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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.

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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!

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Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Photo of Chequers, the country residence of the British Prime Minister, once home to William Hakewill, an early 17th-century Member of Parliament
  • 17th century Portrait of Prince Henry, Prince of Wales
  • Image of a manuscript typical of medieval university students’ books
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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

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