Marking books: The Workes of Benjamin Jonson (1640)

Marking Books in the Early Modern Period

Whereas nowadays libraries expressly forbid readers to write in books, in the early modern period, students were encouraged to make marks in the books they read. Readers of books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were taught by schoolmasters and educational manuals to annotate or make other types of marks in their books as a memory aid for knowledge that needed to be remembered.

This practice was fairly common among early modern readers. However, many annotations or other marks in books no longer survive. In the nineteenth century, librarians and antiquaries either did not preserve marked books, because they were viewed as damaged, or margins were washed or trimmed in order to remove the offending marks. William Sherman gives a full account of this phenomenon in his Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (2008).

This Marked Book

In Special Collections of the Reading University Library, there is a copy of the second Folio of Ben Jonson’s Works (1640) that has been marked in ink by an early modern reader. The identity of this reader is unknown. Early modern book owners often wrote their name, or just as often practised their signatures, on the blank leaves placed at the start and end of the book when it was bound. This particular book was rebound in the early twentieth century and any surviving blank leaves have long disappeared. The only surviving legible annotation, written in pencil, dates from the 1960s and records Professor D.G. Gordon’s gift of the book to the Reading University Library: ‘Presented to Reading University Library by Professor D. J. Gordon, October 1960’. D. J. Gordon, who died in 1977, was Professor of English at the University of Reading.

Although this reader marked the book heavily, he or she did not write in the book. These are not the written annotations so highly prized by early modern scholars. Instead they are heavily inked marks designed to obliterate words and phrases. Yet, this too is a record of a mode of reading. Instead of underlining or noting words as a memory aid, this reader removes offending words entirely in an act of censoring the text. The vast majority of the words inked out are blasphemous – ‘i’faith’ or ‘good faith’, ‘gads lid’ (God’s blood) or just ‘slid’, ‘‘fore heaven’. Some profanities escaped this reader’s pen, for example, on page 8 of the first volume  ‘whoreson’, sixteen lines from the top of the page, escapes censure, while the mildly blasphemous ‘good faith’ and ‘‘fore heaven’ do not. All religious references, even pagan, are deemed sensitive. For example, Bobadill’s catchphrase ‘by Pharoah’s foot’ is consistently scored through in Every Man in his Humour.

Act I, Scene V of Every Man in his Humour 

Occasionally, it appears the reader takes his or her censuring pen to phrases deemed redundant or perhaps misread as blasphemous. In Act I, Scene V of Every Man in his Humour, Bobadill’s ‘By the foot of Pharaoh’ is blotted out, but so is the seemingly innocuous ‘by this air’. Similarly at the start of Act II, Scene II, once again Bobadill’s ‘By the foot of Pharaoh’ is crossed through, but so too is ‘The time of day to’ immediately underneath. This may be due to a slip of the pen, but it also may be signs of other types of editorial work beyond removing blasphemies, and perhaps is intended to remove phrases that are deemed unnecessary.

Act II, Scene II of Every Man in his Humour

It therefore possible that the texts of these plays were ‘cleaned up’ and edited for reading aloud or performing in polite company, composed of gentlewomen as well as gentlemen. Ironically, this censuring reader of Jonson’s Works could be said to an extreme version of Jonson’s ideal reader, whom he characterised as a man of judgement. In this reader’s judgement, it is Jonson’s own language that needs a good purging.


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