Book Excerpt



(New Haven, CT): Yale University, 2001. 4to. stiff paper wrappers, dust jacket. 99 pages. Exhibition catalogue portraying the collection of rare books and manuscripts that was displayed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library from late July to September, 2001 The event was presented in two parts: (1) the meaning of "commonplace" and how it developed over the centuries and (2) how manuscripts were used in scholarly studies. Commonplace Books contains descriptions from titles..... READ MORE

Price: $17.50  other currencies  Order nr. 99718


All we have learnedfrom whatever source becomes our own, unlessfailing memory robs us of it. Francesco Petrarca, Epistolaefamiliares

Though the Latin verb legere was commonly used in the ancient world to denote the act of reading, it also meant to sin/ gle out, select, extract, gather, collect, even to plunder and purloin. In the classical sense of the word, reading was by no means a passive or receptive act. At its most basic level, read/ ing was an inherently active, discriminating, and selective exercise. One did not merely encounter a text; one harvested it, separating the wheat from the tares in order to glean the pith and marrow. The term also signified a kind of rapine, even the violent confiscation of the fruit of another man's tree.

Consciousness of this energetic notion of reading did not fade with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire either. Today, we read and try as we may to make what we have read a part of ourselves, a more permanent fixture of the life of the mind. Like Petrarch, we sometimes find ourselves wishing that we could keep it all in mind, despite daily, even hourly, visitations of "failing memory." At other moments, while committing thoughts to paper, we may find it difficult to rec/ ognize, or even to recall, what part of our writing is actually our own; whether it reflects original thoughts or, rather, ves/ tiges or admixtures of what we have absorbed from the labors of others.

Qyite understandably, the ancient Greeks named the mother of all the Muses-those legendary inspirers of poets and historians, astronomers and musicians-Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Her children were the patronesses of learning and the arts as well as the guardians of memory. Their earliest myth involved a singing contest at Dorium with the bard Thamyris. Glowing with hubris, he boasted inadvisably of his musical skill. Fittingly, the daughters of Mnemosyne did not vouchsafe to choke his voice in punish/ ment. Instead, they blinded him and stole away his memory. Even today, the Muses are memorialized. Their collective name has been given to the great storehouses of art and her/ itage we call "museums."

Despite their constant appeals to the divine Muses, poets and scholars for centuries have also repaired to mortal precincts for inspiration, picking literary fruits from the trees of other men, and depositing them in their own verses, theses,


and collections. Intellectual spoils have always thus been taken from one mantel only to be replaced upon another, as so many laurels to be woven into a wreath, worn proudly, and finally set down beside other trophies. Placed in new homes, these prizes are divorced from their former contexts, and so take on new meaning and significance. Words, phrases, quotations, even whole works, are, in this manner, arranged, sometimes very carefully, sometimes haphazardly, according to the fancy of the gatherer. They may even be displayed for the admira/ tion and delight of an interested public. Art lovers hang their collections on the walls of their homes, or in museums. Anti/ quarians and antique collectors often keep theirs in cupboards and cabinets of curiosities. Scholars and poets-readers in the legere sense---have kept theirs, through the ages, in com/ monplace books.

In the strictest sense, the term "commonplace book" refers to a collection of well/known or personally meaningful tex/ tual excerpts organized under individual thematic headings. These passages, or sometimes simply the headings themselves, have historically been termed "commonplaces." In this man/ ner, adages, epithets, axioms, poems, purple passages, apothegms, proverbs, puns, maxims, epigrams, anecdotes, mottoes, and so on, have been plucked from the works of Aesop, Cicero, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Proust, and a legion of humbler sources, and subsequently written down in bound volumes of blank or ruled pages, each bearing sum/ mary titles such as "Love," "Nero," "Saint Crispin's day," and so forth.

These formal compilations, arranged according to various purposes and organizational principles, have been circulated for centuries both in manuscript and in print. Indeed, the the/ ories that informed their historical development are as old as the hills. They have their foundation in the philosophical and rhetorical theories of the ancient Greeks and Romans con/ cerning the so/called "commonplaces" of logical philosophi/ cal discourse and rhetorical argument. The sententiae, or wise sayings, of the most authoritative philosophers and orators were counted among these commonplaces, for they were seen as useful adjuncts of logical philosophical proof and persua/ sive oratory. Compelling pearls of wisdom pronounced by lofty figures of great authority were thus compiled and assorted in books of commonplaces throughout the many centuries that followed.

Recently, scholars have begun to focus upon the historical articulation of this classical notion of the commonplaces, and upon commonplace books in general, during the revival of ancient Greek and Latin literature in the Renaissance. In that era of cultural "rebirth," prominent humanists carefully and conscientiously collected and studied the silver words of the ancients in order to demonstrate, to celebrate, and, ultimately, to emulate the philosophical wisdom of Plato and Aristotle, and the "pure" Latin style of Cicero. These same humanists also prescribed sophisticated standards and methods for com/ piling selections from the works of the ancients in common/ place books. These prescriptions were firmly grounded in the concept of the commonplaces espoused by the ancient Roman orators and philosophers themselves. Renaissance humanists even published exemplary commonplace books of their own, as works of reference for the benefit of the reading public, in addition to writing theoretical treatises on the sub/ Ject.

An overwhelming focus upon the blossoming of com/ monplace books during the Renaissance has led many histori/ ans to conclude that the medium had reached its zenith dur/ ing the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Despite the scholarly consensus, however, attention to later text/compilations reveals that the commonplace book did not simply or precipitately drop away fi-om the intellectual map at the end of the classical era, nor when the Renaissance was arguably in the descen/ dent, no more than did Rome fall in a single day. Throughout the Middle Ages, compilations of sententious text excerpts organized under headings Aourished, literally, in the form of largely theological jloriLegia, or "books of Aowers." Similarly, during the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and even twentieth centuries, commonplace books were compiled in great numbers by scholars and laymen alike, in nearly every conceivable shape and size.

Over the course of their venerable history, the use and use/ fulness of commonplace books to readers and writers did not wane. Rather, as general subject matter and habits of reading changed over the course of human history-adapting to new forms of cultural authority and expression-so too did the structure, function, and subject matter of the ever/con/ formable and ever/protean commonplace book. Owing in large part to this long tradition and to their characteristic Aexi/ bility, commonplace books contributed fundamentally to Western culture. Indeed, they constituted the foundation of the early production of standard works of reference that are taken quite for granted in the present century. Encyclopedias, books of quotations, concordances, anthologies, thesauruses, indexes and bibliographies, dictionaries, even the recent, best/ selling New York P,IMic Library Desk Reference, have all owed

something to the time/honored tradition of compiling and

organizing words, facts, and text excerpts in commonplace

books, from antiquity to the present day.

Historically, scholars have generally recognized, and thereby have privileged, one type of commonplace book above all others: those most clearly based upon classical Greek and Roman theories of the commonplaces, and organized in accordance with the prescriptions of prominent humanists during the Renaissance. The broader intellectual impact that commonplace books have had upon intellectual life in the West has been obscured, as a result, and entire portions of the tradition relegated to the long shadows of history. In essence, learned theories of the classical commonplaces, and their com/ pilation in commonplace books, have prevailed over consid/ erations of everyday practice in most historical accounts of the progress, and ostensible regress, of the commonplace book as a discernable textual form or genre. Chief among these neglected elements has been the rich and continuous compila/ tion of personal commonplace books in manuscript.

Examples of sixteenth/ and seventeenth/century common/ place books that followed faithfully the advice of humanists steeped in the ancient theories of the commonplaces, are legion. But such compilations were largely produced for the printing press, as model specimens of the medium, or even as virtuoso performances of the erudition of celebrated scholars and sages. The much more extensive manuscript record reveals a considerable gap between the theoretical history of commonplace books, which was most often communicated in the medium of print, and historical practice, in the form of manuscript collections generally kept for personal reference and use. Manuscript commonplace books were essentially practical, written extensions of the larger enterprise of reading itself, in the Legere sense of gathering, selecting, and collecting. Some of these were rigidly organized in the best tradition of the ancients and the Renaissance humanists, some replete with thousands of entries organized systematically under the/ matic headings and, secondarily, through e~haustive indexes, cross/references, marginal notes, and elaborate tables of con/ tents. Many more, however, were little more than loosely gath/ ered scraps of everything and anything, sewn together and sandwiched between protective boards.

These more undisciplined and disorganized commonplace books appeared in every permutation and degree of sophisti/ cation, and included nearly every imaginable type of text: lines of epic poetry, lofty quotations and, just as often, medic/ inal and culinary recipes, ribald couplets, hermetic numerical tables, cartoons, monumental inscriptions, magical spells, bad


jokes; in short, all the literary flotsam and jetsam of the more vigorous sort of reader. To complicate matters, these collec; tions have traveled through the centuries under various names and aliases, even those that satisfy the strictest definition of a commonplace book: notebooks, miscellanies, pocket books (a term now used to describe a woman's purse or a wallet), memoranda books, diaries, thesauruses ("treasure chests"), anthologies, albums, scrapbooks, sylvae ("forests"), table books, florilegia ("gatherings of flowers"), or one's vade mecum ("go with me").

This study juxtaposes ancient and modern practice of excerpting, compiling, and organizing commonplace books, privately in manuscript and publicly in print. It also situates this practice alongside theoretical discussions of the proper nature and structure of commonplace books, from classical antiquity to the close of the twentieth century. It demonstrates, as well, that commonplace books stemmed variably from, merged into, and diverged from other bodies in a complex and ever;moving constellation of text collections, from medieval florilegia, to Renaissance anthologies, to Victorian albums and scrapbooks, and beyond.

Here the broad view is taken that commonplace books were ever as eclectic and unpredictable as their compilers, and that they rarely corresponded precisely to anyone prescribed model or consistent method for any length of time. Much as a restless child, commonplace books have seemed incapable of ever really standing still. Consequently, any narrative of the history of commonplace books involves the history of a "tra; dition" that stubbornly refused to be "traditional." What fol; lows, therefore, is not one problematic narrative devised to replace another. This is an introduction to commonplace books in the larger contexts of the history of reading, and of manuscripts and printed books. It is an attempt, as well, to take the commonplace book around a still;wider ambit, exploring its relation to the more fundamental delight and abiding fascination that have motivated men to select and compile, organize and reorganize, revive and transform, the full range and heritage of Western thought from its earliest days.

The James Marshall and Marie;Louise Osborn Collec; tion of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library pre; sents a rich and diverse archive of manuscript commonplace books. It also offers a rare opportunity to observe their contin; uous compilation over a period of four centuries-from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries-well beyond any


presumed seventeenth;century terminus. Because the Osborn Collection is almost entirely devoted to British material, the portion of this volume dealing with manuscripts remains geo; graphically specific. This can be considered, at once, a strength and a weakness. Though it offers a geographically concentrated view of the history of manuscript commonplace books over an unwieldy four centuries, further study of the Continental European and American manuscript traditions, particularly over the last three centuries, will be required to fill out the historical picture further.

Most of the printed books and manuscripts appearing in the exhibition held in conjunction with the publication of this volume have come from the Osborn Collection and the General Collection of the Beinecke Library. Some have also come from libraries and collections beyond the walls of the Beinecke. These include printed books from the Sterling Memorial Library, the Lewis Walpole Library, and the Founders Collection and General Collection of Rare Books in the Lillian Goldman Library of the Yale School of Law. Lists of these items appear at the end of each essay in this vol; ume.

Also, as the exhibition appears amid Yale University's ter; centennial celebrations, manuscript commonplace books compiled by undergraduates during their years at Yale Col; lege have also been put on display, including one generously loaned by the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Spe; cial Collections at Northwestern University. Others have come from the Yale University Manuscripts and Archives Collection and the General Collections of the Beinecke Library. A keepsake edition of a treatise on commonplace books, recorded, fittingly, in the commonplace book of one Richard Cromleholm Bury in 1681, has also been produced for the exhibition. The edition will be published in the Yale University Library Gazette.

Invariably, an enterprise such as this provides one with hours both of delight and frustration, and more than a few debts. Taking a page from the book of our unfortunate Thamyris, I shall not, therefore, hubristically stake claim to more than I should, and risk losing the clear sight and recol; lection of the assistance and the many kindnesses that I have received. Foremost among these is the greatest debt of my aca; demic career, which I have owed Stephen Parks, Curator of the Osborn Collection, from the day he first offered his gener; ous support, guidance, and encouragement in this and other projects over the past five years. As many other graduate stu; dents and undergraduates before me, I have come to recognize that this is a professional and a personal debt that I will never be able to fully repay. I would also acknowledge the assistance and advice of my other colleagues at the Beinecke, Robert Babcock, Vincent Giroud, Laura Williams, and Christo/ pher Glover in particular. Thanks are always owed, as well, to the helpful and patient staff of the Beinecke Public Ser/ vices desk.

I am most grateful for the kind assistance of William Massa and Richard Szary of the Yale Manuscripts and Archives Collection, and to Blair Kauffmann at the Law School Library. Special thanks are due to Russell Maylone, Curator of the McCormick Library at Northwestern Uni/ versity, for the generous loan of the Cutler commonplace book. Many thanks, as well, are owed to Anthony Grafton, Professor of History at Princeton University, for kindly accepting an invitation to speak on the subject of common/ place books at the Beinecke Library during the final weeks of the exhibition. Deep thanks are also owed to Carlos Eire, Maija Jansson, and Lawrence Manley, without whose guid/ ance and patient instruction this project would never have taken place. The many helpful thoughts and suggestions of Rowan Greer, Theodore Hofmann, Carolyn Nelson, Winthrop Brainerd, Clay Dean, Sarah Knight, Seth Lobis, and Erik Myrup have been invaluable. The grace and skill demonstrated by James Mooney and Greer Allen in the edit/ ing and design of this volume made it a delight from start to finish. It is rare, I am certain, to have the opportunity and benefit of working so closely with two such experienced and talented colleagues.

Final gratitude is owed to those scholars who have gener/ ated a recent Rurry of literary and historical interest in cam/ monplace books. Chief among these is Ann Moss, whose

Printed COIII/liollplace/books and the stmcturing of Renaissance thought is an indispensable, encyclopedic resource for anyone interested in the early history of printed commonplace books, and in the theoretical origins of the commonplace book tradi/ tion in general. Much of what follows is indebted significantly to the thoroughness and rigor of that book. Of course, I alone lay claim to any errors or deficiencies encoun/ tered and promulgated over the course of this project.