Who Invented the Commonplace Book?

After watching a video about science-fiction books on youtube, I got recommended a video about keeping a common place book made by the same person. That’s how I discovered that this type of diaries had a name. The name stuck with me and, the other day, I started to search about it and it turns out that there’s an history behind that type of books.

What is a Commonplace Book?

A commonplace book is a personal journal or notebook in which facts, ideas, observations, quotations, and other interesting bits are collected–and possibly organized.It serves as a repository for thoughts, insights, and inspiration.

People often use a commonplace book to write down interesting or thought-provoking passages from books, poems, talks, and other sources. They may also scribble down their own thoughts, observations, and suggestions. In fact, its content reflects the author’s interests, pursuits, and intellectual journey.

This type of books can be organized thematically, with sections dedicated to different subjects or areas of interest. It is a centuries-old process used by academics, writers, philosophers, and anybody concerned with recording and preserving knowledge.

Henry Tiffin’s Commonplace book 1748–76. Phillips Library.

Who Created the Commonplace Book?

The concept of the commonplace book can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, where philosophers such as Aristotle and Cicero discussed the use of commonplaces in argumentation and public speaking. These commonplaces included wise sayings, quotations, and excerpts from influential works.

During this time, compiling and organizing such material gained prominence as a method of knowledge preservation and exploration.

The Renaissance witnessed a surge in the popularity of the commonplace book among scholars and students. In 1706, John Locke, an English philosopher, published “A New Method of Making Commonplace Books,” providing guidance on categorizing and arranging material. His work resembled a rudimentary form of modern database organization.

As the practice gained traction, commonplace books found their way into private households, encompassing an array of content, including recipes, medical formulas, and informative texts.

Mary Smith’s Commonplace Book Concerning Science and Mathematics which dates from around 1769-1780 (source)

The Zibaldone

During the fifteenth century, Italy witnessed the emergence of two new forms of book production: the deluxe registry book and the zibaldone. Zibaldone, meaning “hodgepodge book,” was a vernacular commonplace book characterized by its informal composition. These smaller paper codices incorporated diverse texts, from devotional and technical works to literary excerpts.

Notably, the works of Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca, and Giovanni Boccaccio were widely represented. Zibaldone offered insights into the interaction between merchants, artisans, and the arts of the Florentine Renaissance.

Throughout history, numerous notable individuals maintained commonplace books. Leonardo da Vinci structured his notebook much like a commonplace book, gathering diverse ideas and observations. Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke, Francis Bacon, and John Milton utilized commonplace books for personal study and writing. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were also taught to keep commonplace books at Harvard University.

Commonplace books have developed to incorporate digital formats such as note-taking software, document organizers, and even personal blogs or websites in the digital age. However, the essential premise remains the same: a repository for gathering and saving significant information as well as personal reflections.

If you are nostalgic about your writing, you can use a Typewriter!

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