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Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought$

Ann Moss

Print publication date: 1996

Print ISBN-13: 9780198159087

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198159087.001.0001

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(p.v) Preface

(p.v) Preface

Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought
Oxford University Press

As this book was nearing completion, I received a circular from an eminent publishing house urging me to buy the electronic edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. By using this package, academics were informed that they ‘could pick out quotations in seconds’, with which to ‘back up your argument or point of view’. The package ran on a certain environmental system and was ‘extremely easy and intuitive to use’. It was ‘an ideal tool for anyone writing reports, speeches, essays, or even a novel’, and it was ‘great fun to use’. Both the product on sale and the advertising rhetoric were startlingly familiar.

For the past few years I had been studying very similar products and an almost identical rhetoric in the apparently rather different cultural context of Early Modern Western Europe. The subject of my research, the commonplace-book, in the form which was normative to it by the end of the sixteenth century, was a collection of quotations (usually Latin quotations) culled from authors held to be authoritative, or, at any rate, commendable in their opinions, and regarded as exemplary in terms of linguistic usage and stylistic niceties. The feature which distinguished the commonplace-book from any random collection of quotations was the fact that the selected extracts were gathered together under heads. The more elementary commonplace-books, whose subject was the moral life of man as an individual and as a social being, would be divided into sections under heads listing the main virtues and vices, and all their subsidiary manifestations. More advanced commonplace-books might have ambitious programmes for covering all knowledge, or they might be specialist repertories of excerpts relevant to specific disciplines. Commonplace-books were the principal support system of humanist pedagogy. Pupils were required to make themselves commonplace-books, and to collect excerpts from their reading under the appropriate heads. When they came to construct compositions of their own, they were encouraged to use their commonplace-books as a resource, culling from them quotations, examples, and other illustrative material, as well as replicating the categories of thought enshrined in the commonplace-heads. Children educated in this way brought into adult life certain mental attitudes, and certain habits of reading and writing which characterized literate culture in Western Europe over a remarkably long period.

In effect the commonplace-book of Early Modern Europe met exactly the same requisites as those presupposed by the recent advertisement for a (p.vi) quotation computer package. The commonplace-book worked as a memory store of quotations, which could be activated to verbalize present experience in the language of familiar moral paradigms and with reference to a cultural history shared by writer and reader; it marshalled excerpts from sources invested with the necessary degree of authority to ‘back up your argument or point of view’; and it was arranged by headed sections in such a way as to ensure maximum ease and efficiency in retrieving the information it contained. The commonplace-book may now be obsolete as a piece of equipment, but the environment in which it functioned persists. Quotation still acts conservatively as a control on present experience, in both senses of the word ‘control’. In the world of post-modernism, quotation has acquired a new, indeed almost manic vigour, as quotation marks festoon the spoken and written discourse of enunciators anxious to dissociate themselves from identification with concepts by deferring the verbal signs of concepts to some unnamed and unlocatable origin. In philosophical traditions seemingly more faithful to the new modes of intellectual enquiry which assisted the demise of the commonplace-book at the end of the seventeenth century, the whole question of the status of authority or testimony as a form of knowledge has recently re-emerged and entered contemporary debate.1 At a more general theoretical level, the current revival and revaluation of rhetoric, both as a system of argumentation and as a medium of expressivity, has alerted critical thinking to look for evidence of the functioning of a sophisticated machinery of verbal production, long neglected. Commonplaces were, and indeed are, among the most conspicuous pieces of that machinery. As for the commonplace-book as information-retrieval system, we shall shortly see that this was not a new feature in Renaissance quotation collections, but a refinement of the mechanisms they inherited. The application of such mechanisms to the explosion of knowledge in printed books during the course of the sixteenth century created a market of demand and supply in Western Europe which would eventually ensure that electronic systems keying search words to storage receptacles would be advertised to academics as ‘a tempting purchase’.

The present work is not concerned with modern analogues of the commonplace-book, but with the commonplace-book as an artefact symptomatic of the mind-set of educated Western Europeans from the early years of the sixteenth century up until the last decade or so of the seventeenth. Material for describing the history of this influential instrument de travail is taken primarily from printed prescriptions for making commonplace-books and from analyses of a small selection from the hundreds of printed (p.vii) commonplace-books published in that period. It will be clear at once that this work has self-imposed boundaries. The prescriptions for making commonplace-books consist of pedagogic instructions for putting together systematized notebooks into which quotations from mainly printed texts were to be transcribed by hand. However, the present work does not deal with the actual product of these instructions, that is to say, the many thousands of manuscript commonplace compilations located in libraries throughout Europe. The enormous numbers which survive of such manuscript notebooks prove that the commonplace-book is a valuable clue to distinctive features of Early Modern culture in general and to the working practice of individual writers in particular. Moreover, they are evidence that the instructions for making them described in this present study were effective. Yet, without some explanation of their mechanism and their purpose, manuscript commonplace-books are not fully intelligible to modern readers largely ignorant of structures so fundamental to the intellectual universe within which the compiler was operating that he had no call to make them visible. To bring those structures back into view, manuscript commonplace-books need the contextualization supplied in this study, which will enable them to be read intelligently, with understanding of what the compiler was doing, of how his notebook of quotations mediated between his own mental horizon and the cultural matrix in which he was implicated, and of how the notebook might be properly read as a stage in its compiler's production of a future work. In order to fulfil this aim in the broadest manner, this study reconstructs from the pedagogic material under review a general theory marked by a measure of historical change, rather than arbitrarily privileging select examples of that theory demonstrated in manuscript form. On the other hand, this study does extend to printed, rather than manuscript, commonplace-books, precisely because their status as books printed for general circulation signals that they were conceived as models of good practice, and evidence suggests that they were also used (and meant to be used) as quarries, or even substitutes, for the private collection.

Another boundary written into this study lies between the commonplace-book and all the other varieties of compilation so prevalent in the Renaissance period: subject-dictionaries, general and specialized encyclopedias, miscellanies, lectiones and adversaria commenting on passages of ancient texts, not to mention indiscriminate collections of proverbs and sayings of all sorts. In this history of commonplace-books, these other varieties have found only a minor and comparative role. It will be seen that, rather late in the story, in the seventeenth century commonplace-books began to merge with encyclopedias and miscellanies in the perception of advocates and critics alike. But prior to that, throughout the sixteenth (p.viii) century, descriptions and examples of commonplace-books indicate that there was a clear line of demarcation between commonplace-books and other works of reference which included quotations. This was partly because commonplace-books were distinguished by their ‘places’ or headings. However, the difference goes very much deeper than that. Alone among examples of Renaissance compilation literature, the commonplace-book was part of the initial intellectual experience of every schoolboy. Encyclopedias, Latin miscellanies, and, with even more reason, lectiones and adversaria, were produced by very learned adults for consultation by more or less learned readers. By contrast, every Latin-literate individual started to compose a commonplace-book as soon as he could read and write reasonably accurately. It was formative and it was programmatic. It shaped the way he thought and determined the way he handled language. The more erudite encyclopedias and lectiones, interesting and important though they are, were manifestations of the intellectual climate of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at a more rarified level and contributed to it less elementally.

Although this history of commonplace-books stresses their classroom context, as did all the prescriptions for commonplace-books and all printed exemplars, it is not bounded by that context, and offers some suggestions for further research into the wider applications of commonplace-book thinking in the period, especially with regard to theology. However, it does not attempt to follow the student out of the classroom into the other two major professions, medicine and law, which had their own specialized manuals, sometimes called commonplace-books. It does demonstrate how the disciplines of medicine and law fitted into the overall commonplace-book mentality developed in the sixteenth century, but medical and legal commonplace-books require a complex contextualization best reserved for a separate study.

An observer from the sixteenth century would undoubtedly have noted the absence of medicine and law. I doubt whether he would have seen another boundary imposed by classroom walls on this study. Throughout, I have used the masculine form of the personal pronoun. This is deliberate and necessary. Except in a very few, extraordinarily socially privileged cases involving private instruction, women, being excluded from the Latin school, were not among the makers of commonplace-books. That is not to say that they were excluded from the mental community of the commonplace-book, but for most of its history they were citizens of a very low order, readers and occasional transcribers, at best, of published compilations of morally edifying sentences and examples in translation. Meanwhile, the most frequently reprinted of all Latin commonplace-books supplied their male contemporaries with a duly authenticated catalogue of female defects, (p.ix) prefaced by the definition, descriptive and prescriptive: ‘Nascitur ad fructum mulier, prolemque futuram’.

To all the men and women who forced open the classroom door—and to her two daughters—this female author dedicates this book.

A. M.


(1) A running bibliographical commentary on the general matters raised in the Preface will be found in the Appendix of Bibliographical Information.