Yale Bulletin and Calendar

July 27, 2001Volume 29, Number 34Five-Week Issue















'Commonplace Books' on view in Beinecke show

For centuries, philosophers, scholars, lawyers, doctors, theologians, artists, poets and others have taken the time to write down the memorable thoughts and words of others -- or kept records of their own personal musings -- and collected them in journal or book form.

These compilations, known as "commonplace books," have preserved over time a wide array of information, such as famous quotations, anecdotes, maxims, jokes, verses, magical spells, astrological predictions, medicinal and culinary recipes, devotional texts and mathematical tables, among other subjects.

A new exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, called "Commonplace Books: Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century," brings together a range of examples from this genre. Opening on Thursday, July 26, the exhibit includes more than 150 manuscripts and printed books which, taken together, offer a broad, first-hand history of reading and learning in over 2,500 years of Western history.

"Mostly what we find in commonplace books are the things that people encountered while reading and found noteworthy enough to write down," says Earle Havens, a graduate student in history and Renaissance studies who is the curator of the exhibit. "In these books, we also find candid views of people's thinking. Their writings or compilations were not for performance. Thus, these books show us how people experienced knowledge and how they organized knowledge. If we look at these books through time, we learn about the transformations and priorities in intellectual life throughout Western history."

Among the items on display are early printed editions of the works of Aristotle and Cicero; medieval illuminated manuscripts; educational, literary, scientific, legal and religious commonplace books from the Renaissance; and commonplace books composed within the last decade. The exhibit also explores how the genre of commonplace books changed over time.

The first part of the exhibit surveys the origins of the tradition of "commonplaces" in the Classical era and traces its history in the medieval period, when such compilations of knowledge were mainly theological, philosophical or rhetorical in nature, and in the Renaissance, when the commonplace book as a formal genre originated, according to Havens.

The enthusiasm over compiling commonplace books during the Renaissance was described by scholar Desiderius Erasmus, when he wrote about the daughters of his friend and fellow humanist Thomas More, saying: "As they flit like so many little bees between Greek and Latin authors of every species, here noting down something to imitate, here culling some notable saying to put into practice in their behavior, there getting by heart some witty anecdote to relate among their friends, you would swear you were watching the Muses at graceful play in the lovely pastures of Mount Helicon, gathering flowers and marjoram to make well-woven garlands."

The exhibit also documents the endurance of the commonplace book into the 20th century.

Among the authors and compilers of commonplace books represented in the exhibition are ancient Roman polymath Seneca the Younger, Protestant Reformer and humanist Philip Melanchthon, philosopher John Locke, 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon and modern poet W.H. Auden. These works are arrayed alongside some of the most important printed books in the Beinecke Library's collections, such as the first dated book printed in England -- also a commonplace book -- published by William Caxton in 1477, and a Greek edition of Aristotle's philosophical treatises, printed in 1494 by Venetian printer and scholar Aldus Manutius. Well-known works by Quintilian, Boethius, Vincent de Beauvais, Rudolphus Agricola, Ben Jonson, Matthew Hale, Francis Bacon, Jonathan Swift, Robert Southey and others are also on display.

The second half of the exhibit focuses on the tradition of manuscript commonplace books compiled for personal reference and use. Some 75 handwritten books, spanning the 16th to the 19th centuries, have been gathered from the Beinecke's archive of British manuscript material in the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection. Among these is a mid-19th-century compilation of quotations on such themes as "Joy," "Ridicule," Passions," "Truth" and "Emotions"; a handwritten manuscript featuring mottos, anagrams, jokes and drawings by an eccentric Italian at the court of Queen Elizabeth in the late 16th and early 17th century; compilations by a 17th-century English envoy to the monarchs of Portugal; and a 15-volume commonplace book compiled by a minister from the northern English provinces whose writing spans the period from the French Revolution in 1789 to Napoleon's demise in 1815.

"These manuscripts illustrate the great variety of material that has filled personal commonplace books and demonstrates the enthusiasm and delight that have motivated their compilers through the centuries," says Havens.

Commonplace books at Yale

In conjunction with the University's Tercentennial celebration, a related display titled "Commonplace Books at Yale" will highlight samples from the genre written by Yale undergraduates during the first two centuries of the University's history.

Among these is the commonplace book of Eleazer May, Class of 1752, in which he listed the books he read during his freshman and sophomore years at Yale, which range from "Cicero's Orations" to "Don Quixote." On loan from Northwestern University is a commonplace book of Manasseh Cutler, Class of 1765, who was an American revolutionary, minister, botanist, Western expansionist, jurist and representative in two U.S. congresses between 1801 and 1805. A commonplace book of John W. Sterling, Class of 1864, is arranged more like a diary and includes a list in which he names some of his teachers for the Roman gods they most resemble.

Havens has written "Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century" a book-length study of the genre, in connection with the exhibition. He also has prepared a keepsake edition of an unpublished 17th-century manuscript essay on commonplace books, as well as a broadside describing the "Commonplace Books at Yale" exhibit.

"Commonplace Books" will be on view through Sept. 29. On Wednesday, Sept. 12, Princeton University professor Anthony Grafton will deliver a lecture on "Commonplace Books and the Practices of Learning in Early Modern Europe." His talk will begin at 5 p.m. at the Beinecke Library and will be followed by a reception. The event is free and open to the public.

The Beinecke Library, 121 Wall St., is open for exhibition viewing 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturdays in July and September. The library is closed on Labor Day. For further information, call (203) 432-2967.


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