There is more to books than just the texts they contain. Books are historical artifacts whose physical makeup and features tell us something about the people who owned them and the cultures that produced them. In this way, each book has its own story to tell.
While searching for books to use in our Manifold Greatness exhibition, I came across a copy of The third part of the Bible with the following inscription: “This was ye [the] only booke I carried in my pockett when I travelld beyond ye [the] seas ye [the] 22d year of my Age; & many years after Just. Isha[m].”
I was astonished. While many book owners from the early modern period inscribed their names into their books and perhaps even supplied a date, very few provided such personal details. We not only know who owned this book but where he kept it and where he took it. While it is taken for granted that small books often traveled in the pockets of their owners, it is wonderful to have confirmation from a contemporary owner.
Identifying “Just. Isha[m]” turned out to be a surprisingly easy task. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) brought me to Sir Justinian Isham (1611–1675), second baronet of Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire. The DNB entry states that Isham traveled to the Netherlands in 1633 at the age of twenty-two, a perfect match to the book’s inscription, “beyond ye seas ye 22d year of my Age.”
When I showed Isham’s Bible to Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s Curator of Manuscripts, she recalled that two scholars, Elizabeth Clarke and Erica Longfellow, had transcribed the diary of a woman from the same period named Elizabeth Isham and wondered if she could be related to Justinian. Looking at the diary online I found entries from 1633 that confirm that she was his sister. She writes, “‘my B[rother] went beyond sea” and later “my B[rother] came from beioynd [sic] sea.”
Also through the diary I learned of the Isham family’s close relationship with the Stuteville family. In the back of Isham’s Bible is a manuscript IOU contract between sisters Susan and Elizabeth Stuteville.
Another interesting feature of the book is the manuscript index to the Psalms found in the book’s blank endpapers. Here Isham records the numbers of particular psalms appropriate for particular occasions: morning, evening, mercy, sickness, joy, communion, and comforts. The Psalms section of the book is also where he wrote the most manuscript notes.
I continue to be amazed by the amount of history contained in this one, small book. It really is one of the treasures of the Folger. I must admit it’s my favorite book in the exhibition.
Steven Galbraith, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Books, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
 R. Priestley, ‘Isham, Sir Justinian, second baronet (1611–1675)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/14489, accessed 13 April 2010]
 Elizabeth Clarke and Erica Longfellow, “Constructing Elizabeth Isham,” University of Warwick, Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, 28 Jan 2009 [http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ren/projects/isham/, accessed 5 May 2010]