Eng 332 - Tudor Prose and Poetry
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Commonplace Books

Renaissance scholars have assigned the name Commonplace Books to a genre of unpublished, informal writing that began in the late middle ages and stretched into the nineteenth century. I first heard the term in a context that led me to assume that they were like what we would now call a "diary," a series of personal observations of the world and/or a record of daily happenings. But when I spent the fall semester of 1994 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I had the opportunity to examine many such books from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. What I found startled me. I realized that these "books" were nothing like what we call a "diary," but rather were most often collections of "commonplaces" or "apothegms"-examples of Aristotle's Topoi that could be saved for later use as the keeper constructed oral arguments. But they were also collections of favorite music and bits of poetry, taken from the classical writers as well as contemporary poets. Nor were they always solitary. At the Folger I saw commonplace books with differing hands-indicating many writers-and books that were dialogic. At least one contained a poem with a bit of misogynistic verse whose crudity and malice offended me as I read it. Many pages later, I discovered that a second writer had inscribed a retaliatory poem with an invitation to the reader, in the form of a directive sketch at the bottom right hand corner of the page that invited the reader to refer back to page 36 (the location of the first offensive lines). Notes in the margin of this second poem, constructed to parallel the first in rhyme and meter, indicated the respondent's (was she a woman?) disgust with the first poem. The same sort of interchange was repeated in later pages. Another commonplace book was of an entirely different sort. It had been handed down to succeeding generations of one family over a period of nearly 150 years. The family's names, births, weddings, and deaths were all recorded. I found page upon page of family heraldry, sketches of shields with different designs. In another book, a writer had sketched what looked like the ears of animals. Each had a distinctive shape, and I thought these must be the markings of the manager of a gentlemen's estate, keeping track of the owner's deer population. Perhaps he was the fastidious parallel to Chaucer's Reeve? These commonplace books have long fascinated me as they are private voicings from long ago-not "diaries" in the modern sense (private outpourings of personal joy, grief, and everyday trivia) but rather individual notations, personal gatherings of intellectual hors d'oeuvres, and bites of wisdom, stored for later use. Then, the ancient was revered. The new was seen as untried, untrustworthy, and--most likely--untrue. Thus, most of these books are filled with either the quotations of famous writers or catchy adages ("a rolling stone gathers no moss") that teach the reader important, time-honored truths about the world. But equally important, the notations and marginalia in these books make it clear that reading and writing was conceived not as an isolated activity, to be undertaken by solitary writers in garrets (our heritage from the nineteenth century), but rather as a communal act, a conversation in writing that mimicked oral communication. Such was the anxiety about the power of "knowledge" that the culture insisted that reading be done in the presence of a "master reader" who could lead the group to "correct" understandings of texts. How far we have come from that philosophy, in our modern world where individual creativity, originality, and intellectual property are valued above all. And yet, the real truth is that no idea is formed in isolation. All "readers" are immersed in their "communities" and construct their understanding of texts, and their worlds, based on their experiences and interactions with others. We may see the Renaissance commonplace book as a quaint relic of the distant past, and yet it enacts what remains true for the 21st century: language communities construct knowledge.

Last update: Wednesday, August 16, 2000 at 3:03:21 PM.
Dr. Janet Wright Starner || Writing Center Director || Assistant Professor/English || Wilkes University