Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Reading Materials: Textile Surfaces and Early Modern Books

Claire Canavan[1]

[1] A portrait believed to be of Elizabeth Pierrepont, Countess of Kellie and wife of Thomas Erskine, offers a suggestive glimpse into how early moderns understood books as enmeshed within a proliferation of surrounding material surfaces. Painted by Paul van Somer around 1619, Figure one shows Pierrepont standing beside a book, probably a Bible, in an ornate binding, perhaps an example of the elaborate embroidered covers which were in vogue during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Fabrics extend both into and out from the book. A multi-stranded bookmark protrudes from the top and bottom of the spine, its tasselled bar and red, gold and silver threads co-ordinating with the cover and with the red ties which trail off the edge of the book-block. Falling onto the velvet cushion upon which the book rests, these textiles find visual, material and conceptual continuities in the fabric surfaces which surround them. The cover is echoed in the tones and pattern of Pierrepont’s gown. The bookmark’s curling threads offer textural correspondences with the chair’s golden fringe and tassels as well as the wrinkled fingers of the adjacent glove, a symmetry which suggests correlations between the book’s cover and the glove’s embroidered gauntlet.

Figure one: Attributed to Paul van Somer, ‘Elizabeth, Countess of Kellie’, c. 1619, oil on canvas, 205.7 x 123.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, Accession Number B1981.25.598.


[2] Produced around the time when Pierrepont’s husband was appointed Earl of Kellie and showing her lavishly attired, this painting might be seen as portraying the well-dressed, stately book and its material connections as a spectacle of political authority and fashionable display. In this context, the portrait seems to illustrate Heidi Brayman Hackel’s claim that whereas men are depicted handling or responding to open volumes, women are characteristically represented alongside, but not in contact with, closed books which serve ‘as props or mere decoration’. Hackel concludes that ‘[o]pen books — books in use — are masculine; clasped books, like chaste women, are feminine’ (2003: 112). These binaries, however, do not hold true here. Although this book’s pages remain covered, its trailing ribbon ties present the book as emphatically unclasped: as its multi-stranded bookmark underscores, this is a book in use as well as a spectacle. Showing reading in progress, these materials highlight the significant roles that threads placed on or around the surfaces of a book played in understanding a text, and ask us to consider how the haptic and visual practices prompted by textiles participated in acts of reading and interpretation.

[3] Pierrepont’s gloves, apparently wrought with the pelican in her piety, point to conceptual as well as physical correspondences with her Bible: feeding her young with her own blood, the pelican was a popular emblem of Christ’s self-sacrifice and the Eucharist, as well as offering an image of benevolent female authority, having been adopted by Elizabeth I as a symbol of her maternal devotion to her subjects (Meakin 2013: 199–201; Strong 1963: 22). This Christian iconography suggests that the book’s textual meaning as well as symbolic power might be elaborated and produced in combination with an extensive range of textile objects and furnishings.

[4] Even amongst bookbinding scholars, embroidered bindings and other ornate book coverings have been liable to be dismissed as ‘manifestation[s] of ostentatious piety and personal pride’, expressions of ‘mere vanity’ which were ‘meant for show’ and which suggest that ‘the book inside may have been only of secondary consideration’ (Foot 1998: 62–63). The tone of moral disapproval provoked by richly embellished book coverings resonates with Daniel Miller’s exposition of the ‘depth ontology’. As Miller explains, contemporary Western philosophy is underpinned by the ‘pervasive ideology’ that ‘there is a relationship between surface and lack of importance’, that ‘everything that is important for our sense of being lies in some deep interior […] as against the dangers of things we regard as ephemeral, shallow or lacking in content’ (1994: 71). For readers taught not to judge a book by its cover, this idea — that it is what is inside that matters and that surfaces are at best trivial and at worst misleading — might be aptly applied to books. Yet this not only sidesteps the mutability of bookish surfaces — contents become surfaces themselves when a book is opened — but overlooks the possibilities for reading outside as well as inside a book. Juliet Fleming has drawn attention to the vast variety of inscribed surfaces used in early modern England, from walls to skin to pots, revealing how the material surface contributed to the message in ways which refuse a ‘distinction between exterior surface and interior meaning’ (2001: 71). More recently, Bruce Smith has challenged assumptions that even bookish readers remained engrossed within a text. Rather, according to Smith’s theory of ‘ambient reading’, readers saw connections between books and their material environments, allowing the verdant images woven in the hangings that clothed domestic interiors to inform their responses to a text. Conjecturing that a tapestry book cover could mediate between words and woven images, Smith’s theory invites us to consider further the meaningful textile surfaces of books themselves, and to explore the connections they wrought with accompanying fabric objects (2009: 125–167, especially 127–28, 152–53).

[5] Whereas Miller (1994) challenges the depth ontology by examining cultures in which it is reversed — depth is mistrusted and surface prized — I want to suggest that the material accoutrements of books and accompanying objects highlight how surface and depth, and the concepts they have come to embody, are implicated in one another. Considering the fabrics which were applied to, enfolded in, and used alongside early modern books, I reveal how textile surfaces acted as significant sites which elaborated, participated in, modelled and even produced the internal structures and meanings of the bound text and paratexts.

[6] Beginning with threads which lay on the surfaces of texts — fabric bookmarks, bindings and ties — I argue that these fabrics form part of the interpretive structures of early modern books and should be regarded as complementary reading materials, in which meanings and modes of understanding might be created and perceived. I then turn to the connections between books and the surfaces of other embroidered objects, considering how books were used within ensembles of material artefacts. Where Smith looks for ekphrastic connections in the large-scale tapestries which enveloped readers (2009: 128–162), this article considers small embroidered objects such as gloves and purses which were designed to be used alongside books. Highlighting structural, aesthetic and functional correspondences between books and companionate objects, I reveal how texts were perceived as components of richly significant, and widely understood, networks of textile meaning. Examining the manual, visual, verbal and hermeneutic practices prompted by and preserved in these objects alongside writings which employ textile metaphors to conceptualize textual and paratextual content and practices, I argue that early modern readers considered textile surfaces as rich interpretive resources.

[7] Embroidered bindings and other wrought surfaces are perhaps particularly vulnerable to the depth ontology due to the gendered lens through which fabric, needlework in particular, is typically considered. As Miller highlights in his work on sartorial fashion and clothes shopping, assumptions about the insignificance of material surfaces are ‘clearly bound up in ideologies of gender, since it is women, in particular, who are associated with such activities’ (1994: 72). Embroidery has long been dismissed as mere frippery, ‘devoid of significant content’ and lacking the intellectual depth of other forms of cultural production, particularly the supposedly male pen (Parker 1989: 6). More recently, however, scholars have begun to recover some of the significance of needlework in the early modern period. Notably, Susan Frye has examined how women reworked scriptural stories in needlework pictures (2010: 116–159), whilst Bianca Calabresi has revealed how alphabets stitched in girls’ samplers constituted ‘alternative sites where literacies might originate, be registered, or be contested’ (2008: 79–104, especially 81). Assumptions that the needle is subordinate to the pen are perhaps more reflective of modern than early modern attitudes; as Dympna Callaghan has suggested, it was not until after the Renaissance that sewing was devalued as a cultural artefact and as a practice (2000: 53–81, especially 54–56, 78).

[8] Embroidery continues to be considered largely as a female ‘subculture’ (Jones and Stallybrass 2000: 156). Rebecca Olson’s work on literary invocations of large tapestries (typically woven by men rather than stitched), as well as Jeffrey Todd Knight’s exposition of structural sewing inside books, has begun to acknowledge that early modern men too developed textile literacies (Olson 2013; Knight 2015: 523–42). However, this has yet to impact on approaches to small needlework objects, with embroidered books and accessories still considered predominantly as ‘jewels for gentlewomen’ (Walsham 2004). While many objects discussed in this article had female owners, I argue that these stitched surfaces are not only revelatory of women’s reading practices; early modern men as well as women had a critical and an imaginative vocabulary with which to respond to needlework. This vocabulary not only encompassed pictorial and alphabetic content, but, as in the case of the inscribed surfaces examined by Fleming, was alert to the combination of message and medium, and regarded material forms and practices as meaningful. Applied beyond the domain of needlework, the vocabulary formed a significant metaphorical and analogical domain which men and women used to think through a range of practices and problems, including techniques of literary composition, and devotional and theological practices.

[9] In some cases, it is tempting to regard these material practices as illustrative of pre-Reformation sensibilities. In recent years, however, scholarship has challenged the rigid divide which has typically been assumed to exist between Catholic sensuality and Protestant austerity, and pointed instead towards the rich variety of tactile, visual and material resources and practices which formed part of reformed devotion (see, for example, Milner 2011; Hamling 2010). Alexandra Walsham has highlighted Protestants’ appreciation of embroidered bibles and prayer books as ‘sacred artefacts’ and as sites for instructive ‘narrative pictures’ (2004: 134, 140–41). Recently, Lucy Razzall has examined the complexities of Reformation attitudes to fine bookbindings with regards to ‘the function of external appearances’, and has cautioned against ascribing the rise of embroidered bindings in Stuart England to Laudian tastes. While noting that Protestants were anxious about a book’s material surfaces distracting and misleading readers from its ‘inner truth’, Razzall emphasises that ‘[r]eformed religion did not reject the exterior of the book as an important visual surface and interface’. ‘Protestants’, she notes, ‘remained acutely sensitive to the metaphorical potential of a material object which had an inside and an outside’ (2013: 95–136, especially 99, 101, 126, 123). The artefacts and texts discussed in this article highlight that although Catholic or Laudian sympathies could heighten interest in particular visual, gestural or textual schemes, Protestants too appreciated finely wrought textiles as aesthetic and critical objects, and used them to structure responses to texts. Engaging mind, body and material in complex hermeneutic and imaginative practices, textiles directed and participated in early modern reading experiences and thought processes, revealing that “deep” thinking could be a superficial process.[2]

Multi-stranded Bookmarks
[10]  Numerous examples of multi-stranded bookmarks like that placed in Pierrepont’s book survive from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[3] Usually preserved in scriptural and devotional reading material, extant examples are composed of a bar or ‘pippe’ to which are attached up to fourteen plaited, woven or twisted strands of silk and/or metallic threads. Some have solid-coloured strands; others are wrought with geometric or heraldic patterns. A small number have words woven into the strings, composed using a process of letter-braiding which was popular during the seventeenth century (see, for example, CUL BSS.201.C32.15).[4]

[11] Figure two shows one such alphabetic bookmark with eleven strands which was owned by Anne Hopkins, later wife of John Caygill, and which is preserved in her 1617 King James Bible, bound with The Genealogies (1632) and Psalmes (1617). The first four and the sixth and seventh strings spell out three mottos from George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes (1635), with each couplet divided across consecutive strings (Wither 1635: sigs. N2r, P2v, Y3v). The first pair note: ‘Take wing my soul and mount up higher/For Earth fulfils not my desire’; the second pair: ‘They after suffering shall be crowned/In whom a constant faith is found’; the sixth and seventh strings: ‘Even as the smoke doth pass away/So shall all worldly pompe decay’. The fifth string declares: ‘Anne Hopkins, Her Book, August [_] 16[_]6’. The final four quote the King James Version of Colossians 3:18-19: ‘Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands/ as it is fit in the Lord’; ‘Husbands, love your wives and/ be not bitter against them’ (Ghelerter, Majer and Wishner 2009: 12–13).[5]

Figure two: Anne Hopkins’ multi-stranded bookmark, mid-seventeenth century, Courtesy of Cora Ginsburg LLC.

[12]  These strands position the bookmark as an extension of and addition to the inscriptive surfaces and semantic contents of the book. Declaring the Bible ‘Her Book’, the ownership mark of the fifth string is like that penned upon a book’s pages, treating the bookmark lain upon the paper as part of the book. The verses from Colossians draw out the Bible’s contents; lifting the words off the surface of the page, they offer themselves as alternative grounds for reading and the inscriptive practices that it prompts, acting as vehicles for and products of textual extraction. The couplets from Wither insert as well as excerpt material, underscoring that the silken text is complementary rather than subsidiary to the book’s printed contents. Extracting and gathering pious reading materials, marking them as Hopkins’ own, and deploying them in fresh contexts, this bookmark’s functions resonate strongly with practices of commonplacing, compiling and note-taking. These practices have attracted considerable attention recently not only as records of reading practices and thought structures, but as compositional media (see, for example, Moss 1996; Smyth 2010: 123–58). Hopkins’ bookmark indicates that textiles constituted similarly rich resources which engendered and recorded complex interpretive and creative structures.

[13] The textual content of Hopkins’ strings elucidates particularly clearly that multi-stranded bookmarks constituted sophisticated devices, which constructed, participated in and sometimes complicated interpretive processes, presenting continuous, complementary or alternative reading surfaces to the printed text. Bookmarks without textual content were equally involved in getting to grips with books, hermeneutically and epistemologically. In his study of discontinuous biblical reading practices, Peter Stallybrass highlights that multi-stranded bookmarks functioned as ‘prosthetic fingers’. For Stallybrass, these prostheses are simply navigational, ‘tak[ing] the reader easily from place to place’ (2002: 43, 47). Yet as William Sherman has demonstrated in relation to another prosthetic finger – the manicule – early modern readers conceived of reading as a ‘self-consciously embodied practice’ in which hands grasped simultaneously the conceptual and physical matter of books (2008: 40–52, especially 48). Like these manicules, the manipulation of bookmarks involved the interpretive and imaginative manipulation of a book’s contents.

[14]  Hands feature prominently in processes of remembering, and were often used in combination with material mnemonic artefacts. Discussed in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, the practice of tying threads on one’s fingers had a long mnemonic heritage which was adapted in various practical and imaginative ways, including drawing knots on manicules (Quintilian 1970: XI, ii, 30; Carruthers 2008: 314, 450n.67). John Willis’s manual of memory arts, Mnemonica (printed in Latin in 1618 and translated into English in full in 1661), observes how a person, fearing to forget ‘some business’, ‘bindeth a Ribbon or Thred about his little finger, by sight of which visible Idea he is admonished of his charge’ (1661: sig. A6r; see also Willis 1618: sig. B7v). Referencing this practice, William Basse explains that ‘by the tying of the finger with a thrid, we are sometimes remembred, what that cannot tell vs, but points vs to, as an adiunct to our memory’ (1620: sig. B5v). Operating indexically and gesturally, this prosthetic ‘adjunct to our memory’ resonates with recent work on early modern forms of distributed cognition and the extended mind, whereby ‘the realm of the mental can spread across the physical, social, and cultural environments as well as bodies and brains’ (Sutton 2010: 189 cited in Tribble and Keene 2011: 74–75; see also Tribble 2011; Johnson, Sutton and Tribble (eds) 2013; Anderson 2015). In Thomas Tomkis’s drama, Lingua (1607), Anamnestes (‘Good Remembrance’) appears with ‘Ribbands and Threds tyed to some of his fingers, [and] in his hand a paire of Table-bookes, &c’; he holds these threads literally hand-in-hand with chirographic mnemonic technology (1607: sig. D3v).[6] Deploying similar haptic, gestural and visual stimuli to these knotted threads, the handling of bookmarks constitutes an analogous means of reminding users of marked passages. The erasable surface of Anamnestes’ ‘Table-bookes’, often used alongside commonplace books, offers a suggestive parallel to the temporary marks which repositionable bookmarks made on the surface of the page: indicating that bookmarks’ strands could constitute comparable sites of memory and meaning to inscribed tables, they suggest that the ‘visible Ideas’ of non-alphabetic strands could bear similar semantic contents to alphabetic markers.

[15]  Bookmarks were also interpretive devices which not only recorded but determined reactions to texts, impressing themselves upon the reader and shaping complex approaches to textual content. As noted above, multi-stranded bookmarks are particularly important in reading practices which move back and forth throughout a text, instead of proceeding from beginning to end (Stallybrass 2002: 47). Rather than simply supporting such habits, fabric strands could engender and extend ‘discontinuous’ readings, particularly those which pursued thematic and typological connections. Strands are often formed in pairs by folding a single string in the middle and attaching it to the pippe in a loop or with a cow hitch knot to create two page markers (see, for example, the bookmark accompanying FSL STC 2283.5; Swales and Blatt 2007: 157). This conjoined composition creates conceptually as well as materially connective structures, with the bipartite composition encouraging readers to think in dyadic and relational ways; composed of one ribbon, the coupled markers unite two separate pages, materializing continuities between physically disparate sections of text. Though wrought as individual strands, Hopkins’ marker achieves similar effects alphabetically, drawing couplets out over two strands and thus constructing semantic continuities between discontinuous pages. These woven words further multiply connections, not only prompting the reader to associate two portions of printed text, but overlaying them with a third textile verse. Placed perpendicular to typographic lines, this verse could disrupt as well as complement the printed text, requiring a spatially and perhaps conceptually different way of reading which might compete with the page as well as reveal fresh correspondences.

Figure three: Anne Hopkins’ book, bound in a tapestry cover, mid-seventeenth century, Courtesy of Cora Ginsburg LLC.

[16]  Many surviving markers accompany Bibles and other scriptural and devotional works bound in textile covers, often wrought with complementary devotionally inflected designs. For example, a 1640 Psalter containing a six-stranded marker is embroidered with scenes of David slaying Goliath, connecting David’s Psalms with scriptural records of his actions (BL C.143.a.10.). The covers of Hopkins’ Bible depict Adam and Eve picking fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, a popular choice for bible bindings, here created in the more unusual medium of tapestry (figure three). This image complements both the verses from Colossians and Wither’s mottos, portraying spousal relations, pointing towards the suffering resulting from sin, and indicating the transience of earthly pleasures relative to heavenly rewards.[7]

[17]  In their original and widely popular form, Wither’s emblems underscore the co-operation of pictorial and alphabetic forms of expression and understanding, combining motto, image, and verse-epigram (Bath 1994: 73–74). Applied to Hopkins’ book, this tripartite structure is constructed between the marker, the printed text, and the woven covers. Such an emblematic reading further challenges hierarchies of significance between textual content and textile surfaces, directing the reader to use the Bible, like the verse-epigram, to make sense of the connections between fabric words and pictures. Holding the book’s contents in tension with its cover, Hopkins’ reading materials refute the binary logic of the depth ontology, figuring the book’s meaning as something produced within an elaborate system of material surfaces, and interpretation as something practised outside as well as within a book.

On the Margins: Ribbons, Knots and Lace
[18] The imbrication of a book’s textual and textile surfaces is extended by a 1632 octavo Bible, bound with The Booke of Common Prayer (1632), The Genealogies (1633) and The Whole Book Of Psalms (1633) (NYPL Spencer Coll. Eng. 1632). This book’s embroidered binding shows Moses holding the tablets of the Law on the front cover, and, on the back, David holding his harp (figure four), both popular subjects on contemporaneous embroidered bindings of Bibles and Psalters.[8]

Figure four: Back cover of embroidered Bible with ribbon ties, New York Public Library, New York, Spencer Coll. Eng. 1632. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Indexing the inscription of the Pentateuch and the composition of the Psalms, these images draw out the various materialities of the Word. This cover also spells out the book’s contents, extracting and connecting significant passages. Although the words wrought on Moses’s tablets are now illegible, an earlier catalogue suggests that they may have read: ‘The law was given by Moses and Grace and Peace came by Jesus Christ’ (Griffiths and Farquhar 1925–26: 295).[9] A near-quotation from John 1:17, these stitched words differ slightly from the verse printed within the book and suggest the cover’s place as an alternative site of linguistic as well as material translation. Joining the two clauses using ‘and’ rather than the ‘but’ of the Authorised translation, the embroidery seems to have reinterpreted the verse’s attitude to the Old Testament, repositioning it as co-ordinated and conjoined with the New Testament, rather than its counterpoint. A banderole around Moses’s head draws out further conjunctions between the Law and Gospel, bearing Christ’s promise regarding the law, recorded in the Vulgate version of Luke 10:28: ‘hoc fac et vive [do this and thou shalt live]’. On the back cover, another banderole around David’s head echoes Sternhold and Hopkins’ translation of Psalm 132:1: ‘Remember David’s Troubles’.

[19] Illustrating the material grounds of text as well as the textuality of material, the ribbon-like form of these stitched words is made concrete in the book’s pink ties. The inner sides of these ribbons are stitched with a verse which highlights that they too contributed to the book’s legible surfaces and that material surfaces constituted poetic structures. Each poetic line occupies one ribbon; although the fourth ribbon and final poetic line is now missing, it seems that the verse may have originally read:

This Booke Doth Shew, that God made all
The world, Heavens, Earth and Man
who, Into Sin Did quickly fall
almost as soon as Time began

(Griffiths and Farquhar 1925–26: 295–96).

When the book is opened, these ribbons extend from the page edge, forming a material margin glossing the book’s content. Read from top left to bottom left, and then top right to bottom right, these paratextiles refuse a straightforward opposition between a book’s inside and outside, surface and contents, text and textile: they carry meaning across, through and beyond the printed page, and position material meaning as something which both permeates and extends from the book. Revealed when the book is unfolded for reading, they combine verbal and physical articulation to open up the book exegetically and spatially, drawing the book’s material trimmings into a dynamic interpretative relationship with its contents.

[20] This book’s interpretive use of physical and material structures indicates that, like multi-stranded bookmarks, ribbons need not bear text to participate in creative and hermeneutic responses. Portraits show book ties tucked between or laid onto pages, suggesting that ribbons could perform similar mnemonic and interpretive functions to bookmarks.[10] Some readers responded haptically and visually to the particular functions and position of book ties. Jason Scott-Warren highlights a poem by Richard Crashaw written on the occasion of sending a copy of George Herbert’s The Temple to a gentlewoman. Drawing attention to Crashaw’s instruction ‘When your hands unty these strings,/ Thinke you have an Angell by th’wings’, Scott-Warren notes that Crashaw ‘rewrites Herbert’s shape-poem “Easter Wings” around the material form of the book’; getting to grips with the book’s ribbons produces a deeply embodied understanding and re-enactment of the poetic and visual structures of the text (Crashaw 1646: E3v; Scott-Warren forthcoming 2017). The devotional gesture seems to have gained wider currency: W.F.’s 1649 broadsheet elegy for Richard Holdsworth, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge and once a royal chaplain, describes how ‘taking up his bible by the strings,/ Hee’d turne the leaves as if hee’d spread Christs wings’ (W.F. 1649). Such gestures recall the verse woven into Hopkins’ bookmark — ‘Take wing my soul and mount up higher’ — and suggest that the injunction might be enacted in lifting the strings between different pages.[11]

[21] Ribbons could also correspond, conceptually and practically, with hermeneutic manipulations. Epitomising and glossing the book’s contents, the embroidered ribbons of the 1632 Bible provide summary and explanation. Even in the absence of literally material prompts, these functions were conceptualised in terms consonant with ties. Contemporaries defined a summary as a ‘briefe gathering together of the whole matter’, evoking the gathering and compression performed by ribbons (Phillips 1658: sig. Oo1r). Lexicographer Randle Cotgrave framed his 1611 translation of the French ‘Sommaire’ in fibrous terms, describing it as the ‘chiefe point or knot’ of ‘a collection of words, or things’, a definition echoed in his translation of ‘Principal’ as ‘the summe, chiefe knot, maine point, of a matter’ (1611: sigs. Dddd5v, Sss4v). ‘Points’ also possessed textile connotations, describing laces for tying clothes, an homology often exploited by writers who adopted the material vocabulary of ‘a dozen of points’ to itemize textual content (see, for example, Lightfoot 1649: sigs. B3r-v; A Godly New Ballad, intituled, A Dozen of Points 1658–64; see also Marsh 2015: 102; Watt 1991: 102-3).

[22] Knots also entangled exegesis. Anglican bishop Joseph Hall, for example, discussed ‘interpret[ing] even difficult scriptures, and […] unty[ing] the knots of a Text’ (1649: sig. R6r–v). Richard Allestree was praised for his ‘exact and dextrous untying [of] the knots of argument’, an observation that synthesizes mental and manual deftness and positions untying a book’s knots as an embodied thought process (Allestree 1684: sig. e1v). Others, such as Puritan clergyman Giles Firmin, were even more explicitly bodily. Arguing that parents who flouted Church discipline did not have the right to have their children baptised, Firmin acknowledged of one objection: ‘this is a hard knot to untye, I desire some who have better fingers then I, would lend their help’ (1651: sig. G4v).

[23] Textual knots were often marked in material ways, emphasizing the liability of knots to cross back-and-forth between figurative and manual practices. Several bookmarks have strands ending in Turk’s head knots (see, for example, PML 2095). Similar knots could be glued to the fore-edge of the page as indexing tabs, helping readers to grasp the chief sections of a book (see, for example, FSL 212- 796f; see also Sawyer 2016: 102). Others marked significant textual knots with needle and thread. As Jeffrey Todd Knight has highlighted, a reader of Henry Montagu’s Contemplatio Mortis, & Immortalitatis (1636) annotated the margin of one page with a stitched and knotted thread, serving ‘the function of a “manicule” or nota bene’ (FSL, STC 18027a: sig. G7r; Knight 2015: 536-37). Requiring nimble fingers, material marginalia could develop a dextrous handling of a text as well as flagging passages that demanded unravelling.

[24] As these textual tangles underscore, textile structures underpinned texts as much as the converse. At the same time as ribbons and threads present material variations on printed margins, both the linguistic and typographic composition of the page were regarded as material constructs; where Knight sees the marginal thread as imitating written marginalia, early moderns were equally alert to how marginal devices often imitated threads. Marginal annotations were frequently figured as fabric embellishments, positioning superficial material elaboration as a site of advanced literacy, and the flourishes of textual erudition as aesthetic as well as intellectual adornments. Lace was a common analogy, perhaps prompted by visual and material consonances between lace trimmings and the patterns of the margin, printed on paper made from linen rags.[12] Puritan minister Stephen Jerome conjectures of the preface to Englands Iubilee (1625) that readers might ‘marvell why by so manie Marginall quotations, I lay so much Lace on this Sute’, punning upon ‘suit’ as a garment and a supplication (sig. A2r). William Annand, later Dean of Edinburgh, rejects such embellishments, describing his text as ‘plain white-seam work, without the Point, or Lace, of Marginal citations’ (1671: sig. *4v). It is tempting to associate Annand’s comment with Reformation anxieties about marginal notes printed in the Bible running contrary to its ‘plain’, self-explicating text, aligning concerns about material and textual plainness (Tribble 1993: 11–56). Annand, however, has other reasons: they are absent ‘because Toylsome and Expensive’ (1671: sig. *4v). Gesturing towards the stationer’s as well as the author’s handiwork, this indicates that the embellishments added to the surface of the printed text might be regarded, like those of ornate fabrics, in terms of costly material composition and laborious craftsmanship.

[25] Saint Stevens Last Will and Testament (1638), by moderate Puritan preacher, Thomas Gataker, provides a particularly extended example which underscores that Protestants were attentive to the material form of their books and the fabric environment, and appreciated elaborate textiles as sources of a sophisticated critical and aesthetic vocabulary. Addressing fellow clergyman Daniel Featley, Gataker’s preface explains the features he has introduced in preparing his sermon for print:

the quotations of Scripture, and such shreds or parcels of exotike Language, as might be some rub to an English Reader, but had beene indifferent to your selfe, I have removed into the Margine, and set on a little more Lace there, to make the Piece somewhat sutable to the rest of my Works, that are in hands abroad alreadie. (sig. A4r)

Gataker’s understanding of his printed text is thoroughly material, from the ‘shreds’ (textile fragments or strips) of ‘exotike Language’ to his description of the sermon itself as a ‘piece’, a unit of fabric measurement as well as the ‘product or result of an art, craft, etc.’ (see OED ‘shred, n.’, defs. 3a, 4 and ‘piece, n.’, defs. 4a, 14). Evoking Renaissance conceptions of literary composition as a techne combining ‘manual skill and creative invention’ (Kalas 2007: 1), this suggests affinities between the workmanship of well-fashioned sentences and that of curious stitchery. Gataker’s concern that this ‘Piece [is] somewhat sutable to the rest of my Works’ further grounds the sermon within a material context; ‘sutable’ describes articles of dress or fabric furnishings whose ‘shape, colour, pattern, or style’ was designed to match (OED, ‘suitable, adj. and adv’, def. 1). Applying this to his printed corpus, Gataker indicates that producers and readers of texts regarded a collection of printed texts with aesthetic as well as intellectual concerns about stylistic consonance.

Figure five: ‘Ashbourne Portrait’, 1612, with nineteenth-century alterations, oil on canvas, 119.4 x 94.6 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, FPs1. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

[26] Gataker’s comments echo more literal concerns about material suitability. Several portraits show books’ ribbons flowing into chromatically and texturally consistent surfaces, illustrating a taste for co-ordinated books and furnishings (see, for example, figure five). In Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s play, The Woman Hater, Lucio describes his study as ‘furnisht after a graue and wise methode’ and declares ‘My book-strings are sutable & of a reaching colour’ (1607: sig. H4r ). Spoken by a foppish statesman, these lines are evidently intended satirically and suggest how concern with a book’s material surfaces could be regarded as symptomatic of a desultory interest in the text. In other cases, though, ‘suitable’ strings ‘reach’ towards devotionally as well as materially appropriate objects. A portrait of Agnes Imple, Lady Astley, shows her dressed in mourning; her left hand grasps an open book, probably a prayer book, whose pink ties gravitate towards the matching pink watch-ribbon held in her right (figure six). Providing a memento mori upon which she might meditate alongside her book, this watch indicates that a book’s fabric embellishments could constitute forms of intermateriality which tied a text to a wider network of corresponding significant objects.

Figure six: Anon, ‘Agnes Impel (d. after 1652), Lady Astley, in Mourning Dress’, c. 1640, oil on canvas, 73.7 x 61cm, National Trust, Seaton Delaval, NT 1276835 ©National Trust Images

Thinking Outside the Book: Texts, Gloves and Purses
[27] Several embroidered books survive alongside accompanying wrought objects. Falling prey to the depth ontology, these assemblages are at risk of being dismissed as objects for women more concerned with ‘appearing well-dressed in church’ than with their books’ contents (Foot 1998: 62; compare Walsham 2004: 134). In this section, I reveal structural, perceptual, and epistemological continuities between books and companionate objects, arguing that these assemblages situate the book within a contexture of analogous objects and provide complementary or alternative reading materials.

[28] The Bayerisches Nationalmuseum holds an especially striking set, probably made in the Netherlands and given as a gift, which is fashioned in matching purple silk embroidered with flowers (figure seven). It comprises: a book containing German translations of the Psalms and songs of prayer and consolation by Protestants Friedrich III, Friedrich IV and Johann Casimir; a pair of gauntlet gloves bearing flaming heart emblems and the initial ‘E’, whose tabs match the book’s embroidered ribbon ties; and a pin-cushion designed to hang from the girdle.[13]

Figure seven: Embroidered Gloves, Psalter and Pin-cushion, The Netherlands, c. 1629–1630, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, Inventory Number: 62/21.1–3, Photo Number D55103 © Bayerisches Nationalmuseum München. Photo by Walter Haberland.

This pin-cushion may have possessed textual applications: pins were not only fabric tools, but tools of textual engagement, used to mark passages and fasten additional materials to the page (Smith 2012: 185). Emphasising that being well-dressed and well-read could be complementary, these pins suggest that the items within this set could be functionally as well as fashionably co-ordinated.

[29] The flaming hearts embroidered on the gloves offer a suggestive complement to the book. Although this emblem was a prominent devotional image in counter-Reformation and Jesuit art, the image also had a much wider currency, as is highlighted by the numerous flaming and smoking hearts in Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes. Here, the flaming heart not only emblematizes Christian fervour and contrition, but, when combined with joined hands, signifies amity and friendship (Wither 1635: sigs. F4r, M4r, N3v, O3r, P3r, Ff2v, Hh3v, Ii3r). This latter configuration seems to re-materialize in the emblem’s application to the gloves and suggests that the embroidered gauntlets may have not only prompted devotional practices, but been read as enacting the social relations produced in gift-giving.

[30] The British Library holds a 32mo 1639 Whole Booke of Psalmes bound in white silk, embroidered in silver and silk with flora including roses, borage and strawberries alongside a bag embroidered with these and other plants (BL C.17.a.21.). The library also holds a 32mo 1633 Book of Psalms embroidered with images of a man and woman alongside a purse embroidered in silver and gold with a parrot and various flowers including a carnation and rose which echo those wrought on the book’s back cover and spine (figure eight); they are accompanied by suede gloves embroidered in silver with a floral pattern.

Figure eight: Embroidered psalm book and bag, British Library, London, ©British Library Board, C.194.c.27.

This book once contained a now-missing silk bookmark bearing portraits of Charles I, and the words ‘From Prison Bring Youre Captive King’ (BL C.194.c.27.). As well as indexing a royalist readership, this bookmark indicates that the embroidered Psalter was considered, like Hopkins’ Bible, in a context of meaningful materials and invites us to consider how the other embroidered surfaces in this ensemble were brought to bear upon the book.

[31] Embroidered gloves were popular complements to books, both as conspicuously matched objects and as items which are more generally materially and perceptually consonant. A portrait of Lady Hunsdon painted around 1620 shows the fingers of her left hand inserted in a miniature embroidered book whilst her right hand holds the fingers of a pair of embroidered gloves.[14] In a contemporaneous portrait, attributed to John Souch, Lady Anne Lawley rests her right hand on a small embroidered book which lies on the fingers of her embroidered gloves.[15] Recalling the prosthetic fingers of bookmarks, and the mirroring of Pierrepont’s marker and glove fingers, these arrangements indicate that getting to grips with one’s book could go hand-in-hand with haptic and visual experiences of complementary materials, and suggest that other textile supplements to the hand could be imbricated in the manual arts of reading.

[32] Margaret Cavendish’s ‘Natures Cabinet’ offers an intriguing suggestion as to how gloves’ social and manual applications could position them as materials of thought. Redirecting the supposed vacuous superficiality of fashionable adornments, the poem offers a very literal take on Cavendish’s materialist natural philosophy by presenting the brain as a ‘Cabinet’, full of ‘Knack[s]’, many of them fabric. Alongside ‘Ribbons of Fancies new’ and ‘Veiles of Forgetfulnesse’, Cavendish finds ‘Gloves of Remembrance, which draw off, and on,/ Thoughts in the Braine sometimes are there, then gon’ (1653: sig. R3v; see also Benedict 2001: 59). Cavendish’s figure builds on the ‘prosthetic’ uses of gloves, and the giving of them as tokens of remembrance, as well as the mnemonic uses of hands (Stallybrass and Jones 2001: 114–32); gloves had traditionally supplemented manual forms of memory and understanding, as is highlighted by a broadsheet depicting Some fyne gloues […] wherby they maye learne the. x. commaundementes at theyr fyngers endes (c. 1560–1570; discussed by Tribble and Keene 2011: 43). Drawn off and on, Cavendish’s gloves emphasise that the ephemeral is not insignificant and produce a prosthetic form of memory whose transience resonates with that of bookmarks, threads and writing tables.

[33] Gloves not only accompanied reading materials but contained and were contained by inscriptions. Gloves were popular both as love tokens, and in political and royal gift-exchange (North 2008: 53–54); it seems that, in this latter context too, embroidered gloves might be given along with books in fine textile bindings (see, for example, Goldring and others (eds) 2014: II, 572). In both cases, the gloves could have posies or letters pinned to them, embroidered upon them or written inside. The text could be inscribed directly onto the surface of the cloth or leather, or on a piece of paper tucked within; alternatively it may have been penned upon the protective paper in which gloves were wrapped (see, for example, Cupids Posies 1642; Loues Garland 1624; Cambridge Jests 1674: sig. F3r; d’Urfé 1658: sigs. K3v–L1r; Davies 1659: sig. L1r; Goldring and others (eds) 2014: II, 572–73). Paralleling or inverting the material structures of books, these arrangements mark gloves as complementary or alternative spaces where texts might be discovered and reading take place, and generate perceptual analogies between both the meaningful surfaces and the significant contents of these gifts.

[34] In an example of a doubled fabric wrapping for the contained text, the bags accompanying the British Library psalters appear to have been used to hold the book.[16] Enfolding the embroidered psalter within a further wrought covering, the purse iteratively augments the surface of the book and incorporates it into a multi-layered fabric environment. Contemporaneous texts indicate that books were often kept and carried in bags and purses, not only by wealthy readers but, in less ornate forms, by those from lower social orders. An anecdote in a late seventeenth-century jest book features a journeyman whose wife takes her Bible to Church in a green bag (Versatile Ingenium 1679: sigs. D8v-E1r). In William D’Avenant’s comedy The Witts (printed 1636), the extravagant Young Pallatine, promising to live more moderately, declares that he will ‘hang at my velvet Girdle,/ A Booke wrapp’d in a greene Dimity Bagge’ (sig. B3r); while the velvet girdle makes the coarse dimity a rather flawed economy, the image nevertheless points towards the more extensive contextures within which bags embedded books and emphasizes that books could literally be trimmings upon one’s suit. Bags like those held by the British Library were similarly designed to hang from a strap tied at the waist (North and Tiramani (eds) 2012: 136–37), indicating that they may have been one way in which so many ‘English Damoselles’ apparently wore ‘bookes tyed to theyr gyrdles’ (Lyly 1580: sig. Gg2r; see also Smith 2012: 214–15). As Razzall notes, such bookish attire was about being well-read as well as well-dressed and fostered an intimate, perhaps too intimate, understanding of the book’s contents (2013: 129); clergyman William Heale laments that ‘those too too holy women-gospellers, who weare their testament at their apron-strings’, are forever ‘catechiz[ing] their husbands, citing places, clearing difficulties, & preaching holy sermons too’ (1609: sig. F1r).[17] As D’Avenant’s satire suggests, this was not necessarily a wholly or peculiarly feminine practice, with men as well as women using and appreciating elegant book bags and wrappers.

Figure nine: Embroidered Purse and Sweet Bag showing King Solomon, 1620–1650, England, 11.25 cm x 13.75cm, Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Rusholme, Manchester, 1960.246. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

[35] Purses and purse-strings were sometimes reading materials in a literal sense. Like bookmarks, some purse-strings were braided with letters. One seventeenth-century bag, perhaps used as a sweet-bag, bears a partially preserved purse-string which apparently excerpts a motto from Thomas Combe’s emblem book, The Theater of Fine Devices (first published, 1593): ‘Patience brings the minde to rest and helpes all troubles to digest’ (Combe 1614: sig. D1r; Manchester Art Gallery 2016). Like the complementary books, markers, and covers described above, this motto invokes the interplay of word and image. Here the purse body supplies the pictorial elements, replacing Combe’s image of the caged bird with a depiction of the Judgement of Solomon on one side and, on the other, Jacob wrestling with the angel (figures nine and ten).

Figure ten: Embroidered Purse and Sweet Bag showing Jacob wrestling with the angel, 1620–1650, England, 11.25 cm x 13.75cm, Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Rusholme, Manchester, 1960.246. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

The latter was a popular subject on embroidered bindings (see, for example BL C.17.a.24.; BL C.65.l.6.; BL Davis 77), highlighting further creative, conceptual and visual consonances between bags and books. Jacob was commonly understood as a parable of patience (Cowper 1607: sig. E6v), whilst Solomon emphasized this virtue as a condition of wisdom and jurisprudence and was praised for ‘patiently hear[ing] the controuersie’ of the two women (Merlin 1599: sig. Q7r). Like the bookmarks, the loop of the handle thus constituted a conceptually as well as physically connective device which recorded and prompted comparisons between different scriptural verses. Wrought with biblical stories, the bag not only provides a site of religious instruction and devotion. It materializes hermeneutic practices and structures of thought which are continuous with those of books and indicates that the techne of reading could be developed and informed by responses to a wider assemblage of material surfaces and forms.

[36] The range of objects and texts considered in this article indicates not only that fabric surfaces and fabric experience were part of the book, but that both physical texts and textual content were perceived within a textile framework. Early modern men and women were highly attuned to material, interpretive, epistemological and perceptual correspondences between textual and textile objects and practices, and contemplated them in an intimate, sustained and deeply considered conversation. These correspondences underscore that early modern readers thought in ways which were at once more conceptual and more material than has yet been recognised by modern observations on the etymological origins of text, in textus, that which is woven. The textiles applied to and used alongside books resist attempts to dismiss them as ‘simply’ decorative or perfunctory. Rather, their structural and aesthetic as well as material, pictorial and alphabetic aspects constructed advanced critical and theological literacies, and operated as materials with which to think, enabling readers to mark, scrutinize and understand texts and concepts. The extent to which a critical and imaginative vocabulary of cloth pervades accounts of textual composition and interpretation points to a prevalent and conceptually rich material idiom which positioned books within an extensive and diverse material environment. Sites of complex significance and advanced critical and creative processes, the elaborately wrought textiles which permeated and surrounded texts challenge us to read in ways which are simultaneously more superficial and more intricately involved.

University of York


[1] I wish to thank Helen Smith and Jason Scott-Warren for their comments on early drafts of this article, and the Wolfson Foundation for funding which has supported my research. The F.R. Leavis Fund at the University of York generously helped with illustrations.[back to text]

[2] My thinking has been informed by recent work on early modern cognitive ecologies. For an important example of scholarship in this field, see Tribble and Keene (2011).[back to text]

[3] Lois Swales and Heather Blatt (2007: 145–79) provide a preliminary catalogue and technical discussion of extant medieval and early modern examples.[back to text]

[4] I discuss fingerloop braiding’s literary applications further in Canavan, 2016.[back to text]

[5] The bookmark appears to cite Thessalonians in reference to the first of these verses (Colossians 3:18).[back to text]

[6] On writing tables, see Peter Stallybrass and others (2004: 379–419).[back to text]

[7] Andrew Morrall offers a stimulating discussion of the significance of images of Adam and Eve in needlework, including embroidered bookbindings, (2012: 313–53).[back to text]

[8] For another example of Moses, see HL 438000:070; for David, see MMA 64.101.1294.[back to text]

[9] Griffiths and Farquhar (1925–26: 295-96) describe a book whose appearance seems to have been very close, if not identical, to NYPL Spencer Coll. Eng. 1632:

An embroidered Bible and Psalms printed in 1632, embroidered on satin with gold thread and coloured silks. On the front cover appears the figure of Moses, who holds a book, on which is written ‘The law was given by Moses and Grace and Peace came by Jesus Christ.’ On the back of the cover appears a figure of David and the words ‘Remember David’s troubles.’ The two pairs of tie strings of crimson silk are inscribed, ‘This booke doth shew that God made all, the world, heavens, earth and man, who unto sin did quickly fall, almost as soon as Time began.’

There are, however, some discrepancies between the two descriptions which make it impossible to identify the book held by the New York Public Library with that described by Griffiths and Farquhar.[back to text]

[10] See, for example, Hans Holbein the younger, ‘Portrait of a Young Merchant’, 1541, oil on oak, 46.5 x 34.8 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, GG_905, [accessed 11 April 2017]; El Greco, ‘Portrait of Dr. Francisco de Pisa’, c. 1610-14, oil on canvas, 107 x 90 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, AP 1977.05, [accessed 30 August 2016].[back to text]

[11] I am grateful to Jason Scott-Warren for drawing my attention to this connection.[back to text]

[12] For discussion of the ‘sartorial associations of paper’, see Joshua Calhoun (2011: 327–44).[back to text]

[13] Birgitt Borkopp-Restle provides details about these items (2002: 148–50). These items were previously believed to have been a wedding gift for Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia; Borkopp-Restle dismisses this, highlighting that the text’s publication date postdates the marriage by sixteen years.[back to text]

[14] Lady Hunsdon, English School, c. 1620, reproduced in North and Tiramani (eds) (2011: 136).[back to text]

[15] John Souch, ‘Lady Anne Lawley’, oil on canvas, 211 x 146.2 cm, reproduced in Christie’s London (2002: lot 6). [auction catalogue] [back to text]

[16] For discussion of embroidered books and book bags as ‘sacred vessels’, see Razzall (2013: 127).[back to text]

[17] Helen Smith discusses both of these passages in relation to books on the body (2012: 214–15). For Reformation ambivalence towards girdle books, see Kearney (2009: 100–13).[back to text]


Original Documents and objects

Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, BSS.201.C32.15

London, British Library, C.17.a.21.

London, British Library, C.17.a.24.

London, British Library, C.65.l.6.

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London, British Library, C.194.c.27.

London, British Library, Davis 77.

Manchester, Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, 1960.246

Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, 62/21.1–3

New York, Morgan Library, PML 2095

New York, New York Public Library, Spencer Coll. Eng. 1632

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 64.101.1294

San Marino California, Henry E. Huntington Library, 438000:070

Washington D.C., Folger Shakespeare Library, 212- 796f

Washington D.C., Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 2283.5

Washington D.C., Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 18027a


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