Commonplace book

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity, and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. Each one is unique to its creator's particular interests but they almost always include passages found in other texts, sometimes accompanied by the compiler's responses. They became significant in Early Modern Europe.

A commonplace book from the mid-17th century

"Commonplace" is a translation of the Latin term locus communis (from Greek tópos koinós, see literary topos) which means "a general or common topic", such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings, such as John Milton's example. Scholars now understand them to include manuscripts in which an individual collects material which have a common theme, such as ethics, or exploring several themes in one volume. Commonplace books are private collections of information, but they are not diaries or travelogues.

In 1685 the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke wrote a treatise in French on commonplace books, translated into English in 1706 as A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, "in which techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, speeches were formulated. Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category, using such key topics as love, politics, or religion. Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective."[1]

By the early eighteenth century they had become an information management device in which a note-taker stored quotations, observations and definitions. They were used in private households to collate ethical or informative texts, sometimes alongside recipes or medical formulae. For women, who were excluded from formal higher education, the commonplace book could be a repository of intellectual references. The gentlewoman Elizabeth Lyttelton kept one from the 1670s to 1713[2] and a typical example was published by Mrs Anna Jameson in 1855,[3] including headings such as Ethical Fragments; Theological; Literature and Art. Commonplace books were used by scientists and other thinkers in the same way that a database might now be used: Carl Linnaeus, for instance, used commonplacing techniques to invent and arrange the nomenclature of his Systema Naturae (which is the basis for the system used by scientists today).[4] The commonplace book was often a lifelong habit: for example the English-Australian artist Georgina McCrae kept a commonplace book from 1828-1865.


Early examplesEdit

Precursors to the commonplace book were the records kept by Roman and Greek philosophers of their thoughts and daily meditations, often including quotations from other thinkers. The practice of keeping a journal such as this was particularly recommended by Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, whose own work Meditations (2nd century AD) was originally a private record of thoughts and quotations. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a courtier in tenth and eleventh century Japan is likewise a private book of anecdote and poetry, daily thoughts and lists. However, none of these includes the wider range of sources usually associated with commonplace books. A number of renaissance scholars kept something resembling a commonplace book - for example Leonardo da Vinci, who described his notebook exactly as a commonplace book is structured: "A collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place, according to the subjects of which they treat."[5]


Zibaldone di pensieri, written by the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi

During the course of the fifteenth century, the Italian peninsula was the site of a development of two new forms of book production: the deluxe registry book and the zibaldone (or hodgepodge book). What differentiated these two forms was their language of composition: a vernacular.[6] Giovanni Rucellai, the compiler of one of the most sophisticated examples of the genre, defined it as a "salad of many herbs."[7]

Zibaldone were always paper codices of small or medium format – never the large desk copies of registry books or other display texts. They also lacked the lining and extensive ornamentation of other deluxe copies. Rather than miniatures, zibaldone often incorporate the author's sketches. Zibaldone were in cursive scripts (first chancery minuscule and later mercantile minuscule) and contained what palaeographer Armando Petrucci describes as "an astonishing variety of poetic and prose texts."[8] Devotional, technical, documentary and literary texts appear side by side in no discernible order. The juxtaposition of taxes paid, currency exchange rates, medicinal remedies, recipes and favourite quotations from Augustine and Virgil portrays a developing secular, literate culture.[9] By far the most popular of literary selections were the works of Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio: the "Three Crowns" of the Florentine vernacular traditions.[10] These collections have been used by modern scholars as a source for interpreting how merchants and artisans interacted with the literature and visual arts of the Florentine Renaissance.

The best-known zibaldone is Giacomo Leopardi's nineteenth-century Zibaldone di pensieri, however it significantly departs from the early modern genre of commonplace books and is rather comparable to the intellectual diary which was practiced, for example, by Lichtenberg, Joubert, Coleridge, Valery, among others.


By the seventeenth century, commonplacing had become a recognized practice that was formally taught to college students in such institutions as Oxford.[11] John Locke appended his indexing scheme for commonplace books to a printing of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.[12] The commonplace tradition in which Francis Bacon and John Milton were educated had its roots in the pedagogy of classical rhetoric, and “commonplacing” persisted as a popular study technique until the early twentieth century. Commonplace books were used by many key thinkers of the Enlightenment, with authors like the philosopher and theologian William Paley using them to write books.[13] Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were taught to keep commonplace books at Harvard University (their commonplace books survive in published form).

However, it was also a domestic and private practice which was particularly attractive to authors. Some, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf kept messy reading notes that were intermixed with other quite various material; others, such as Thomas Hardy, followed a more formal reading-notes method that mirrored the original Renaissance practice more closely. The older, "clearinghouse" function of the commonplace book, to condense and centralize useful and even "model" ideas and expressions, became less popular over time.

Examples in manuscriptEdit

  • Zibaldone da Canal merchant's commonplace book (New Haven, CT, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, MS 327)
  • Robert Reynes of Acle, Norfolk (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 407).
  • Richard Hill, a London grocer (Oxford, Balliol College, MS 354).
  • Glastonbury Miscellany. (Trinity College, Cambridge, MS 0.9.38). Originally designed as an account book.
  • Jean Miélot, 15th-century Burgundian translator and author. His book is in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and the main sources for his verses, many written for court occasions.
  • Adelaide Horatio Seymour Spencer, 19th century gentlewoman. Held in the Franklin Library, University of Pennsylvania.[14]
  • Virginia Woolf, 20th century novelist. Some of her notebooks are held in Smith College, Massachusetts.[15]
  • Isaac Newton, mathematician and physicist. Held at the University of Cambridge, with a digitised version freely available to view online.[16]

Published examplesEdit

  • Francis Bacon, "The Promus of Formularies and Elegancies", Longman, Greens and Company, London, 1883. Bacon's Promus was a rough list of elegant and useful phrases gleaned from reading and conversation that Bacon used as a source book in writing and probably also as a promptbook for oral practice in public speaking.
  • John Milton, "Milton's Commonplace Book," in John Milton: Complete Prose Works, gen. ed. Don M. Wolfe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953). Milton kept scholarly notes from his reading, complete with page citations to use in writing his tracts and poems.
  • The Commonplace Book of Elizabeth Lyttelton (Cambridge University Press, 1919)
  • Mrs Anna Anderson, A Common Place Book of Thoughts, Memories and Fancies (Longman, Brown, Green and Longman, 1855)
  • E.M. Forster, "Commonplace Book," ed. Philip Gardner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985).
  • W.H. Auden, A Certain World (New York: The Viking Press, 1970).
  • Lovecraft, H.P. (4 July 2011). "Commonplace Book". H.P. Lovecraft's Commonplace Book. Wired. Retrieved 5 July 2011. Transcribed by Bruce Sterling.
  • Robert Burns, "Robert Burns's Commonplace Book. 1783-1785." James Cameron Ewing and Davidson Cook. Glasgow : Gowans and Gray Ltd., 1938.

Literary references to commonplacingEdit

  • Amos Bronson Alcott, 1877: "The habit of journalizing becomes a life-long lesson in the art of composition, an informal schooling for authorship. And were the process of preparing their works for publication faithfully detailed by distinguished writers, it would appear how large were their indebtedness to their diary and commonplaces. How carefully should we peruse Shakespeare's notes used in compiling his plays—what was his, what another's—showing how these were fashioned into the shapely whole we read, how Milton composed, Montaigne, Goethe: by what happy strokes of thought, flashes of wit, apt figures, fit quotations snatched from vast fields of learning, their rich pages were wrought forth! This were to give the keys of great authorship!" Amos Bronson Alcott, Table-Talk of A. Bronson Alcott (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1877), p. 12.
  • Virginia Woolf, mid-20th century: "[L]et us take down one of those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning. Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink." Virginia Woolf, "Hours in a Library," Granite and Rainbow: Essays by Virginia Woolf (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958), p. 25.
  • In Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events a number of characters including Klaus Baudelaire and the Quagmire triplets keep commonplace books.
  • In Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Count Almásy uses his copy of Herodotus's Histories as a commonplace book.
  • In Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes keeps numerous commonplace books, which he sometimes uses when doing research. For example, in "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger", he researches the newspaper reports of an old murder in a commonplace book.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Nicholas A. Basbanes, "Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World", Harper Perennial, 2006, p. 82.
  2. ^ "Christian Works : Elizabeth Lyttelton's commonplace book; English, French, and Latin; 1670s-1713". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 2019-05-31.
  3. ^ Jameson, Mrs (Anna) (1855). A commonplace book of thoughts, memories, and fancies; original and selected. Robarts - University of Toronto. London Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans.
  4. ^ Eddy, M. D. (2010). "Tools for Reordering: Commonplacing and the Space of Words in Linnaeus's Philosophia Botanica". Intellectual History Review. 20 (2): 227–252. doi:10.1080/17496971003783773.
  5. ^ "Turning the Pages™ - British Library". Retrieved 2019-06-02.
  6. ^ Armando Petrucci, Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy, trans. Charles M. Radding (New Haven: Yale UP: 1995), 185.
  7. ^ Dale V. Kent, Cosimo de' Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron's Oeuvre (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2000), p. 69
  8. ^ Petrucci, 187.
  9. ^ An example is the Zibaldone da Canal merchant's manual held at the Beinecke Library, which dates from 1312 and contains hand-drawn diagrams of Venetian ships and descriptions of Venice's merchant culture.
  10. ^ Kent, pg. 81.
  11. ^ Burke, Victoria (2013). "Recent Studies in Commonplace Books". English Literary Renaissance. 43 (1): 154. doi:10.1111/1475-6757.12005.
  12. ^ Johnson, Steven (Aug 16, 2016). "The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book". Medium. Retrieved May 24, 2020.
  13. ^ Eddy, M. D. (2004). "he Science and Rhetoric of Paley's Natural Theology". Literature and Theology. 18: 1–22. doi:10.1093/litthe/18.1.1.
  14. ^ Spencer, Adelaide Horatio Seymour. "Adelaide Horatio Seymour Spencer commonplace book". Retrieved 2019-05-31.
  15. ^ "Woolf in the World: A Pen and a Press of Her Own: Case 4c | Smith College Libraries". Retrieved 2019-05-31.
  16. ^ "Isaac Newton's commonplace book | University of Cambridge Digital Library". Retrieved 2020-03-31.

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