RENAISSANCE COMMONPLACE BOOKS FROM THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY
By Dr William H Sherman
The commonplace book was one of the principal means by which the readers, writers, and orators of the English Renaissance managed a rapidly growing body of textual information; and one of the principal tools which guided their compositions, guaranteeing the fullness and order which were the rhetorical ideals of the day.
Although it has a history stretching back to classical antiquity, the commonplace book played its most prominent role in the intellectual culture of Renaissance Humanism. The technique of keeping books in which to enter notable passage, observations and inventions, according to a set of pre-conceived subjects or topics (i.e. loci communes or common places), was a central feature of the pedagogical programme advocated by Erasmus and his contemporaries. Such books were considered a valuable resource for the future needs of the student, providing him or her with an abundance of material, as well as a categorical framework, to apply to a discourse on any subject.
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the use of commonplace books became increasingly pervasive. In the process, however, they became a less circumscribed phenomenon: they were applied to a broader range of materials, employed in a broader range of social and economic contexts, and structured according to a broader range of techniques. The period has left many collections of texts in which material is selected (often excerpted or abstracted) for later reference and use. But very few of these are organized by commonplaces, like the classic notebooks of Erasmian Humanism. Many are organised by alphabetical or chronological systems, and in the case of poetical and epistolary miscellanies there may not be any system at all.
The influence of commonplace books on the literature of the English Renaissance has itself been a commonplace in modern writing on that culture. Yet, scholars have for the most part restricted their attention to a small number of printed commonplace books - for instance, John Marbeck’s A book of notes and commonplaces…collected and gathered out of the works of diverse singular writers and brought alphabetically into order (London, 1581), John Man’s Commonplaces of Christian Religion (London, 1578), and (best known of all) Ben Jonson’s Timber; or, Discoveries, made upon men and matter, as they have flow’d out of his daily Readings, or had their reflux to his peculiar Notion of the Times (London, 1641). Only in recent years have scholars turned to the rich quarry of manuscript commonplace books, and they have still to come to terms with the variety, brilliance, and quirkiness of the intellectual habits they document.
Renaissance Commonplace Books from the Huntington Library will present, to a broad community of scholars, an extremely valuable sample of such texts. The series will reproduce a wide range of exemplary and extraordinary volumes selected from one of the leading repositories of English Renaissance texts. It will include commonplace books which cover the full spectrum of Renaissance culture, from poetry to politics, and from theology to law. Among the Huntington’s treasures are the exhaustively detailed legal commonplace book prepared by the young Thomas Egerton and used by him as he rose to the positions of Lord Chancellor and Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal; the compilation of the best speeches, poems, and letters of Sir Nicholas Bacon (the Tudor statesman and father to Francis); the devotional commonplace book of Elizabeth Hastings, Countess of Huntington; the notebook and diary of Sir Edward Dering, a number of Tudor and Stuart poetical miscellanies; and a squat little volume which ranges freely over strological, medical, rhetorical and financial information.
Scholars specialising in any aspect of Renaissance culture will find matter of interest in these volumes. They supply fascinating and crucial evidence regarding the literary tastes and techniques of the English Renaissance - an age when (unlike our own) imitation and borrowing were not only allowed but expected, and when ‘commonplace’ and ‘miscellaneous’ were far from derogitory terms. They provide a window into the intellectual, domestic and professional activities of Tudor and Stuart men and women, from students to ministers of the Crown.
William H Sherman
San Marino, California and Cambridge, England
RENAISSANCE COMMONPLACE BOOKS FROM THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY
Catalogued as Thomas Buttes’s Commonplace Book [c.1580]. On the first folio a title proclaims it to be a book of verses collected by Robert Talbott, and it is not clear what role Buttes played in the production of the volume. It contains many incidental and miscellaneous notes (some of them quite interesting), but the bulk of the text is a collection of verse sententiae gathered in alphabetical form. Also, within each letter of the alphabet, the verses are separated by subject (Medica, Gramatica, Memorialia, Enygmatica, etc.) and by length (Monosticha, Disticha, and Polysticha). After the end of the alphabet, more sententiae are collected under marginal headings. This fascinating volume closes with notes on metre and versifying.
There are 231 numbered folios, many of which are slightly cropped - but only folio 222 has sustained severe damage.
Height - 289mm; Width of opening - 400mm.
Thomas Grocer, “Dayly Observations, both Divine and Moral” . This consists mainly of poetical excerpts from early and mid-Stuart writers and preachers, and is a very formal production, with a title page, a complete table of contents at the beginning, and running titles throughout. On the title page, the compiler describes himself as “Thomas Grocer, Florilegius.”
The volume contains 5 unnumbered leaves and 215 numbered pages and 2 unnumbered leaves.
Height - 177mm; Width of opening - 280mm.
A collection of important political letters from Sidney, Ralegh, Bacon and others [c.1580-1627].
40ff. Many of the pages are quite faint and some of the text (especially marginal headings) is pretty deep in the gutter margin.
Height - 153mm; Width of opening - 400mm.
Prose and Verse Miscellany [early 17th century]. This is a rich collection of verse and prose epitaphs, characters, etc., some of it connected to Oxford. Much of it is quite scandalous, often - such as the satirical epitaph of Sir Robert Cecil - on political subjects.
The original manuscript consist of 180 numbered pages, 140mm high and 180mm across the opening; but the whole volume has been interleaved with larger pages, some of which bear notes from the 19th century containing information about the contents, authors, and publication histories of the 17th century material.
Height - 159mm; Width of opening - 285mm.
Poetical miscellany from the reigns of Elizabeth I through Charles II. Titled by the binder in 1832, “Records of the Muse”. Many (most?) of the poems are autograph copies and are simply bound together in a roughly chronological order with no index or table of contents. Not really a commonplace book, but a very valuable poetical miscellany.
Separated into 2 separately paginated volumes of 208 pages and 148 folios respectively. It consists of sheets of many shapes and sizes.
Height - 302mm; Width of opening - 360mm.
Memorandum book/historical notebook of Edward Stafford and his son Henry Earl of Stafford [c.1562]. The bulk of this volume consists of the historical notes of Edward Stafford. It is not exactly a commonplace book, but it is interesting as a scholarly and genealogical notebook from an aristocratic family which passed through the generations.
40ff. Height - 259mm; Width of Opening - 385mm.
Miscellaneous meditations, epistles, verses, characters and notes [c.1614-1620]. Some excerpts has been identified as deriving from Bacon’s Essays, Overbury’s Characters, Earle’s Microcosmographia, and Ralegh’s History of the World.
146ff. Closely written with very little margin. The pagination begins right side up in the front with folio numbers in the upper right corner for fols. 1-100, then continues upside down from the back with folio numbers in the lower left of the opening from fols. 102 - 146.
Height - 185mm; Width of opening - 285mm.
Catalogued as Sir Nicholas Bacon’s commonplace book, but better described as a compilation of his speeches, poems, and letters [c.1585]. This valuable manuscript contains a selection of Lord Keeper Bacon’s speeches in Parliament and official and personal letters, as well as one of two manuscripts of his poetical output, entitled, “The Recreations of his age” [published in 1903, thought not from this manuscript]. It is not clear whether or not this miscellany was compiled by Bacon himself, nor whether it represents a memorial or a formulary.
Folios ii + 95 (written on both sides) + 33 blank leaves + 3 (“The Table of the Book”) and ii leaves.
Height - 294mm; Width of opening - 390mm.
Political notebook - reading notes, maxims, and aphorisms (17th century). It opens with 24 numbered folios copied out of Francis Bacon. It carries on for forty more folios in a variety of hands. Aside from the Bacon extracts, there are sections headed “Maxims of State” and “Senecae Sententiae” and summaries from “Leisters Commonwealth”.
c70ff. Height - 142mm; Width of opening - 190mm.
Devotional commonplace book of Elizabeth Hastings, Countess of Huntington . The title at the top of fol. 1r reads, “Certaine collections of the right honorable Elizabeth late Countesse of Huntington for her own private use.” This is a copy (and quite a special one) of Elizabeth’s prayers and excerpts from religious texts. It was evidently prepared as a sort of memorial (for use within the family?) shortly after her death, since the compiler has added an engraved effigy of Elizabeth at the beginning and rearranged the sections so that the concluding one is “Of Death”.
29ff. Height - 185mm; Width of opening - 290mm.
Catalogued as a “Poetical Collection (Commonplace Book)” [c.1670]. The first 27 of 48 folios consist of a few long poems. These are followed by miscellaneous precepts and excerpts, some classical, some biblical, some moral.
48ff. Height - 144mm; Width of opening - 180mm.
Catalogued as a “Collection (Commonplace Book) Poetry etc.” [c.1600]. This little manuscript is as curious in appearance as it is in content. It is roughly square, and has been bound in vellum leaves from a 14th century legal manuscript, which have been folded to fit the unusual shape - and strings have been attached to the front ‘cover’ to close over the back. It is full of notes of an extremely varied nature, starting with information about the elements, the planets and the zodiacal signs, and goes on to provide several medical recipes, a list of land holdings, some Latin sententiae, a letter, and some verses. Toward the rear there is an alphabetically organised set of sententiae - the only material which, technically, turns the volume from a “Collection” into a “Commonplace Book”.
59ff. Height - 177mm; Width of opening - 230mm.
Sir Edward Dering’s ephemeris and notebook [1656-1662]. This volume is a prime illustration of the place of orderly note-keeping in the household management and studies of a nobleman. Some of the volume’s 188 foliated leaves contain chronological records of Dering’s doings and financial transactions. Others contain lists of his books, or medical/chemical materials, and there are even a few poems at the end.
188ff. Height - 265mm; Width of opening - 400mm.
Poetical miscellany [early 17th century] with commonplace book of English law [later]. The first 19 folios contain a series of poems written by Jonson, Wotton and others. Written lengthwise alongside the poems (and then filling the entire page for the remaining leaves) is an orderly alphabetical commonplace book of English law.
c100ff. Much of the legal material continues on into the gutter margin and is often quite faint.
Height - 173mm; Width of opening - 210mm.
The legal commonplace book of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper and Lord Chancellor of England [c.1570-90]. This is a digest of cases and statutes, employing an extensive alphabetical list of topics, which Egerton prepared near the beginning of his career. It is of special interest not only because of Egerton’s status as (alongside Coke) the most important lawyer of the English Renaissance, but because it is an exceptionally fine example of the type of commonplace book which was so important for practicing lawyers.
c400ff. It is bound rather tightly.
Height - 160mm; Width of opening - 200mm.