Saturday, May 2, 2009

commonplace books

Commonplace books were collections of phrases widely used in speech and writing during the Renaissance. The basic format of the commonplace book and the manner in which it was generated remained remarkably stable from the second decade of the sixteenth century until the second half of the seventeenth. Pupils encountered the commonplace book early in their schooling, as soon as they could grasp continuous Latin. They were then instructed to assemble a large notebook of blank pages with headings and subheadings suggested by the teacher. These were normally topics of a general moral nature, like pietas (loving respect), which might be subdivided into respect for God, for country, for parents, for teachers, and so on. Under these headings, the pupil inserted quotations from the Latin works he was studying, including both prose and poetry, at first as directed by the teacher and later as he read them by himself.

Schoolboys would read pen in hand, attempting to extract the essence of the moral universe inhabited by the classical writers admired in the Renaissance, and copy it into their notebooks. Typically they chose short, quotable phrases exemplifying witty, pregnant aphorisms, apposite metaphors, similitudes, examples, and proverbial expressions. Reading adults continued to compile their commonplace books, often adding categories in other areas of enquiry; they normally cross-referenced between categories and back to the source texts. Commonplacing was ideally an exercise for the individual's intellectual initiative, but the demand for readymade repositories of quotations ensured a large market for printed commonplace books on the same model.

Ordering and Use

The headings in commonplace books were ordered in a variety of ways: they might be grouped alphabetically according to affinities and opposites; or based on well-known paradigms such as traditional virtues and vices, the Ten Commandments, and Aristotle's Ethics. Some were classed under the predicaments (categories of thought) found in Aristotelian logic; others replicated the order of the universe from God through humankind from all perspectives, down to stones. These various principles of ordering knowledge, so indelibly set in the imagination by systematic use, are a key to understanding the Renaissance mind.

The commonplace book was a tool for analyzing texts and resourcing composition. In the early stages of education it was used to assemble Latin vocabulary and phraseology. Later it supported the rhetorical analysis of texts into themes of discourse and figures of speech (pupils were encouraged to note how their chosen quotations exemplified tropes and figures). It could also be used to probe a text for its underlying procedures of rational development, named according to the "places" (loci) of dialectical argumentation, and related to the general theses represented by the notebook headings.

In the course of all these applications, the pupil was expected both to note down and to memorize. For generating discourse, both oral and written, the commonplace book provided a well-stocked, well-ordered, and searchable resource. The speaker or writer would go to his categories to find copious supplies of material; he would use his quotations either as authoritative pronouncements supporting his case or as ideas to be adapted and expanded, and certainly as models of expression. In this way, the commonplace book was an integral part of the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic that made Renaissance writers so articulate. More advanced and discipline-specific commonplace books were produced for law, medicine, and particularly theology, where the accumulation of quotations under generally accepted heads provided the strategy and ammunition for controversy, and the subject matter of sermons, both Protestant and Catholic.


The commonplace book had many antecedents, beginning with the theory of "places" derived from Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, for whom commonplaces were both general themes of discourse and model procedures for arguing, dialectically and rhetorically, for the plausibility of a case. Medieval florilegia or collections of quotations, usually random, preceded them, as did highly organized and largely alphabetical dictionaries of quotations from religious sources, used as a resource for sermon rhetoric in the late Middle Ages. Italian humanists assembled phrases exemplifying correct Latin usage in order to inculcate a classical style of writing.

The characteristic format of the commonplace book, systematically collecting quotations under headings, was developed by northern humanists following the De formando studio (The foundations of study; 1484) of Rudolf Agricola and the De copia (Foundations of the abundant style; 1512) of Erasmus. The advice offered by Erasmus for making such a notebook, together with Philipp Melanchthon's De rhetorica (On rhetoric; 1519), proved more or less definitive. For the next hundred years and more, printed commonplace books proliferated, becoming larger and larger, as did instructions for making private ones.

The commonplace book was the most important learning aid in all schools. Almost all serious books were annotated and indexed by commonplaces. For example, Erasmus's collections of sayings and similitudes, not originally organized as commonplace books, were rearranged to fit the format. Vernacular commonplace books were at first printed as translations, but by approximately 1600 contemporary English literature was also being commonplaced. Only in the middle of the seventeenth century did the commonplace book lose its prestige as a premier knowledge organizer and production mechanism. Its decline coincided with the search for scientific truth, which replaced forms of reasoning based on plausibility with a new concept of authorship and of social discourse that did not favor ostentatious displays of secondhand quotations.

The more wide ranging effects of the commonplace book include a verbal style combining aphorisms, virtuoso display of rhetorical argumentation and ornament, and allusions to a common stock of literary quotations. They produced a cultural elitism that tended to exclude those outside the Latin school, in particular most women. They demonstrated a shift to written repositories of knowledge, sidelining techniques for memorizing. Above all, the commonplace book maintained a common culture across Western Europe that was resistant to religious divisions, as well as an intellectual conservatism, because it assumed that any new book could be digested into preestablished categories. At the same time, commonplace books manifested an openness and a degree of scepticism, because no category was considered closed, and the quotations could always be augmented, made mutually contradictory, and moved across categories or cross-referenced to destabilize the apparently unmoveable headings meant to contain them. In many ways, commonplace books organized and reflected Renaissance thought.

-- Ann Moss



Primary Works

The most frequently reprinted commonplace books for school use were Marci Tullii Ciceronis sententiae illustriores. (Quotations from Cicero and others), edited by Petrus Lagnerius (Paris, 1546), and Illustrium poetarum flores (Quotations from poets), edited by Octavianus Mirandula (Strasbourg, 1538).

Secondary Works

Goyet, Francis. Le Sublime du 'lieu commun': L'invention rhétorique dans l'Antiquité et à la Renaissance. Paris, 1996. History of commonplaces and their use in rhetoric.

Moss, Ann. Printed Commonplace Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought. Oxford, 1996.

Source Citation: "Commonplace Books." Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. 6 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.


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