Keynote Lecture:
Peter Stallybrass, University of Pennsylvania
“Making Commonplaces in English Printed Books”

Adam Hooks

Making Commonplaces in English Printed Books

"Playbooks with Commonplace Markers"
Now I have him, that nere of ought did speake
But when of Playes or Plaiers he did treate.
H’ath made a common-place booke out of plaies,
And speakes in print, at least what ere he says

—John Marston, The Scourge of Villanie

The commonplace book was a ubiquitous and indispensable tool for Renaissance readers and writers. A commonplace book consisted of a collection of notes, quotations, phrases, and extracts, copied from printed, manuscript, or other sources, such as sermons or plays. These collections of notes helped as an aid to memory, but more importantly they provided a storehouse of knowledge that could be used and re-used in a variety of contexts. Quotations in commonplace books were normally—albeit not necessarily—organized under a number of topical headings, making it easy to quickly retrieve information. Commonplacing was a staple of the humanist pedagogy of sixteenth-century England; Erasmus had laid out detailed plans for compiling a commonplace book, and students would be extraordinarily familiar with the practice by the time they left grammar school. Printed commonplace books were also produced, supplying ready-made sources of knowledge, extracted exclusively from classical authorities. These printed versions were widespread, and were also widely used in schools.

The language of instruction was exclusively Latin and Greek, though, providing students access to the suitable sources of authority—classical authors. Humanist pedagogy emphasized imitation, rather than originality: students needed to refer to appropriate quotations in order to support the rhetorical arguments they constructed. This seems to be Marston’s point in the quotation above—the target of his satire here is the typical young gallant that, while attending plays, copies down a few choice phrases in order to use them himself in a later conversation. Marston’s problem is not with the practice itself, but with the trivial object of the gallant’s attention: he chides young “Luscus” for speaking “Naught but pure Juliat and Romeo.” While Marston may have disapproved of commonplacing plays, in the following decades many others found plays to be an appropriate, and indeed desirable source of quotations, both in the playhouse and, especially, in print.

At the turn of the century, a number of printed commonplace books appeared that used vernacular texts as their sources—a radical shift away from the exclusive dependence on classical authorities. The appearance of commonplace markers in vernacular books also signaled this rise in status of English texts. Commonplace markers—or, as G.K. Hunter termed it in an influential article, “gnomic pointing”—look just like modern quotation marks, but instead of indicating passages that are quoted, they indicate that a passage is particularly quotable. Commonplace markers facilitated the practice of commonplacing by literally pointing out the sententiae—“sentences,” or weighty, authoritative quotations—that could then be copied down in the reader’s own manuscript notes. One famous reader, Ben Jonson, was known for adding copious manuscript annotations to vernacular texts that already included commonplace markers, thus extending and fulfilling their intended purpose.

Beyond this practical application, commonplace markers also made visible what kind of texts were appropriate to use for commonplacing. In England, vernacular books that included commonplace markers were almost exclusively what we would term literary—poems and prose romances, often printed as large, prestigious folios (such as Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, or Chaucer’s Workes). But playbooks—printed in the small, often ephemeral quarto format—were increasingly viewed as the most suitable vernacular texts for commonplacing: in the first few decades of the seventeenth century, commonplace markers appeared in plays much more frequently than in other vernacular works.

This exhibit focuses on a specific typographical feature—the inverted commas known as “commonplace markers”—that 1) marks a text as a suitable source of authoritative quotations, and 2) aids in the identification and extraction of these quotations. Often, only a careful examination of the book will reveal that it belongs to this group—texts can be heavily annotated, but commonplace markers can also be sparse and sporadic. Within this group of books, printed plays must be considered a special case—and the Columbia RBML collection reflects the distribution of commonplace markers in books of the English Renaissance. This exhibit contains several playbooks that were supplied with printed commonplace markers; these printed plays can be compared with other literary works in the collection that are similarly marked.

Associated images

John Ford - "This rule is certain"
George Chapman - Italics used as commonplace markers
Ben Jonson - Advice for King James
Thomas Middleton - Commonplaces in conversation
John Ford - "Then why not I?"
John Webster - Circulating commonplaces
Edward Sharpham - Quoting Tamburlaine
Thomas Middleton - Critiquing commonplacing

Selected Bibliography

  • Beal, Peter. 1993. Notions in Garrison: The Seventeenth-Century Commonplace Books. In New Ways of Looking at Old Texts: Papers of the Renaissance English Text Society, 1985-1991, edited by W. S. Hill. Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies in conjunction with Renaissance English Text Society.
  • Blair, Ann. 2003. Reading Strategies for Coping With Information Overload ca. 1550-1700. Journal of the History of Ideas:11-28.
  • ———. 2004. Note Taking as an Art of Transmission. Critical Inquiry 31:85-107.
  • Coatelen, Guillaume. 2007. Shakespeare and other 'Tragicall Discourses' in an Early-Seventeenth-Century Commonplace Book from Oriel College, Oxford. English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700:120-164.
  • Crane, Mary Thomas. 1993. Framing Authority: Sayings, Self, and Society in Sixteenth-century England. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hammond, Antony. 1994. The Noisy Comma: Searching for the Signal in Renaissance Dramatic Texts. In Crisis in Editing: Texts of the English Renaissance, edited by R. McLeod. New York: AMS Press, Inc.
  • Havens, Earle. 2001. Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Distributed by University Press of New England.
  • Hunter, G. K. 1951. The Marking of Sententiae in Elizabethan Printed Plays, Poems, and Romances. The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society 5th series, 6 (3-4):171-188.
  • Kelliher, Hilton. 1989. Contemporary Manuscript Extracts from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1. English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700 1:144-181.
  • Kinney, Claire R. 1998. Thomas Speght's Renaissance Chaucer and the solaas of sentence in Troilus and Criseyde. In Refiguring Chaucer in the Renaissance, edited by T. M. Krier. Gainesville: The University Press of Florida.
  • Meynell, G. G. 1993. John Locke's Method of Common-Placing, as seen in his drafts and his medical notebooks, Bodleian MSS Locke D.9, F.21 and F.23. Seventeenth Century 8 (2):245-267.
  • Moss, Ann. 1991. Printed Commonplace Books in the Renaissance. In Acta Conventus Neo-Latini Torontonensis, edited by A. Dalzell, C. Fantazzi and R. J. Schoeck. Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.
  • ———. 2005. Locating Knowledge. In Cognition and the Book: Typologies of Formal Organisation of Knowledge in the Printed Book of the Early Modern Period, edited by K. A. E. Enenkel and W. Neuber. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
  • Muir, Kenneth. 1959. Shakespeare among the Commonplaces. Review of English Studies New Series, 10 (39):283-289.
  • Ong, Walter J. 1968. Tudor Writings on Rhetoric. Studies in the Renaissance 15:39-69.
  • ———. 1976. Commonplace Rhapsody: Ravisius Textor, Zwinger and Shakespeare. In Classical Influences on European Culture A.D. 1500-1700, edited by R. R. Bolgar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rhodes, Neil. 2004. Shakespeare and the Origins of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ———. 2006. Shakespeare's Sayings. In Shakespeare and Elizabethan Popular Culture, edited by S. Gillespie and N. Rhodes. London: Thomson Learning.
  • Rosenberg, Daniel. 2003. Early Modern Information Overload. Journal of the History of Ideas:1-9.
  • Schurink, Fred. 2003. An Elizabethan Grammar School Exercise Book. Bodleian Library Record 18 (2):174-196.
  • Stallybrass, Peter, and Roger Chartier. 2007. Reading and Authorship: The Circulation of Shakespeare 1590-1619. In A Concise Companion to Shakespeare and the Text, edited by A. Murphy. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Thomas, Max W. 1994. Reading and Writing the Renaissance Commonplace Book: A Question of Authorship? In The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature, edited by M. Woodmansee and P. Jaszi. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Wolf, Edwin. 1949. The Textual Importance of Manuscript Commonplace Books of 1620-1660.
  • Yeo, Richard. 2004. John Locke's "New Method" of Commonplacing: Managing Memory and Information. Eighteenth-Century Thought 2:1-38.