The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Ben Jonson’s Library

While last week we brought up the anniversary of Ben Jonson’s first folio and discussed copies of this book that are held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, this week we’ll discuss Jonson’s library and his books at Folger.

Jonson is listed in thirteen Hamnet records either as a “former owner” (when his ownership of the book has been confirmed), an “annotator” (when the book includes his annotations), or as an “associated name” (when his ownership is doubtful or has not been proven). Some of his books are not searchable in Hamnet, though.1 All together, the Folger Library owns 28 books associated with Ben Jonson, 22 of which are thought to have been in his collection, and the other six with a doubtful or spurious attribution. For the complete list of his books in our collections, take a look at the Folgerpedia article Books from Ben Jonson’s Library.

To this day, David McPherson’s “Ben Jonson’s Library and Marginalia: an Annotated Catalog” remains the authoritative reference source for Jonson’s book collection.2 McPherson’s catalog provides a useful introduction that sheds light on Jonson’s collection and places it into the context of English private libraries of the period. Each catalog entry includes a summary of the content of the book with a description of Jonson’s marginalia in it.

Unfortunately, McPherson was unable to examine a large number of the books (over 80 items out of 206), because they were then either owned by private owners or by the book trade. His descriptions, therefore, are not always complete or reliable. Since the publication of his catalog in 1974, though, some of these books have changed hands and can now be consulted in institutional libraries such as the Folger (one of our more recent acquisitions of one of Jonson’s Martial’s Epigrammata (259- 336f) dates from 2003).

One of Ben Jonson's editions of Martial's Epigrams acquired recently by the Folger Library (259- 336f). Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish
One of Ben Jonson’s editions of Martial’s Epigrams acquired recently by the Folger Library (Folger Library, 259- 336f). (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)

A number of studies have closely examined individual books, often heavily annotated by Jonson. Let’s note a couple of them, which describe several of Jonson’s books in the Folger collections:

Robert Evans, “Ben Jonson’s Library and Marginalia: New Evidence from the Folger Collection,” Philological Quarterly 66 (1987) p. 521-528: Evans’s article provides additional in-depth descriptions of nine books owned by Ben Jonson—two of which have only a spurious attribution—in the Folger collections.

His article on “Ben Jonson’s Chaucer”3 also includes a detailed analysis and description of Jonson’s copy of Chaucer from 1602 at the Folger. Other studies of individual books will be listed in our Folgerpedia article.

Ben Jonson's copy of Chaucer (STC 5080 copy 3)
Ben Jonson’s copy of Chaucer (Folger Library, STC 5080 copy 3, photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)

More recently, an updated version of McPherson’s catalog has been included in the electronic version of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (or CEWBJ) in a Library Records section (subscription required), but is not yet linked to as a separate resource in the CEWBJ‘s Records section. This catalog includes the whole list of books from McPherson (minus doubtful and spurious ones) and adds in newly discovered ones. Altogether there are 296 entries. Updated location information and, in many cases, more detailed descriptions of copies have been provided by Henry Woudhuysen. (This work seems to be a work-in-progress.)

With close to 300 titles, Ben Jonson’s collection was one of the most important private libraries in England at the time. It was a working library consisting mainly of works of literature: Ben Jonson’s trade. A fluent reader in Latin and somewhat proficient in Greek, he owned many editions of the Classics in these languages, as well as some translations into English. He also owned numerous books in the original English, but few in other vernacular languages.

Jonson’s copies of classical texts came from the Continent, largely from Northern Europe, which indicates the presence of Continental book agents in London (from the Plantin firm for example) feeding the English market with such books. Interestingly, some of the same books returned to the Continent either after Jonson sold them (McPherson notes that the writer sometimes sold his books when he needed money) or after his death. Clearly the trade of used books was transnational rather than restricted to a regional or national market. As a matter of fact, it would be a useful thing to search for additional Ben Jonson books in European libraries, especially in France (perhaps).

Upon corresponding with the rare book curator of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne, Folger intern Catherine Koehl received  confirmation that this Parisian library owns Ben Jonson’s copy of a Nuremberg edition of Ptolemy from 1535 bound in a sammelband (McPherson, no.32). She also learned that the same library owns Jonson’s copy of a Parisian edition of Latin and Greek tragedies published in 1626, and recorded in neither McPherson nor in the CEWBJ.

Jonson’s signature and motto “tamquam explorator” (just like an explorer) inscribed on the title pages of his books may not always have been recorded in catalog records of European libraries where Jonson is not as well known as in the English-speaking world. This seems to have been the case as early as the eighteenth century, when the French owner of one of our books clearly did not pay attention to the provenance of his copy of a treatise by ancient grammarian Terentianus.

Title page with Ben Jonson's signature and motto (PA 6754 .T6 1531 (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)
Title page with Ben Jonson’s signature and motto (Folger Library, PA6754 .T6 1531 Cage) (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)


The manuscript note on the flyleaf facing the title page discusses the identity of the author of the book (PA 6754 .T6 1531) (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)
The manuscript note on the flyleaf facing the title page discusses the identity of the author of the book but does not mention its connection to Jonson (Folger Library, PA6754 .T6 1531 Cage) (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)

The contrast could not be more striking with a nineteenth-century English owner of another book now at Folger, who inscribed his book in way that underscored the association of his copy with Jonson.4

Reflections written by a book owner about autographs in books
A nineteenth-century book owner reflecting upon his copy of this book, including Milton’s and Ben Jonson’s signatures (Folger Library, PA6121 .A2 1579a copy 2 Cage) (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)


Title page of the book with spurious signature by Jonson (Folger Library, PA 6121 .A2 1579a) (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)
Title page of the book with Jonson’s “signature,” now thought to be a fake. (Folger Library, PA6121 .A2 1579a copy 2 Cage) (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)

Marginalia in Jonson’s books at Folger consist mostly of notational symbols (manicules, flowers, perhaps Greek omegas and underlining) rather than textual notes.

A flower and
Jonson’s use of flowers and asterisks as notational symbols. (Folger Library STC 5080 copy 3) (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)


A manicule
A manicule drawn by Jonson (Folger Library, STC 5080 copy 3) (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)

Two notable exceptions, though, are an edition of Martial’s epigrams described by McPherson as containing “the most interesting annotations of any book in Jonson’s library” and Jonson’s copy of John Selden’s De dis Syris syntagmata with a dedication letter from the author to Jonson.5

In the course of this project, we have found in the stacks a book from Jonson’s library recorded by neither McPherson nor Woudhuysen

A book from Jonson's library
An unrecorded book from Jonson’s library (Folger Library, U35 .L5 1598 Cage) (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)


Front fly leaves with Jonson's handwriting.
Front fly leaves with Jonson’s handwriting (Folger Library, U35 .L5 1598 Cage) (Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish).

Although the title page does not include Jonson’s signature or motto, the front flyleaves are covered with his small and distinctive handwriting. There are also numerous manuscript annotations throughout the book. Something obviously to be further examined: “tamquam explorator” indeed!

Edit, December 7, 2016: Updated the number of Jonson’s books held at the Folger thanks to research done by Catherine Koehl; added the link to the Folgerpedia article.








  1. see Abbie Weinberg’s post “In Defense of the Card Catalog” for more information about why we still have our card catalogs.
  2. Studies in Philology, Vol. 71, No. 5, Texts and Studies, 1974. (Dec., 1974), pp. 1+3-106
  3. English Literary Renaissance, vol.19, no.3 (Autumn 1989), p.324-345
  4. This book is now thought to have a spurious attribution.
  5. See also CEWBJ—Jonson’s Library: Selden, John: De Dis Syris Syntagmata II. 1617

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