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“As might be expected of the premier collection of books and manuscripts in the English-speaking world, the British Library has one of the richest collections of commonplace books from the English Renaissance. There are examples from virtually every discipline and profession, including rhetoric, theology, politics, poetry, law, medicine, history, heraldry, geography, and cookery.”
Dr William H. Sherman, Consultant Editor

This project brings together nearly 50 commonplace books dating from 1550 to 1700 from the riches of the British Library manuscript collections.  Some noteworthy items featured are:

  • The massive, 1,200 page commonplace book of Sir Julius Caesar (1558-1636), providing detailed accounts of his reading from his early twenties until his death. 
  • John Milton’s commonplace book with notes on Ethics, Economics, Politics and Literature.  There is much on marriage and divorce and on the topics of Tyranny, Liberty, Civil War and the King. 
  • The extraordinary prison notebook of Sir John Gibson (1606-1665), dedicated to his son, and supposed to provide a record of his life and experiences. 
  • The ‘Waferer’ commonplace book compiled c1591-1627, featuring verses by Essex, Ralegh and Shakespeare, as well as medical recipes, lists of books, and notes.
  • Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘Tower’ notebook, written c1606-1608 while he was imprisoned, replete with library lists, poetry and an illustrated guide to the Middle East. 
  • A commonplace book attributed to Thomas Harriot (1560-1621), polymath and friend of Ralegh, Kepler and Marlowe, featuring the earliest known quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1.

Taken together, these commonplace books provide insights into what was read and what was considered important.  They cover an astonishing range of subjects. 

John Milton's commonplace book

Editorial introduction
Digital Guide
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