dated 1591.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *