A book of fortune: with prophetical solutions: Giving satisfaction in every condition of humane life, by George Stranmore printed by Ro. L’Estrange in London between 1677 and 1685, is a richly illustrated folio volume. It enters the Bodleian library via the collection of Francis Douce and carries the bookplate of Ralph Sympsun esq. The shelfmark is Douce S 836.

The volume contains several women’s signatures, including one on the binding (late-17th or early 18th-century), which reads Sarah Noble.


Signatures on bindings are fairly common but they are not always so clearly preserved, either because of aging or damage; they are also often victim to re-bindings. 

This is far from the only woman’s signature in this volume.

On the front endpaper, we have multiple signatures from Ann Howard including one obscured by the pasted Lincoln college bookplate, indicated by the large majuscule A.

Also peeking out from under that illustration we can read ‘h Noble’: likely a repeat of the Sarah Noble inscription we saw on the front cover.

On the bottom right of this same page, we have first in the hand of Ann Howard a phrase ‘come my sweetest manne[x]’ and the same inscription copied in a much more uncertain hand, probably a child’s, immediately below. We have not been able to identify the origins of that phrase. 

There is evidence of handwriting practice and pen trials here and throughout the volume, as shown in the images below:

Returning to the front of the book, however, on the front flyleaf, we have one more signature to consider, this time a much more highly decorated version of the signature of Ann Howard. The ornamental style very likely dates the signature the 18th century.

A book of fortune contains numerous illustrated woodcut portraits, for example in pp.. 6-7 of the “Twelve SYBILLS” and the Wheel of Fortune:

As the book proceeds, recounting a series of enigmatic prophecies, it somewhat incongruously includes portraits of historical figures by way of illustrations (the Jury section). The same portraits are sometimes repeated, suggesting that they are present merely to fill out the volume and justify its sumptuous folio presentation.

An unidentified annotator whose hand does not seem to resemble those of Ann Howard or Sarah Noble sets about to identify those portraits, noting Erasmus, Martin Luther and Bishop John Fisher (an English Catholic bishop and theologian, 1469–1535). This is a great example of how a reader’s purposes can differ from the book itself. Rather than trying to discern their fortune as the book intends, this reader turns their attention to its illustrations, using the volume as a test of who’s-who of Reformation-era figures.


Douce S 836 gives us a rich sense of the multiple users, and multiple uses, that early moderns brought to their books. That these uses could be iterated, collaborative, parallel, or even contradictory remind us to attend to books not just for what they say, but what they allow their readers (and their writers) to do with them.

Jake Arthur
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Dr. Jake Arthur is a post-award member of the University of Oxford. His doctoral thesis, supported by the Clarendon Fund, is entitled ‘”The stuffe not ours”: the work of derivation in women’s writing’; it examines early modern women’s work in translation and paraphrase and seeks to reclaim the expressive and intellectual possibilities of ‘derivative’ works. He is co-editor on the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Early Modern Women’s Writing, with Sarah C. E. Ross. He has recently published on early modern poets Anne Lock and Katherine Philips, and on translator Margaret Tyler. He works as a researcher on the ARC-funded project Marginalia and the Early Modern Woman Writer, 1530-1660, and the ARC-Marsden Grant funded project, ‘Woe is me:’ Women and Complaint in the English Renaissance.