RENAISSANCE COMMONPLACE BOOKS FROM THE BRITISH LIBRARY
Introduction by William H. Sherman, Consultant Editor,
Department of English, University of Maryland
"To those, who have been accustomed to the use of a Commonplace Book, the advantage of a convenient Repository of the kind is well known; and to those, who have not, its utility must be sufficiently obvious. The man who reads, and neglects to note down the essence of what he has read; the man who sees, and omits to record what he has seen; the man who thinks, and fails to treasure up his thoughts in some place…will often have occasion to regret an omission, which such a book, as is now offered to him, is well calculated to remedy."
A New Commonplace Book…Properly Ruled Throughout with a Complete Skeleton Index, and Ample Directions for its Use; Equally Adapted to the Man of Letters and the Man of Observation, the Traveller & the Student, and Forming a Useful and Agreeable Companion, on the Road; and in the Closet (London, 1799), p.1.
Renaissance readers, writers, and speakers were well-trained in textual recycling, and one of their most powerful and pervasive tools was the ‘commonplace book’ - a collection of notes from reading and other sources that the compiler might want to recall, and reuse, at a later date. While the structure and purpose of these volumes varied enormously, they were distinguished from random collections of quotations (in theory, at least) by being gathered under conventional headings called loci communes or ‘common places’. As Ann Moss has explained, "The more elementary commonplace-books…would be divided into sections under heads listing the main virtues and vices, and all their subsidiary manifestations. More advanced commonplace-books might have ambitious programmes for covering all knowledge, or they might be specialist repertories of excerpts relevant to specific disciplines" (Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, v). The headings could be tailored to an individual’s personal or professional needs, suggested by teachers, or bought in blank-books with printed headings and decorative borders - and readers who did not have the patience or the resources to gather their own entries could even buy a book with the quotations already printed or written in.
Commonplace books went hand-in-hand with the period’s emphasis on imitation and ‘copia’ rather than originality. The commonplace was not seen as derivative or trite but rather as a mark of eloquence and learning, and a means of participation in a common language and outlook. Pupils were taught to construct commonplace books almost as soon as they could read and write: until the practice declined in the eighteenth century, they were a sign that someone had done their homework rather than plagiarized other peoples’ words, ideas, and images. John Brinsley’s Ludus Literarius (1612), one of the period’s most influential guides to teachers, advocated the use of commonplace books by grammar school students "to the end that they may be sure to have variety both of words and phrase…[and] may be sure ever to have store of matter, or to find of a sudden where to turn to [have] fit matter for every theme" (Bb2r). Their use extended well beyond Brinsley’s emphasis on rhetorical training in the classroom. They were especially common with lawyers and, as my epigraph suggests, with travellers: as early as 1650 James Howell suggested that "In reading he [who is preparing to travel] must couch in a fair alphabetic paper-book the notablest occurences…and set them by themselves in sections" (Instructions and Directions for Foreign Travel, London, 1650, B11r).
The catalogues of most libraries (including the British Library) now tend to use the term ‘commonplace book’ to describe any collection of notes gathered by any person or group for almost any purpose. During the Renaissance itself the standard headings and formats prescribed by Erasmus and other humanist educators were giving way to looser compilations that served the functions of practical manuals, business ledgers, private diaries, and family archives. Kevin Sharpe has recently suggested that “there was an ambiguity at the heart of commonplacing: For though what the compiler copied was extracted from a common storehouse of wisdom, the manner in which extracts were copied, arranged, juxtaposed, cross-referenced or indexed was personal and individual” (Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, 278). Most surviving commonplace books are strikingly idiosyncratic, and very few volumes kept to their original schemes with absolute strictness: in some cases, the compiler’s needs or frames of reference changed, and in others the manuscript changed directions (both literally and figuratively) as it changed hands. It is not at all unusual to find a collection of legal records or historical notes written around an earlier compilation of philosophy or poetry, written sideways or upside-down in any available space.
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. Indeed, the covers of a single volume will usually contain more than one of these subjects, and when the groupings are not simply the result of a shortage of paper they can point to long-forgotten associations and affiliations (as in Royal MS 12 A XXXIV, a compendium that shuttles between geography and rhetoric, or in John Milton’s commonplace book, where the entries for poetry are listed under the general heading of Ethics).
Some of the period’s leading poets, scholars, and public figures are represented in the collection, including John Milton, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Locke, Lord Burghley, Sir Julius Caesar, Lord Preston, and Sir William Trumbull. These manuscripts provide glimpses of the raw materials that lie behind the great works and historic actions, and often reveal unexpected areas of interest or expertise - as with the collection of maps and itineraries owned and annotated by Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister, and the drawings of plants and animals and the wax impressions of foreign and ancient coins assembled by John Covel, chaplain to the Levant Company and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. And some manuscripts capture the lives and minds of figures who deserve to be better known, including the poet Henry Oxenden, whose commonplace book (Additional MS 54332) not only documents his readings and writings but provides an intimate record of events in his household and neighbourhood, and the Royalist prisoner Sir John Gisbon, who compiled a poignant scrapbook (Additional MS 37719) of prayers, historical records, clippings from contemporary books and engravings, and a verse autobiography during his incarceration in Durham Castle between 1653 and 1660.
Gibson produced his manuscript as much for his children as for himself, and the British Library’s commonplace books offer ample evidence for the use of volumes by several members of a single household or family. The library’s strong collection of family archives also make it possible to compare the commonplace books of Sir Julius Caesar and his grandson, the memoranda of John Locke and his father, and the notes of several generations of the Scattergood family.
It is also possible, in a surprising number of cases, to compare more than one commonplace book by a single compiler: we have two each from John Morris, Henry Sturmy, and Sir William Trumbull. Setting them alongside each other can provide a valuable opportunity to trace a person’s working habits across a wider field than usual - either across different subjects (Morris’s collections are devoted to humanist literature and medicine) or over an extended period of time (Trumbull’s two collections date from his days as a student and his years as a practicing lawyer).
Finally, there was a growing market for printed books to guide the compilation of manuscript notes, and compilers of manuscript commonplace books were expected to cut and paste (sometimes literally) excerpts from printed texts. The British Library’s collections offer many examples of the coexistence of manuscript and print in a single volume. Perhaps the grandest book produced in the period with printed headings and blank pages for readers’ notes was that of John Foxe (better known as the author of The Book of Martyrs): in his copy (Additional MS 6038) Sir Julius Caesar entered nearly sixty years’ and 1200 pages’ worth of reading notes and observations, and in the process he completely rewrote Foxe’s printed headings and alphabetical index. By 1680, a lawyer could purchase the short printed text, A Brief Method of the Law, Being an Exact Alphabetical Disposition of all the Heads Necessary for a Perfect Common-Place, which was (as the full title continued) "Printed in this Volume for the conveniency of Binding with Common-Place-Books". Lansdowne MS 638 is an example of how this book would look when bound with blank leaves and filled with legal cases and textual authorities. Like some of the period’s customised books of devotion, Sir John Gibson’s prison notebook (Additional MS 37719) contained fourteen images borrowed from contemporary books and engravings. Clearly, commonplace books are a valuable, and still largely untapped, resource for the study of the intersection of manuscript and print culture.