Joseph Saunders, University of Glasgow
This blog was commended in the 2020 SHS Postgraduate Prize.
In her will of 1638 Anne, widow of James Boler bequeathed her husband’s estate to her children with ‘such increases and improvements’ as she had made. James had been a bookseller and member of the Company of Stationers, the livery company which around 1557-1710 held a theoretical (if not always realised) control over the membership and products of the print trade in England. To have something legally published a copy of the text had to be registered at Stationers’ Hall near St. Pauls Churchyard, the historic centre of the trade. The registrant usually had to be a member of the Company, pay a fee and have the text checked before it was registered to them. This conferred the right to publish copies of that text, from which we get the term ‘copy right’.
These ‘copies’ as they were known in the 1630s could be bought and sold between members of the Company, called Stationers. They could also be bequeathed, and often were, with the Company charging a fee. Anne Boler was no different and she left ‘all copies of books as my said husband had at his death’ to her elder son James. However, unusually she goes on, bestowing the ‘copies of books as I have bought since my said husbands death’ to her younger son Thomas. She asked that until her sons came of age the copies were to be held by the Company ‘in trust’.
Boler continuing the trade of her deceased husband will not be surprising to social historians of early modern England. That she had ‘increased’ his estate through the active pursual of new trade, shown here with the addition of further copies, stands out. Her publishing career as one of the few women who left a record of their work in the trade has already been partly studied by Helen Smith, Grossly Material Things (2012) in relation to her collaboration with her contemporary Anne Griffin.
The recovery of the women of the early modern English print trade has a long history. For those wishing to learn more, the works of Maureen Bell and Helen Smith are the place to start. Briefly though, the study of women and their work is a continuing effort to counter their exclusion throughout the historiography of the trade. The omission of women originated with the attitudes of their society which was reflected in the records of the time. This was particularly so within the Company of Stationers which theoretically excluded women from the trade, refusing them membership.
Many women did of course operate across the trade, from selling texts on the street to being servants in a book shop and as the wives of the heads of printing houses. Even at the very top women were ever-present, for example widows could keep their husband’s shares in the lucrative English Stock (if they didn’t remarry) and by the 1640s around a quarter were held by women.
In their ascribed gender roles women contributed at all levels of the trade, though their presence was seldom recorded. Women could have a significant impact, especially the wives of Stationers when they were absent in travels or in death. Maureen Bell, ‘Women in the English Book Trade 1557-1700’ (1996) proposed that women were at the forefront. That widowhood meant both business and marriage ‘suffered the loss of one of its key players’ not that women ‘suddenly found themselves members of an unfamiliar trade’.
An excellent source of evidence for women’s work is their wills. Boler left a far more detailed account of her trade than her husband, partly because as a woman she had to lay out clear instruction and because of her young children. We can probably consider her a woman who had lost a partner but continued in the trade, even to the point of being able to proudly claim to have improved her husband’s estate.
Boler’s will shows some ways women were involved in the trade. She was clearly familiar with it, bequeathing to her cousins a Bible each ‘either in twelve or eight at their own election’. Not only is the implication here that there were several of Bibles around and a large enough number to pick from, but she was comfortable using trade language, ‘twelve or eight’ referring to their sizes.
Her will also places Boler within a trade community. She named Thomas Downes and Philemon Stephens, her ‘friends’ as two of her overseers. These were both important Stationers and in the absence of living male relatives in the trade it was common for testatrixes to ask other Stationers to be overseers. Sometimes they invoked a friendship to themselves or their husband which could have been real or beseeched. Witnesses, like overseers had to be respected in case their testimony was required in court. One of Boler’s was Anne Griffin.
Even without the usual records of the print trade such as extant texts and the Company Registers Boler’s career can begin to be uncovered from her will. From these other records we learn how in the few years between her husband’s death and her own she acquired copies, including many from other widows, and formed working relationships with other Stationers, including several women. Through a letter to the Court, the Company’s ruling body, she even took her case to work as a Stationer right to the heart of patriarchal trade governance.
After her death Boler’s request was brought before the Court. Despite considering their ‘ancient custom’ they granted her wish, ‘weighing her weake estate and great charge of children, in much favour to the said children’, in return for payment of 20s. In the official registers were entered into the trust ‘the Copies of the said James Boler and Anne his Wife lately deceased’. The titles acquired by each were listed separately. Later, when the 20s was paid by Anne’s executors it was recorded as ‘to assigne over all her copies’, with no mention of her husband.
About the author: Joseph recently submitted his masters thesis at the University of Glasgow on the Company of Stationers in early seventeenth century London. His research particularly focuses on last wills and testaments as a way to study the society and culture beneath the formal records of the trade. He is planning on expanding this research to PhD level. His first academic article, a chapter on the wills and social networks of women in the Stationers’ community, is due for publication later this year.
Note: Unless otherwise stated quotations are from the Will of Anne Boler [3rd February 1638, PROB 11/176/126] available from the National Archives or William Jackson (Ed.), Records of the Court of the Stationer’s Company 1602-1640 (London: The Bibliographical Society, 1957).