‘The treasurehouse of the mind’: memory in commonplace books

One of the most widespread and important early modern memory technologies was the ‘commonplace book’, a notebook in which a reader recorded significant quotations and notes, often under thematic headings. Some readers purchased books with pre-printed headings to organise their notes; others developed their own, often highly idiosyncratic, organisational systems. These could be both individual and collaborative ways of recording and transmitting information; many surviving examples show evidence of multiple notetakers.
Here we have two examples of seventeenth-century commonplace books which include quotations and notes on the nature of memory itself. Both show the huge value placed upon memory in Renaissance culture: it is ‘the chest of an inestimable treasury’, ‘the mother of the muses’, ‘the treasurehouse of the mind’. The manuscript on the right also includes some notes on the limitations of memory, and gives the example of the theologian Theodore Beza who, it claims, in his eighties ‘perfectly could say […] any thinge which hee had learnt longe before, butt forgot what soeuer was newly told him’. Drawing on both classical authors and contemporary examples, these notebooks show that memory for these early modern readers was a central intellectual skill, but a fallible one. CL

Commonplace book, seventeenth century.

CUL: MS Dd.iv.55, fo. 77r

A quarto miscellany, compiled by members of the family of Sir Marmaduke Rawdon (1583-1646), merchant, ship owner and royalist soldier, mid-seventeenth century.

YML: MS Add 122, fo. 127v

Further reading

Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven, 2010).

Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture 2nd edn. (Cambridge, 2008).

Earle Havens, Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century (New Haven, 2001).

Extended captions