Monday, 11 June 2012

Commonplace books

 As you might know I study English and history at University. One of my favourite classes of this semester is probably Early Modern English which combines both of my passions. Early Modern English is the English that was spoken between the 15th and the 17th century. It is the time when grammar and orthography were slowly standardized, the Great Vowel Shift happend and many irregular verbforms were "invented". By the wy, it is also the time of Shakespeare.

One of the topics we talk about during these classes are commonplace books.
Commonplace books were handwritten „scrapbooks“ which contained notes, recipes, quotations, letters and often little drawings. As you might imagines these things make them very personal and unique. They were often used to organize thoughts and knowledge about a poem, a novel or any piece of literature. Today we rather make notes next to the text we are reading, back in the old days people used commonplace books.

They became popular in the Early Modern Europe (15th- 18th century) but the tradition started much earlier around 350BC in Greece where commonplace books were more a list or collection of arguments on a certain topic than a scrapbook. When the enlightenment came up they became especially important. John Locke suggested that adding an alphabetical index could be useful. It was also essential to him that people should be free in what they wrote in their commonplace books, there should not be any limitations to what someone would write into a commonplace book anymore. 
When people in all classes became more literate they also became interested in reading about reading. These commonplace books reflect this phenomenon. Unfortunately, it is not exactly common to have such a commonplace book anymore but they live on in our diaries and scrapbooks. To some people who analyze the history of commonplace books, blogs can be seen as their modern version. 

Funny side note: the verb of writing a commonplace book is called commonplacing.


  1. I had never heard of these before but that is such an awesome idea! Why don't we do this any more? I guess our books are a lot less valuable.

    1. I think we just split the purpose of commonplace books in these days. We have blogs, we have diaries, we have exercise books, calenders (at least I know many people who write random stuff in their calenders)and there are book reviews. Nevertheless, I have decided to write thinks I think about literature, movies and TV shows down in my "stuff I like"-book.