'“Shocking Calumnies": The Angry Reader and the Early Modern Book'

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Eve Houghton's exhibit examines annotations and marginalia in three books in the Beinecke’s collections. (Photo by Michael Helfenbein)

This is one of four exhibits created by Yale students on exhibition in the Sterling Memorial Library. Click here to read about the others.

John Stow, a 16th-century historian and antiquarian, became agitated, even outraged, while reading Richard Grafton’s “Abridgement of the Chronicles of England,” believing that his rival had plagiarized him.

“Gathered by Stowe, stolen by Grafton,” he wrote in the margins of his 1570 edition of the book, which is housed at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. On some pages Stow wrote the invective “a lye” more than a dozen times.

Stow’s scathing annotations are featured in this exhibit, curated by Eve Houghton ’17, which also examines annotations and marginalia in two other books in the Beinecke’s collections: a 1609 edition of Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” annotated by Yale undergraduates, and a 1717 edition of George Buchanan’s “Ane Detectioun of the Doingis of Marie Quene of Scots” annotated by two Edinburg lawyers.

Eve Houghton

“My exhibit is a standalone project, but it speaks to my larger interest in the intersections between the history of reading and the history of emotions,” says Houghton, an English major. “I’m fascinated by the question of whether we can read affect in early modern marginalia.”

The annotations in the copy of the “The Fairie Queene” comprise a back-and-forth between two Yale undergraduates who read and annotated the book decades apart.

The first reader, Phineas B. Wilcox, autographed and dated the book 1820. A later reader, Edward Baldwin, dated it 1841. After Wilcox’s signature, Baldwin added the addendum “is an ass.”

“It gives some indication of how Baldwin feels about P.B. Wilcox’s reading strategies,” says Houghton, who is studying at the University of Oxford this semester. 

Baldwin criticized Wilcox’s commentary throughout the book, calling him a “loggerheaded critic.” At one point, he seems to have rewritten a portion of Wilcox’s commentary that he had erased.

“I can’t quite prove this, but what I like about it is that despite Baldwin’s rather ostentatious contempt for his predecessor he actually seems interested in preserving the words of past readers of the book,” says Houghton. “I think that speaks to the project of studying annotations and marginalia, which is that we want to value how people felt when they read, even if we disagree with them.”

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548