Commonplace Books: A Classroom Introduction

Leading up to the start of term, I have been preparing some materials for a class I will be teaching on early modern literature.  Although everybody takes notes when they are reading, I thought it might be interesting to follow the lead of others who teach early modern classes and encourage students to frame this note-taking within a relevant historical context. It’s not really any extra work, and it adds a bit of Renaissance flavour to seminars while allowing non-Renaissance materials to inform discussion of the texts.  Here’s the introductory worksheet I’ve devised:


Commonplace books were a standard method of note-taking in the early modern period.  Not only students but all educated humanists were encouraged to keep a book in which they noted down significantly striking moral, rhetorical, or comic phrases and aphorisms – and often entire poems or extracts.  Plenty of major authors from the period appear in commonplace books (see Matthew Day’s below).

In De Copia (1512), Erasmus urged readers to take notes in order to aid their understanding, knowledge, and ability to write well – their rhetorical capability.  Such a view was equally “commonplace” at the end of the century; in 1605, Francis Bacon, while criticising most people’s methods of commonplacing, acknowledged it to be “a matter of great use and essence in studying; as that which assureth copie of invention, and contracteth judgment to a strength” (The Advancement of Learning, Book II.  Ed. Brian Vickers, OUP 2008; 229).  “Copie” meant “abundance” and is often to be associated with elaborate, ornamental, or impressive verbal and rhetorical style.

cmplace bk 1n71

cplace bk 2n61

Matthew Day.  Commonplace Book.  c.1650. V.a.160.  Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC.
You can view the entire book at

Commonplace books are an essential part of the literary culture of the early modern period.  Lifting sentences from works and re-contextualising them within one’s own thoughts and one’s own handwriting meant that fragmented borrowing was a method of reading in itself – and, of course, of “owning” and using literary knowledge.  Heidi Brayman Hackel has recently suggested that “by transferring the read text into his or her own handwriting, the compiler appropriates and transforms the text, nearly collapsing the roles of reader and writer” (Reading Material in Early Modern England CUP, 2005; 182), and Richard Halpern goes so far as to suggest that “whole new literary forms such as the essay were made possible largely by the multiplication of commonplace materials” (The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation Cornell UP, 1991; 49).

Creating your own commonplace book

During this semester, it might be useful – and fun! – to keep your own commonplace book for the course.  I know not everybody wants to pretend they are a student from the sixteenth century…but commonplace books are a reader’s personal record; it will therefore hopefully help to put texts side by side, to draw comparisons, to prompt thinking, and just to keep a note of the many beautiful lines we’ll be reading without a prescribed target or direction of thought – and of course you can include anything you think is of relevance to exploring the themes of the course reading, from today’s newspaper headlines to secondary criticism to Shakespeare’s sonnets.  They’ll also be handy for revision.

At the start of each seminar we can begin by discussing any quotations, similarities, or points of interest that you have recorded in your commonplace books to kick-off discussion.  Don’t feel like this is any extra work – it shouldn’t be! It should simply complement your reading and will hopefully help you cut down on work later in the year.



  1. Great idea! I’d probably also encourage them to try to come up with some grandiose headings to group their notes under: ‘Wisdom’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Polity’, ‘&c.’, just to see what ended up sitting side by side.

    1. Ah, thanks – good suggestion!

  2. What a great idea! I learned about commonplace books in an English class (many years ago!) in high school, and although my teacher didn’t ask us to keep one as part of the class (I wish he had), I began one on my own, collecting fragmentary thoughts, attempts at verse, and quotations. Recently, I decided to start again, using Tumblr, which seems like an ideal platform for modern commonplace books (here: Although Twitter and blogging are, potentially, themselves an iteration of commonplacing.

    1. That’s really interesting, I guess they are like commonplacing – tumblr especially. Perhaps it would be worth expanding classroom commonplacing to the internet, too. It might make it seem a more contemporary project. And thanks for the link – it’s great, I love the idea!

  3. […] brings me to the next big theme, literature and history. Callan Davies encourages students to keep a Renaissance-style commonplace book, and DrRoy at the Early Modern Whale delves into Thomas Peyton’s seventeenth-century, and […]

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