Definitions

Commonplace

Commonplace

[kom-uhn-pleys]

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) emerged in the 15th century with the availability of cheap paper for writing, mainly in England. They were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator's particular interests.

By the 1600s, commonplacing had become a recognized practice that was formally taught to college students in such institutions as Oxford. 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. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were taught to keep commonplace books at Harvard University (their commonplace books survive in published form). Commonplacing was particularly attractive to authors. Some, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mark Twain, 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.

"Commonplace" is a translation of the Latin term locus communis which means "a theme or argument of general application", such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings, such as Milton's commonplace book. Scholars have expanded this usage to include any manuscript that collects material along a common theme by an individual.

Critically, many of these works are not seen to have literary value to modern editors. However, the value of such collections is the insights they offer into the tastes, interests, personalities and concerns of their individual compilers.

From the standpoint of the psychology of authorship, it is noteworthy that keeping notebooks is in itself a kind of tradition among litterateurs. A commonplace book of literary memoranda may serve as a symbol to the keeper, therefore, of the person's literary identity (or something psychologically not far-removed), quite apart from its obvious value as a written record. That commonplace books (and other personal note-books) can enjoy this special status is supported by the fact that authors frequently treat their notebooks as quasi-works, giving them elaborate titles, compiling them neatly from rough notes, recompiling still neater revisions of them later, and preserving them with a special devotion and care that seems out of proportion to their apparent function as working materials.

Producing a commonplace is known as commonplacing.

Some modern writers see blogs as an analogy to commonplace books.

Examples in manuscript

  • 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 BnF, and the main sources for his verses, many written for court occasions.

Published examples

  • Francis Bacon, "The Promus of Formularies and Elegancies", Longman, Greens and Company, London, 1883. The 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.

Literary references to commonplacing

  • 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-1900s: "[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.

Notes

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