Early Modern Books in Chests by Alice Leonard

It’s been a busy launch year for Print Exchanges. Following our launch Cafe event in March, we held the first Print Exhibits event in June, where six members of the network gave brief presentations about their work. In this post, Alice Leonard, expands a little more on her interest in Early Modern book chests. She is a Permanent Research Fellow at the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities at Coventry Universityyou can find out more about her work on the Members page of this site.

Where do you keep books that are not being read? Today we keep them on bookshelves, as well as in boxes in attics, in the strongrooms of archives, and on floors as doorstops. In the early modern period, rather than on a bookshelf, books would commonly be kept in a chest. Before bookshelves and bookcases came into wider use in the seventeenth century, chests were the standard place for keeping bound and unbound books. They had an important role in storing, protecting, and organising legal, civic, and domestic documents. They did not have that aspect of display of cabinets or bookshelves, but instead they protected their contents and, perhaps surprisingly, rendered them portable. While they offered organisation, they also provided the possibility of privacy and secrecy.

These affordances of the book chest and the modes of interaction they facilitated are now lost and unfamiliar, and my current research hopes to provide a sense of why books were kept in chests, and how that may have altered their use. It’s easy to make the assumption that early modern books were always being read – books were expensive and the approach of our disciplines is to look for material signs of reading as well as clues to a book’s wider cultural impact. Imagining books in chests makes us think about books as unreaderly items, returned to a non-textual status, shut up in the dark. This project looks around the book, to the ways it was stored, moved, and protected, to gain a better sense of the book as an object in space and time. 

In early modern Europe, keeping books in chests was ordinary practice. In her wonderfully inventive Boxes and Books in Early Modern England (2021)Lucy Razzall argues that: ‘Across the social scale in early modern England, almost everyone would have owned at least one box of some kind for the storage of personal possessions, including anything from papers and books to tools, jewels, spices, medicine, linen, plate, or money.’ (p. 12) Chests were ordinary objects that could carry a miscellany of objects in the poorest homes, in every parish church, and in the strong rooms of the most magnificent palaces and civic buildings.

An aspect of book chests that may seem strange to us now is their portability. Made of solid wood, often with iron fittings, these were heavy and awkward items of furniture. Yet it seems that they provided a useful container to transport a world of contents that could become luggage as easily as it could sit on the floor. Wooden chests often had carrying handles or rings to make them more portable. The unremarkable movement of books in chests, for example, enabled Hugo Grotius to escape from imprisonment in Loevestein Castle in 1621 by hiding in a book chest as it was transported away. His wife, Maria van Reigersberch, had negotiated for books to be brought in and out of the Castle so Grotius could continue his work. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Loevestein Castle and the Prinsenhof in Delft all claim to have the original chest and all of them feature the same carrying handles as a talisman of political freedom. An image of the Rijksmuseum chest is below.

In this project I hope to discover more about books in chests in different settings – domestic, religious, bureaucratic, and how keeping them in chests enabled them not only to be protected but also forgotten. This research will form a chapter in Early Modern Bookspace, a Cambridge University Press Elements book, co-authored with Dr Ben Higgins.

Book chest of Hugo de Groot, NG-KOG-1208, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. C. 1600 – c. 1615, made from wood, leather and iron. Height 73 cm × width 160 cm × depth 75 cm. (Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

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