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RENAISSANCE COMMONPLACE BOOKS

From The British Library, London

Publisher's Note

This project brings together nearly 50 commonplace books dating from 1550 to 1700 from the riches of the British Library manuscript collections. There are some wonderful individual items included. For instance:

  • 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.

But as with our related offering of Renaissance Commonplace Books from the Huntington Library it is the aggregation of so many such volumes that will excite literary scholars and historians. Only two of these volumes have appeared in previous microfilm publications.


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

Fourteen of the volumes are largely historical in nature, containing antiquarian notes regarding local and national history, some with extracts copied from letters and manuscripts now lost.

Eleven are predominantly literary in character, with orations, notes on performances, extracts from works in circulation, and poems ranging from student doggerel to works by Jonson set to music.

Ten are legal commonplace books, seven are confessional or theological, six deal with natural history and medicine, and two are geographical (including the Nowell-Burghley Atlas, partly in the hand of Lord Burghley).

But few are devoted exclusively to a single topic and many include all of the above, together with diary notes, recipes, book lists, genealogies, accounts and even music.

In Add Ms 28728, John Locke explains both the rationale and the method that he recommends for keeping such books - “making collections for ye help of my bad memory.” As such, commonplace books give us privileged access to the minds of their compilers. What facts did they record? How did they organise their resources?

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