Despite the title, this article has very little to do with salads, herbs or greens of any kind. Zibaldone is actually translated as "hotchpotch," and for centuries it was the Italian word for what were known as commonplace books in England. The Italians also called these very personal books "salads of many herbs" because of the variety of their contents. Though the English did not have such colorful names for these special books, they were just as popular in England as they were in Italy. When they were first introduced, these books were intended only for the use of male scholars. But by the Regency, there were many women who kept commonplace books of their own.
The origin and evolution of commonplace books though the Regency …
The concept of the commonplace book is generally believed to have originated in Italy in the fourteenth century. They were books of blank pages into which university students copied important passages from their readings. At this time, books were rare and expensive, and copyright protection was yet centuries away, so copying passages was the usual means by which students built up their own research collections. The use of such books spread across Europe and expanded as literacy and learning steadily increased over the next three centuries.
During the seventeenth century, the use of these personal collections of ideas and research became widespread across England. Nearly every scholar and university student kept at least one. The primary language of learning at that time was Latin, and it was a Latin term which resulted in the name used in England for these books. Locus communis, a phrase which means "a theme or argument of general application," was translated into English as "commonplace" and thus these unique volumes came to be known as "commonplace books." Each scholar’s commonplace book was unique, as they recorded the writings and ideas which they considered most pertinent and significant to their studies and to the development of their personal philosophy. Passages might be written in Latin, Greek, French, or English. These private and intimate books were not considered to be diaries or journals for recording the events of daily life. Rather, they were repositories of a collection of ideas and principles which the book’s owner wished to make their own. Commonplace books could be considered diaries of the mind. Throughout the seventeenth century, commonplace books were regarded as most valuable as a device of artificial memory which was essential to learning. But they became rather problematical as the century progressed and the number of published books rapidly increased, thus considerably widening the available pool of books from which passages might be copied. More passages made it that much more difficult to located a specific passage when it was wanted.
In the opening years of the eighteenth century, one of the most enlightened minds in all England set itself to find a better system by which to organize commonplace books. In 1706, John Locke published A New Method of Making Common-place-books, in which he outlined a new and effective system by which to arrange and organize the contents of commonplace books so that any entry could be found quickly and easily. With a reliable indexing system, during the eighteenth century, the use of commonplace books began to expand beyond the academic community to many educated and literate people. These books were still used to record passages from published books and magazines which were of special significance to the book’s owner. Therefore, commonplace books still served the purpose of artificial memory, but at this time they acquired a wider purpose. It was believed that the use of Locke’s indexing system in their commonplace books would also help people to more clearly order their minds and therefore would enable them to become better people. And, by the second half of the eighteenth century, conversation was becoming a very important social skill. Many people used their commonplace books to record passages from books and magazines, as well as their own thoughts and ideas, which they believed would help them to expand their knowledge and enhance their conversational skills.
Though a few scholarly women had kept commonplace books throughout the eighteenth century, by the end of the century, many more women had taken up the practice. But the majority of these women took a more practical attitude toward their commonplace books. They focused less on topics such as rhetoric, philosophy, history or politics than they did on entries which included poetry, Biblical passages, medical remedies, proverbs or gardening advice. Most women who kept commonplace books made it a point to write in their very best penmanship. Quite a number of men wrote in a neat hand as well, but women seemed to take the appearance of their commonplace books just as seriously as they did the contents of their books. In the latter decades of the eighteenth century, both drawing and watercolor painting were becoming popular hobbies among the upper and middle classes. And it was at about this same time that drawings, some of them colored with watercolors, began to appear more and more frequently in the pages of commonplace books.
By the Regency, many people from all walks of life kept commonplace books, from philosophers to politicians, society matrons to country squires. Each person recorded snippets of knowledge which they considered of value to them in their commonplace book. Mothers might gather advice on the best ways to care for and educate children, while country gentlemen might focus on agricultural practices or animal husbandry, and society hostesses might record details on hospitality and entertaining, not to mention notes to help them maintain polite, but engaging conversation. The poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey both kept substantial commonplace books, as did any number of lawyers, men of science, economists and even churchmen. Over the course of a lifetime, many people compiled several volumes of commonplace books which served as their own personal reference library. Many of these books were handed down through the generations, and quite a number of them survive even today.
Though many people bought blank books to use as their commonplace books, others made their entries on loose sheets of paper which they would have bound together in book form at some point. Which had some unexpected results, if pages or sections should arrive at the bookbinders out of order. There are commonplace books which have some sections bound in back to front while others have sections which are bound in upside down. Most commonplacers with a scholarly background used the Lockean system to organize their books, but quite a number of people chose to use their own unique indexing systems. There are commonplace books from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which are very carefully and clearly indexed and there are others with an indexing system which is so idiosyncratic it is very difficult to figure out if there is any theme to those books at all. There are also a few extant commonplace books in which more than one hand is clearly distinguishable. In some cases it is obvious that a commonplace book was given to or inherited by someone else who added to it. There are, however, a few of these commonplace books in which it appears that the book may have been shared by two people.
One of the most remarkable commonplace books I have ever seen is in the collection of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. It was compiled by a British sailor, Henry Tiffen, over the course of nearly twenty-five years, from 1748 to 1776. Though virtually nothing is known of Tiffen’s life, his commonplace book reveals that he had studied mathematics and navigation, had a fondness for English poetry and prose, and was an exceptionally talented draughtsman and watercolorist. Tiffen sailed aboard a number of British ships over the course of the quarter century covered by his commonplace book. Within its pages he recorded quite a lot of the information which he acquired during his voyages to foreign shores. He also wrote essays on subjects which caught his interest, copied in important navigational calculations, as well as jotting down sea shanties and poems, all of which are extensively illustrated with his striking watercolors. Last month, Barbara Pero Kampas, the Head Librarian at the Phillips Library, posted an article about Tiffen’s commonplace book which is not only very informative, but is also illustrated with a number pages from this wonderful commonplace book.
For centuries, the keeping of a commonplace book was a formative exercise for a cultured gentlemen during his university years, but many men continued to make entries into their commonplace books throughout their lives. By the Regency, nearly as many women as men kept commonplace books, even though women were still not attending university. In 1811, commonplace books were described as "a medley of information," while one modern-day scholar described keeping a commonplace book as assembling a collection of precious gems or gathering beautiful flowers in order to make a colorful garland. Regency commonplace books frequently served as a demonstration of their owner’s fine penmanship and were very often illustrated with drawings and small watercolor paintings. Insertions, such as dried plants and flowers, silhouettes, scraps of cloth and bits of ribbon, as well as special letters and notes, might all be found within the pages of a commonplace book.
Dear Regency Authors, will you allow one or more of your characters to keep a commonplace book in an upcoming story? Remember, these books were not diaries in the sense of a record of daily life. Rather commonplace books were a personal compendium of information which the commonplacer believed would enrich their life according to their own personal philosophy. Perhaps the heroine, against her parents’ wishes, is a dedicated student of astronomy or some other scientific pursuit. She uses her commonplace book to record her notes and calculations, copying passages from any books which might come her way, since her family’s library is sadly lacking in scientific books. Will the hero stumble upon her commonplace book, in which he discovers they share a common interest? Mayhap a second son, not trained to run the family estate he has unexpectedly inherited, feels unequal to the task. Imagine his delight and relief when an elderly relative or family retainer shows him a set of commonplace books which had been kept by his father and grandfather, all devoted to estate management. Of course, commonplace books also have much potential to be used for any number of clandestine activities, for who knows what might be found within their pages? A pressed flower, but one which does not grow anywhere in the area surrounding the home of the commonplacer who keeps the book. Or maybe the section which has been bound in upside down hides a secret which has been sought for years? Commonplace books were kept by quite a lot of people during the Regency, so there is no reason why one or more cannot appear in a story set during the Regency.