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Shakespeare & Beyond

What were women reading? A dive into the Folger vault

Daniel Dyke
Daniel Dyke

Peer with me into the books left behind by women readers in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. What kind of books were they reading? What sort of notes did they write in them? What can we learn about their lives?

Using the Folger’s online catalog, I’ve been able to identify hundreds of women from the late 1500’s to the early 1800’s and the books they had in their possession. Some of the women who turn up are quite well-known, such as Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife (“survived”). She left a Book of Hours (a Christian devotional book) that she had given to Henry, perhaps when she first came to England.

Book of Hours

Book of Hours, Salisbury. Paris, 1533? Folger STC 15982

Inside the back of the book she wrote: “I beseech your grace h[umble] when you look on this remember me. your grace’s assured anne the daughter of cleves.” (I’ve modernized spellings throughout this blog post.)

Many of the women and girls I’ve found, however, are not well-known, or not known at all, and in a way this makes them more interesting. They are the ordinary people, most of them middle-class, who collected books, or were given a book, or shared a book with their friends, or passed one down in the family, or just doodled their name on a rainy day when they were bored.


Thanks, Georgianna. I love these and hope to see more of what you’ve found. Great work!

Elissa Weaver — January 25, 2020

Wonderful essay, Georgianna.

Sarah Lindenbaum — January 30, 2020

Great detective work. Thank you for this splendid post.

Janine Barchas — February 3, 2020

This is so great. Thank you!

Julie Eckerle — February 14, 2020