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The intellectual world of the English Renaissance was a vibrant and active one, with new poetry, new plays and new music inundating an audience struggling to cope with the shifting sands of contemporary religion and politics.

Whilst printed books were available, they were still not cheap or plentiful and a strong manuscript based culture existed.  Poems were often circulated in manuscript and their appearance in commonplace books often helps us to understand the transmission of such texts, and their gradual evolution.

The commonplace book held a central place in the manuscript based culture.  It was a useful repository of information for practicing lawyers, doctors and politicians; a storehouse for cherished speeches, poems, and epitaphs; a devotional touchstone with prayers, moral proverbs and selected passages organised to suit the reader.  Such volumes provide us with a direct way of understanding the intellectual framework of the period, the heuristic processes by which knowledge was transmitted and understood, and the ideas and expressions which were valued most.


The 15 volumes included in this project provide scholars with a unique opportunity to see how the very notion of a “commonplace book” was pushed to its limits in this period.  The project includes:

  • Traditionally organised commonplace books with headings and indices;
  • Collections of political letters, speeches and maxims;
  • Prose and verse miscellanies;
  • An historical/genealogical memorandum book;
  • A devotional commonplace book;
  • A collection of ephemeris with notes on household management;
  • A legal commonplace book compiled for a practicing lawyer;
  • The range of subject matters covered by these manuscript volumes is impressive, as is their provenance. 

Whilst a number of the owners/compilers are unknown, there are examples connected with Sir Nichoals Bacon;  Sir Edward Dering;  Elizabeth, Countess of Huntington;  and Edward Stafford and his son Henry, Earl of Stafford.

Amongst the poets and authors featured heavily are Jonson Sidney, Ralegh, Francis and Nicholas Bacon, Earle and Wotton.


This brief guide provides details of all of the items included in this project.  We would like to thank Dr William H Sherman for his help with this project, particularly in preparing the descriptions and providing the introduction.  At the Huntington Library thanks are due to Mary L Robertson, Curator of Manuscripts, and Sara S Hodson, Curator of Literary Manuscripts, for their enthusiasm and support - also to the filming crew for their considerable efforts and to the volunteers who helped with foliation.

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