Whose book is it? Books owned by the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre

The following post, by our rare books cataloguer Dr Aya Van Renterghem, first appeared in a longer form on the Early Modern Female Book Ownership blog in May 2020. We are grateful to the blog’s moderators for allowing us to share the content.

When considering the many shapes and forms in which early modern female book ownership appears, thoughts and discussions usually turn to the various types of books owned by different women or focus on the difference in ownership between social classes of women, for instance. It is, however, possible to broaden this view and also think about gradations of ownership and about the level of agency female book owners had. I mean by this that we could think about questions such as how much control early modern women had over their choice of books or over the type of books they owned. The Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre collection, currently being catalogued at Palace Green Library, Durham University, presents an interesting case study in this regard and is worth exploring here.

This book collection therefore gives an overview of female religious book ownership over a period of 300 years and show us the value of books for these women, even (or especially) within the walls of the convent. However, to gain insight into the collection, the questions are not as straightforward as “Why did the sisters choose these specific books?” or “Who do these books belong to?”

A seventeenth-century copy of the Rule of Saint Augustine in French, printed in Liege (present-day Belgium).

Looking at the inscriptions in the Canonesses’ books, it appears that many of them were previously owned. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the majority of these previous owners were male institutions or men of the cloth who were predominantly Jesuit. A large number of the books contain ownership marks showing that they belonged to the English Jesuit College in Liège, indicated by the letters C.A. or the Latin phrase Collegium Anglicum Societatis Jesu Leodii. This college appears to have been the main provider of reading materials for the sisters, especially for the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books. Furthermore, as CHS 056 shows, a number of the books were also printed at the College.

Title page of a seventeenth century devotional book printed in Paris

Though the texts contained in these books can be found elsewhere, some copies were uniquely translated and printed in Liège. Whether this was done with the purpose of giving them to the Canonesses is unclear. Likely also through the Liège College, the Canonesses gained access to books from the wider Jesuit community. CHS 018 for instance, was previously owned by P. Hijacynthus Vander Meer, who was at the Flemish Jesuit college in Tongeren.

Clearly, and not surprisingly given the reason why the Canonesses chose Liège as the location for their convent, the sisters looked at the Jesuit College for guidance and likely this included the provision of reading materials. In her article on the book collections of religious convents in exile, Caroline Bowden mentions a letter written shortly after the convent’s foundation in 1623 by Father Augustine Baker, spiritual advisor at the English Benedictine convent at Cambrai, to his Protestant book-collector friend Robert Cotton requesting books for the nuns (Bowden 343–44). In this letter, he expresses his concern about the availability of spiritual reading materials in English, but further documentation shows that he was equally interested in controlling the selection of texts.

It is unclear how far this situation was replicated across the English convents on the Continent, but it does further stress the question of how much agency the Canonesses had in purchasing books for themselves. If they did select and buy their own books, did these books have to be approved by their (Jesuit) chaplain? Was the pre-selection by male clerics simply a consequence of practicalities (i.e. it was easier for them to find and purchase books), or was there an element of censorship to this practice?

Title page of a seventeenth-century life of Saint Catherine of Siena, written in English

The questions do not end there: even within the walls of the convent, further inscriptions suggest that book ownership was not a clear-cut matter. Concerning this, Bowden notes that book ownership in convents worked from the principle that all books belonged to the convent and that individual sisters were allowed to keep certain texts in their cells for different lengths of time (353). The Canonesses’ collection largely confirms this, but I think further nuance can be added. CHS 010, for instance, which plainly states “Gertrude Aston my booke 1658” suggests that a number of sisters also had their own books. It is possible that they brought these with them when they joined (which is likely the case for CHS 010) or perhaps they were given them as presents by relatives or friends.

CHS 063 further demonstrates, by using a slightly different phrasing, “Mary Baptist her book with leave,” that this was not necessarily without input from the superiors. CHS 063 is also interesting because the topmost inscription on the flyleaf shows that the book was previously owned by Thomas Hyacinth Brown in 1776 (who was a Catholic Reverend based in Leicestershire). Based on similar inscriptions in other books from the collection, this could mean that the book belonged to the convent and that Mary Baptist had received special leave to keep it in her cell to read. Alternatively, she may have bought it second-hand or was given it by Reverend Brown and received permission to keep it.

Ownership inscriptions in a book belonging to the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre collection at Palace Green Library, Durham
DUL 063

Although this seems like a very particular distinction to make, the note “lent to M. Felicitas” in CHS 048 suggest that this was relevant to the community. Mary Baptist’s note is also written in ink, while the lending note was written in pencil. It is also possible that this distinction is time-related: in this case Mary Baptist was allowed to keep the book for a long time (potentially for life), while M. Felicitas was only allowed to borrow it for a short period of time. Looking at the collection as a whole, however, these individual ownership marks are, though not rare by any measure, also not the norm.


Further investigation and cataloguing of this collection will undoubtedly lift the veil even further on early modern female book ownership in the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre’s collection, as well as female religious orders more broadly. Despite the relatively closed-off nature of convents, this information is relevant on a wider scale as the materials read by the sisters and kept in their libraries would also (indirectly) inform the generations of girls and women who were taught by them.

Source: books in Palace Green Library, Durham University. Photos by Dr. Danielle Westerhof, Rare Books Librarian at Palace Green Library, reproduced with permission.

Further reading

Caroline Bowden, “Building Libraries in Exile: The English convents and Their Book Collections in the Seventeenth Century,” British Catholic History 32.3 (2015), pp. 343–382.

Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre, History of the New Hall Community of Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre (Bruges: St-Trudo Abdij, 1997).

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