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Commonplace Book

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) became significant in Early Modern Europe and were a way to

The ‘commonplace book concerning science and mathematics’ of Mary Smith who lived in the remote village of Thorney in the Cambridgeshire fens in the 1760s and 1770s

compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned, and each book was unique to its owner.

Erasmus, (1466-1536), the Dutch scholar and theologian, set the mold in his De copia of 1512 by advising how to store collections of illustrative examples in retrievable form. John Milton (1608-1674), the English poet and polemicist, kept a book of sayings and thoughts, whilst the philosopher John Locke, (1632-1704), the English philosopher and physician  in his 1706 book A New Method of a Common Place Book alsogave specific advice, on how to arrange material by subject and category, using such topics as love, politics, or religion. Commonplace  books he stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.


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