One of the ways we fund the podcast is through affiliate links. If you purchase these items through our links, we make a commission. This post, and all the posts here on our website, may contain such affiliate links. To access the video streaming library and our collection of printable resources that coordinate with our show, consider becoming a member.

Welcome to Episode #180 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare mentions the word “book” over 140 times across his works, showing not only their prominent place in society but their popularity as well. There are several kinds of books referenced in Shakespeare’s plays including prayer books, muster books, horn books, and more but one particular kind of book seen as a novelty for Shakespeare’s lifetime that could be taken anywhere the owner themselves went was the tiny individual books collected together in what was known as a travelling library. These compact books were hardly larger than a standard pack of cards and each one  fit onto narrow shelves fashioned into a larger wood case shaped like a large book itself with a hard cover that opened and closed like a lid to both contain and protect the precious books held within. Often highly ornate, featuring elaborate paintings and even the coat of arms of those that had given or received the travelling library as a gift,  these bookcases were part of what was known as a “curiosity” for the 17th century when Jacobean English families would collect odd bits of treasure to display as a status symbol and conversation piece in their homes. As books were seen as precious items to be highly prized, owning a travelling library yourself was seen as an important privilege. One of these travelling libraries from 1617, the year after Shakespeare died, is housed at the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds. Today, we are delighted to welcome one of the curators at the Brotherton Library, Dr. Michael Brennan, as an expert in travel and travel books of Shakespeare’s lifetime to tell us about the history and purpose of this unique item.

Join the conversation below.

Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio

Michael G. Brennan is Professor of Renaissance Studies at the School of English, University of Leeds. His research and teaching focuses on 16th-17th and 19th-20th century English literature. He has published books on the Sidney family of Penshurst, early English travel writing and 20th century fiction, especially the works of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Michael Brennan about :

  • We are often taught that large sections of society in the 16-17th century were illiterate. Does the prevalence and commerce of objects like travelling libraries suggest there were large portions of society who not only could read, but that reading and collecting libraries was fashionable?
  • When we say travelling library, was this a library that travelled around for people to borrow from or travelling in the sense of being portable for personal use of someone who wanted to take books with them as they travelled?

  • How many books are included in the travelling library? Follow up: What titles are in the library that’s held there at the Brotherton Library? 

  • … and more!

Note from Cassidy: 

The images of the Brotherton Travelling library are covered under copyright restrictions that prevented us from showing them in our show notes here today. You can visit the University of Leeds website here and see the image of the library Michael Brennan is talking about in this episode.

Portait of Prince Henry, Prince of Wales, son of James I. Prince Henry was one of James I children for whom the monarch commissioned a travelling library. This portrait was painted in oil on canvas by
Isaac Oliver (1556–1617), the painting is dated c. 1610. It is housed in the National Portrait Gallery. Public Domain. Source 

The Travelling Library wasn’t a common printing method

While owning a travelling library was relatively common in England, the printing of these small manuals was not specifically well known in England. Michael explains,

All of these books were printed abroad, it wasn’t a common printing practice in England. They were coming to England from abroad. That suggests there’s a larger selection of miniature books available and the person ordering the travelling library was able to select which authors/titles they wanted.It’s possible they wer eimported into England to be selected at a shop or given as a present or to add to your collection, but the grouping together in these travelling libraries would be an eclectic mixture of the other suggesting which ones they wanted included. 

The Brotherton Library examples is a true marvel (particularly since it is so well preserved and relatively undamaged), but it is not the only surviving traveling library we know about. It seems James I was keen to have his children own this kind of novelty, and specifically commisisoned small libraries for each of his sons.

There are two other significant sets that have survived, they are both for the sons of King James I. Exactly the period of Shakespeare’s lifetime. First bound for Prince Henry, who would have been Henry IX, but date 1612, no box of his books but they did survive together as a set, it’s at the British Library. Another set made for Prince Charles, who later became King charles, and his set is in the Bodelain Library. They were put together for these royal individuals when they were children, the idea is that it is almost like children would appreciate a small book which would fit readily into a child’s hand, in the same way an adult might use a standard volume. The fact that there are two sets both commissioned for the sons of James I, is interesting to think of another way these books might have been used. 

Access even more details on the history of travelling libraries with inside the Detailed Show Notes. Bonus history, images, & lesson plans that coordinate with the show (and with Shakespeare’s plays!) are just some of the benefits of being a member at That Shakespeare Life.

Already a member? Login and click the link below to open the notes.

Not yet a member? Sign up today and use your 14-day free trial to explore all the benefits of joining the best little Shakespeare club ever.

Ready to learn more?

Check out these Book & Resources Michael Brennan recommends:


‘With thanks to Dr Anthony Payne, Antiquarian Book Consultant and Former Director of Bernard Quaritch Ltd.’

The Travelling Library of King Charles I (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

A Book from the Travelling Library of Henry, Prince of Wales (elder brother of King Charles I) (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

Elzevier 17th Century Miniature Books

Alexa Goff, ‘The “Rare and Curious” Library of Sir Julius Caesar: Marvel, Miniaturization, and Antiquarian Librarianship on Display’, MA Thesis, University of Oregon, 2017

17th Century ‘Tom Thumb’ Bibles

Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on Stitcher.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life.