Digital Edition The Collet Family and Little Gidding The Manuscript Interpretation Digitization Credits


As we have already seen, this manuscript participates in the tradition of commonplacing, or compiling and organizing excerpts under topical headings (“commonplaces”). Commonplacing as an intellectual pursuit was prevalent in seventeenth-century England, with authors like John Locke, Francis Bacon, and John Milton all advocating for and maintaining their own commonplace books. For literate women especially, compiling commonplaces and miscellanies was one of the primary methods by which they might document their reading, share advice with others, and exercise their literary intelligence. The commonplace section of Collet’s manuscript follows contemporaneous advice on how to organize excerpts and thus is an exemplar of the genre.

However, a survey of the sources Collet excerpts brings out some of the idiosyncrasies in her particular reading habits, as compared to her contemporaries. In this section, we break down what she quotes and how frequently, followed by a discussion that situates these choices in the context of other commonplace books and miscellanies made by English women in the seventeenth century.


The first section, “Collections of Some Short Sentences out of the holy Scriptures, vpon Diuers Subiects,” contains 427 excerpts. Around 41% these extracts come from apocryphal books of the Bible, including Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Esdras, and the Wisdom of Solomon. Of these books, the most quoted by far is Ecclesiasticus. Outside of the Apocrypha, the majority of biblical books that Collet draws on come from the Old Testament, including excerpts are from Proverbs, Psalms, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Ecclesiastes, and Exodus. Collet also quotes from many of the New Testament books, including all four Gospels, Epistles, Romans, Corinthians, Revelations, Hebrews, and Ephesians.

Book Section of the Bible Count (out of 425 excerpts)
Ecclesiasticus Old Testament/Apocrypha 162
Proverbs Old Testament 156
Psalms Old Testament 16
Matthew New Testament 11
Ecclesiastes Old Testament 7
Luke New Testament 7
James New Testament 6
Leviticus Old Testament 5
Deuteronomy Old Testament 4
Tobit Old Testament/Apocrypha 4
1 Corinthians New Testament 4
Ephesians New Testament 4
Gospel St. John New Testament 4
Job Old Testament 3
Wisdom of Solomon Old Testament/Apocrypha 3
1 John New Testament 3
Collosians New Testament 3
Exodus Old Testament 2
Isaiah Old Testament 2
Zechariah Old Testament 2
1 Timothy New Testament 2
Zechariah Old Testament 2
Revelation New Testament 2
Romans New Testament 2
1 Esdras Old Testament/Apocrypha 1
Baruch Old Testament/Apocrypha 1
Daniel Old Testament 1
Micah Old Testament 1
Zephaniah Old Testament 1
1 Thessalonians New Testament 1
2 Timothy New Testament 1
Galatians New Testament 1
Hebrews New Testament 1
Mark New Testament 1

The preponderance of sayings from Proverbs is not surprising; as a book of wise teachings, it served as the foundation of much moral literature in the period and beyond. Nor is the relative absence of extracts from the New Testament, which focuses less on general advice for godly living and more on conveying the gospel of Christ. However, the number of fragments from the Apocrypha, and Ecclesiasticus especially, might give us pause. Long contested in theological debates stretching back to Jerome, the status of certain biblical books, known today as “apocryphal,” remained uncertain in Caroline religious culture. Some reformed English theologians, following the precedent set by the Catholic church, considered them useful to read but not properly Scripture; others saw them as popish incursions that were infecting English Protestantism, especially the Book of Common Prayer, which draws heavily from these books. The uncertain status of the apocrypha is reflected in their position in most English language editions of the Bible printed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where they were included as an appendix to the Old Testament, right before the New Testament, following a tradition set by Martin Luther in 1534. Usually these non-canonical books are prefaced with a note instructing the reader not to take their teachings as doctrine.

As England entered the seventeenth century and religious discord deepened, one of the more puritanical stationers objected to the inclusion of apocryphal books in printed Bibles, and in December 1608, some bookbinders refused to stitch them in. In late 1615, the revolt seems to have become so widespread that Archbishop George Abbott sent word to the Court of the Stationers’ Company that “no more bibles be bounde vp and sold wthout the Apocripha in them vpon paine of one whole yeares Imprisonment.” By the time Charles had become King and William Laud his controversial Archbishop, some commentators were more combatively describing the Apocrypha’s positioning between the Old and New Testaments as akin to having Unholsome henbane between two fragrant roses, as the title of one tract put it, or “a Blakamore placed between two pure unspotted Virgins,” in Henry Burton’s racist words — the latter being a prime example of the ways that seventeenth century print is part of the broader colonial history of early modern writers mapping racial binaries onto moral hierarchies to elevate whiteness and dehumanize those with darker skin.

That Susanna Collet thus willingly incorporated so many excerpts from Ecclesiasticus and other apocryphal books into a section of her commonplace book claiming to be copied “out of the holy Scriptures” suggests the family not only were not offended by the inclusion of the Apocrypha in printed Bibles but that they may not have seen a strong distinction between them and the Testaments. It also points to their reliance on the Book of Common Prayer as a touchstone for their own highly regimented patterns of devotional living. Above all, though, we must see in her selections a cautionary tale about reading Little Gidding’s religious practices purely through the prism of narrow doctrinal debates. The household was organized as a self-sustaining religious society, focused principally on the spiritual wellbeing of a single extended family — not as a school of theology.

Further bolstering this point, a careful, comparative reading of each excerpt — as was necessary during the production of this edition — makes clear that Collet was working from multiple versions of the Bible or possibly from memory. The majority have been copied from the King James version, but differences in phrasing suggests she was also reading the Geneva and possibly even the Douay-Rheims versions. The former preceded the King James translation by about fifty years and was the most widely read English language version, used well into the seventeenth century; the latter was an English translation made by and for Catholics from the Latin Vulgate. In some excerpts, different versions are combined. While it would certainly be interesting to know that the household at Little Gidding was reading a Catholic translation, more likely these variants are bringing to light Collet’s more general intermingling of biblical translations of Ecclesiasticus that stem from the Greek Septuagint, like the Geneva and King James Bibles, and versions that stem from the Latin Vulgate, like the Douay-Rheims Bible. Collet may also have been excerpting from memory or even translating herself from the Latin Vulgate, since languages were clearly taught and valued in the household. An example of this is found on folio 3-3r, where Collet’s excerpt is most similar to the Douay Rheims Ecclesiasticus 8:20, although she labels it as “Ecc. 8.18.” The last fragment in the page before is correctly attributed to Ecclesiasticus 8:17 in the King James Version, which illustrates Collet’s complex reading practices.

Examining the sources from the secular section of the commonplace book also yields some surprises. As mentioned above, Collet did not cite her sources in this part of the manuscript; however, through careful searches of databases of early modern texts, like that provided by the Text Creation Partnership, this digital edition’s co-editor Zoe Braccia has discovered the origins of around 86% of the 276 fragments. Forty-two excerpts in the secular section have either not been able to be sourced or the sources found are considerably later than the manuscript’s 1635 date, suggesting a unknown common origin. Collet also makes some changes to the text in the secular sources she uses, which might either reflect her reading the sources from memory or purposely adding her own authorial hand in the words of contemporary authors. On the whole, though, by far the most copied secular writer is bishop, satirist, and religious controversalist Joseph Hall, whose excerpts make up around 42% of this section. Although little read today, the extraordinarily prolific Hall wrote some of the most popular commentaries, sermons, poetry, and devotional works of the century, and it is not unexpected that Collet might draw on this religious leader for wisdom and advice.

The next most cited source is the courtier Robert Dallington’s Aphorismes Civill and Militarie (1613), a translation of the Italian Renaissance historian Francesco Guicciardini’s aphorisms. Dallington traveled the continent and, like Little Gidding itself, helped popularize baroque art and style among the Stuart elites. His translation — which Nicholas Ferrar may have acquired as part of his own interest in Italy as a young man — appends each aphorism with passages from Guicciardini’s histories and quotes from other authors, making it a compendium of various sources.

The third most cited author is Francis Bacon, with excerpts from his 1597 and 1625 printed essay compilations, followed by Sir Philip Sidney’s pastoral romance The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, first printed in 1593. Sidney’s Arcadia is exactly the sort of secular literature that Nicholas Ferrar, on his deathbed in 1637, would famously ask his brother to burn, erasing all evidence that he read or owned them. That his sister Susanna Collet quotes it so frequently reveals that Little Gidding was more worldly and connected to literary trends than its cloistered self-presentation of religious retirement, so carefully engineered by Ferrar, would suggest. It also points to the ways in which early modern reading practices disintegrated Sidney’s text into pithy fragments more easily diffused through commonplace books and manuscript miscellanies. At the same time, Collet does not otherwise excerpt from romances, poetry, or drama, hewing closer to histories and religious commentaries like John Hayward’s histories of England. On the whole then, gleaning the secular sources helps piece together a partial image of a library that is devout and learned but not puritanical or dogmatic.

Author Work(s) Count (out of 276 excerpts)
Joseph Hall The works of Joseph Hall Doctor in Diuiniitie, and Deane of Worcester (1625); Contemplations on the Historical Passages of the Old and New Testaments (1626) 117
Robert Dallington Aphorismes ciuill and militarie amplified with authorities (1613) 34
Francis Bacon The essayes or counsels, ciuill and morall (1625); Essayes Religious meditations (1597) 29
Philip Sidney The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (1593) 17
Edwin Sandys A relation of the state of religion and with what hopes and pollicies it hath beene framed (1605); Europae speculum. Or, A vievv or survey of the state of religion in the vvesterne parts of the world (1629) 4
Le Sylvain The orator handling a hundred seuerall discourses (1596) 3
Leonard Wright A display of dutie dect vvith sage sayings, pythie sentences, and proper similies (1589) 3
John Hayward The liues of the III. Normans, Kings of England William the first (1613) 2
Pedro Mexia The treasurie of auncient and moderne times (1613) 2
Caleb Dalechamp Christian hospitalitie handled common-place-wise (1632) 2
Thomas Adams The happines of the church (1619); Fiue sermons preached vpon sundry especiall occasions (1626) 2
Thomas Wright The passions of the minde in general (1604) 2
Edward Sutton Anthropophagus: or, a caution for the credulous (1623) 2
John Downame The second part of The Christian warfare (1611) 1
John Fox Actes and monuments of matters most speciall and memorable (1583) 1
John Skinner Rapta Tatio The mirrour of his Maiesties present (1604) 1
John Speed The theatre of the empire of Great Britaine (1612) 1
Lodowick Bryskett A discourse of ciuill life containing the ethike part of morall philosophie (1606) 1
N. T. A True relation of the ground, occasion, and circumstances of that horrible murther committed by Iohn Bartram, gent (1616) 1
Neils Hemingsen The faith of the church militant (1581) 1
Peter Heylyn Mikrokosmos A little description of the great world (1625) 1
Richard Hooker Of the lavves of ecclesiasticall politie eight bookes (1604) 1
Charles Goodwell Reasons metaphorphosis, and restauration (1621) 1
Thomas Smith Sir Thomas Smithes voiage and entertainment in Rushia (1605) 1
William Pemble A summe of morall philosophy (1632) 1
William Warner Albions England (1597) 1
Guillaume du Vair A buckler against adversitie (1622) 1
Anthony Stafford Staffords heauenly dogge (1615) 1

In quoting these authors, Collet’s commonplace book is similar in content to many other manuscripts compiled by women in the seventeenth century. For instance, like Collet, Ann Bowyer includes excerpts from William Warner, author of Albions England, in her commonplace book, along with poetry from authors like Spenser and Chaucer, which Collet does not include. Similarly, Elizabeth Lyttleton records excerpts from religious authors like Peter Heylyn and John Foxe, while Jane Truesdale and Anna Cromwell Williams quote Francis Bacon and, in the case of the latter, Frances Quarles. The manuscript attributed to Elizabeth Hastings includes texts from Joseph Hall, and Anne Southwell’s work contains both secular and scriptural excerpts. Thus although unique, Collet’s commonplace book fits the tradition of women’s compilations in the seventeenth century. Her library, too, seems to have been in line with other women’s libraries. For instance, the 1647 booklist of Lady Margaret Heath, roughly equal in status and wealth to the Collet women, has among its recorded items Hall’s Works, Bibles, devotional literature, sermons, and books by Bacon, Hayward, and Speed, as well as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, declarations by Charles I, and George Herbert’s poetry, which we can infer were also owned at Little Gidding.

The second half of Collet’s manuscript — which includes a complete copy of Dean John Colet’s A ryght fruitfull monicion concernynge the order of a good Christen mannes lyfe (1534), a treatise by Susanna Collet on a mother’s legacy to her child, and a final excerpt from Francis Quarles’ Hadassa (1621) — also fits with contemporaneous practices. Many other women who made manuscript miscellanies or commonplaces focused their books on preserving their families’ legacies, including Katherine Thomas, Sarah Cowper, Hester Pulter, Elizabeth Richardson, and Elizabeth Jocelyn.