commonplace book

Definition: A writer’s personal collection of quotations, observations, and topic ideas.

Called florilegia (“flowers of reading”) in the Middle Ages, commonplace books were especially popular during the Renaissance and well into the 18th century. For some writers, blogs serve as contemporary versions of commonplace books.

Commonplace Books

Occasional MeditationsAusten, Thomas, Rev., compiler. Occasional Meditations: Compiled from Various Authors as They Accidentally Came to Hand / by Me T. Austen of Rochester, April 15th, 1770: Manuscript, 1770–1782. MS Eng 613. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

In the most general sense, a commonplace book contains a collection of significant or well-known passages that have been copied and organized in some way, often under topical or thematic headings, in order to serve as a memory aid or reference for the compiler. Commonplace books serve as a means of storing information, so that it may be retrieved and used by the compiler, often in his or her own work.

The commonplace book has its origins in antiquity in the idea of loci communes, or “common places,” under which ideas or arguments could be located in order to be used in different situations. The florilegium, or “gathering of flowers,” of the Middle Ages and early modern era, collected excerpts primarily on religious and theological themes. Commonplace books flourished during the Renaissance and early modern period: students and scholars were encouraged to keep commonplace books for study, and printed commonplace books offered models for organizing and arranging excerpts. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries printed commonplace books, such as John Locke’s A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books (1706), continued to offer new models of arrangement. The practice of commonplacing continued to thrive in the modern era, as writers appropriated the form for compiling passages on various topics, including the law, science, alchemy, ballads, and theology. The manuscript commonplace books in this collection demonstrate varying degrees and diverse methods of organization, reflecting the idiosyncratic interests and practices of individual readers.

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