"Salads of Many Herbs" — Zibaldone in the Regency

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.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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29 Responses to "Salads of Many Herbs" — Zibaldone in the Regency

  1. Roger Street says:

    I kept a ‘commonplace book’ for several years in my youth, without realising at the time that I was following a centuries old practice! Much enjoyed your piece on this topic.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      So nice to hear from you! I am glad you liked the article. I am even more glad to know that commonplacing has survived into modern times.

      While I was doing my research I discovered that today some university professors, mostly in literature, advise their students to keep a commonplace book as an aid to learning.



  2. My university sketch books are much more commonplace books than pure sketch books; how nice to find out that I am following in a tradition of one of my favourite periods! they are full of quotes, poems I wrote, recipes – for dyes, paints and varnishes as well as culinary – notes on poisons, occasionally right opposite recipes which can look a little odd, character sketches in words as well as drawings, plot ideas, word pictures of a scene, and bits and pieces cut out of magazines, fabric swatches and so on. I have a faint plot bunny here of a heroine finding the commonplace book of a long dead ancestress who used it mostly for medicinal notes and recipes but also noted down clues to the hiding of an ancient treasure. In fact I can see it fitting nicely into something I am working on, now I have to go and make notes…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Your sketch/commonplace books sound delightful! What a treasure trove of information and ideas. Very like those which were kept during the Regency.

      I like your plot bunny. That is exactly the kind of thing that might have happened with a commonplace book. The heroine’s ancestress may well have hidden her commonplace book if she had been keeping it in the eighteenth century, due to the fact that she was recording medicinal information. There would have been some who might have thought her a witch had they found it. The last executions for witchcraft took place in the eighteenth century, so she would have had reason to protect herself. There are commonplace books from the Middle Ages, and even as late as the eighteenth century, which included spells and potions to ward off evil spirits, so there is precedent.

      I wish you much luck with your story!



      • Here enters the commonplace book that will make such a big difference to the hero. Right now the heroine is assiduously heating glue and cutting muslin to mend it, and has yet to discover that it was owned by a pirate whose treasure is hidden in the grounds. And that means I have to write the sort of riddles that would amuse a 17th century pirate. Oh BOY am I tempted to plagiarise an idea from Lord Peter Whimsey.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I am very impressed that your heroine is heating her glue, which is historically accurate. (There was no Elmer’s in the Regency.)

          I do not envy you having to write riddles for pirates from any period, since I suspect they had a rather raw and somewhat warped sense of humor. Perhaps it would not plagiarism as much as an homage?


          • Homage, what a lovely word for a bit of stealing…
            I have the family’s old glue pots, essentially a small bain marie, I’m not sure when you started to be able to purchase crystals of glue to heat and when you had to make it from scratch yourself, so I’ve glossed over that and just mentioned heating it, and placating the cook because of the smell.
            My house deeds specifically forbid slaughtering horses or the making of glue, so it’s one thing I’ve never experimented with, the production of glue from fish or hooves. I have never had any urges to slaughter horses.

            • I’ve just done some quick research in the newspaper archives and found adverts for glue [including best Irish glue, whatever that was] and fish glue separately [a few tons of it!!!], and mention of Sheraton et al using dried glue jelly ground into flakes or powder, so I presume Nell could have purchased glue flakes, probably in a Chandler’s shop. I was planning to check this out anyway, but here I have added incentive… What I recall from what my Great Granddad had [he died in 1934] was brown/amber coloured flakes. one of the glue pots has some residue hardened in it….

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Glad to hear horses will be safe on your property!

              If it helps, most of the glue which would have been made during the Regency, as it had been for centuries before, was made from animal hides, rather than hooves. Hides were easier to break down with the heat and chemicals which were available at the time. Hides used for glue-making were usually not scraped and the hair had as much protein and other necessary components as did hooves, but could be converted faster and at lower cost. During the Regency, people who used a lot of glue, like book-binders, cabinet-makers, artists, and leather craftsmen, made their own glue, in small batches, as needed. Animal hooves would have been too difficult and costly to break down into useable glue.

              Hides intended for tanning would first be trimmed, to remove the edges from which the hair could not be readily scraped. Those trimmings were sold to those who made glue. As were the full hides of any hairy or furry animal which was not intended for tanning. I am not sure if this helps, but at that time, few horse parts, except trimmings from their hides, were used to make glue. Horse hides could be tanned and made a strong and durable leather, which was much more valuable than glue. The hides preferred for making glue, from at least the seventeenth century, were rabbit hides. They had lots of hair, the skin was thin and thus easier to break down into a sticky mass.

              As far as I can tell, making glue with horse and cow hooves was a Victorian development, when heavy machinery, high heat and powerfully caustic chemicals could be used to quickly covert that hard protein source into glue on an industrial scale.



  3. Oh, a commonplace book with a hidden secret – adorable plot!

    How about having the villain finding the heroine’s commonplace book. He mocks her and asks for a kiss to return it to her. At precisely this moment our hero steps in… .

  4. : -D ! Long life the sense of the absurd! Humor and comedy of situation should be the heart and soul of every Regency Novel.

  5. Yay! the pirate treasure is solved, thanks to the clue in the commonplace book, a nod to Lord Peter Whimsey, and a chess problem also in the commonplace book. ‘The Unwilling Viscount’, whose title might change if I can think of a better one, is virtually complete, and awaiting only some minor revisions and to be sent off to my editor… hurrah! AARGG! me hearties! Yo ho ho!

    I’m now considering writing the story of the pirate ancestor, and if so, trying to avoid plagiarising Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Congratulations!!! I do hope you will post a link for that book here when it is published.

      Regarding the pirate ancestor, to what better author or book could you offer homage than Rafael Sabatini, or his Captain Blood? Maybe you will bring him to the attention of a younger generation.



      • … now I really AM tempted… heh, period research looks to be in order… I’ve already been toying with the idea of a Tudor Naval hero… maybe I should have them all part of the same family!

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          What an excellent idea! The the Tudor fellow’s portrait can hang in the country house of the Regency hero. And who knows what the Tudor or the Stuart Naval heroes might have left hidden in the library or squirreled away in the attic.


          • I already have sketched out plans for family members of my main female protagonist in my Renaissance murder series, as romances, so why not interlink other stories… I’ve mentioned a Napoleonic era officer too, but he’s notable for being dead, and therefore not much mileage to get out of him. Hasdrubel Rookwood looks like having a biography… And I AM planning a sequel to the one I’ve just finished as there’s a hero in waiting for a heroine…

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Any chance the Napoleonic officer is just presumed dead, and might be found somewhere? Maybe recovering from a serious wound, perhaps with amnesia?


              • Hmm, a thought… I merely said that he had died in the ill-fated French attempt to invade Ireland… I might have a son of his born before he died enter the service I suppose. I already have a napoleonic era naval hero though in William Price of the Thrush so it doesn’t bug me if I can’t work in Maurice Rookwood.

  6. Kathryn Kane says:

    Recently, I re-read Georgette Heyer’s The Talisman Ring. It is set in the late Georgian period, February of 1793, to be exact. I had not read that book for years, and on this reading was delighted to discover that the heroine, Sarah Thane, took her commonplace book with her when she and Eustacie paid a call on Beau Lavenham to be shown round his historic house.

    Poor Sarah could not draw, though she was told repeatedly by other characters that all well-brought up women could draw. The stated purpose of the call on Lavenham was to see and sketch the notable paneling in his home, but was made before anyone had bothered to learn if Sarah could actually draw. (The real purpose was to find a secret hiding place for the titular talisman ring.) Fortunately, the hero, Sir Tristam, who was familiar with the paneling, saved the day. He made some sketches in Sarah’s commonplace book, before she set out for the visit, of the best paneling in the house, from memory. Thus, she would be able to produce some drawings, if necessary, after her visit to the house.

    The first time I read this book, in high school, I did not know anything about commonplace books, so was oblivious as to the form’s ancient history. This time, I knew exactly what a commonplace book was, and so enjoyed that passage all the more.

    For mention of commonplace books or for any reason at all, I can highly recommend The Talisman Ring. It is a wonderful romantic romp peopled with well-drawn characters which will make you laugh out loud on more than one occasion.

    Happy Reading!


    • Every time I re-read it, I remember anew what a good book it is.

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        I agree. The romance between Sarah and Sir Tristam is more subtle than that between Eustacie and Ludovic, which, for me, makes it all the more enjoyable. Though Eustacie is certainly the catalyst for a great deal of the humor in the story.


        • Heyer writes mature women with romance very very well. Abigail in Black Sheep also comes to mind. Eustacie is certainly a catalyst and not just for the humour… she’s a bit like a speck of platinum black on a hydrogen bottle outlet. [a catalyst for the explosive combination between Oxygen and Hydrogen]

  7. Is this at all related? I was passed this link and thought of you … http://www.littlethings.com/16th-century-facebook/?utm_medium=Facebook

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for sharing the link! The article was fascinating, and the images were delicious! It would seem to me that they might have been the precursors or something of an early ancestor of the commomplace book, at least with the concept of many entries on numerous topics and with the inclusion of illustrations. I hope that scholar’s research will ultimately become a book, as I would like to read more about those “friend books.”



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