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Extraordinary Commonplaces

Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks

edited by J.A. Gere, edited by John Sparrow
Oxford University Press


Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite. Yet it still survives in places. The best example of a twentieth-century commonplace book is Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks, published in 1981. Perhaps it is the last of the line, for it has fallen out of print and seems to have been forgotten, except in some senior common rooms of British universities. But it deserves to be rescued from oblivion, because it is a great read, especially for anyone interested in reading itself as a way of making sense of the world.

Educated at Eton and Oxford, Madan survived injury in World War I but came down with meningitis in 1925 and spent the rest of his life in retirement, living off a private income and observing the human comedy from the clubs of London and the high tables of Oxford. When he recorded his observations, he adhered to the Erasmian principle of distilling things down to their essence and entering them in notebooks, as if he were storing rare wine to be served for dégustation in future conversations. As Erasmus advised, Madan devised his own set of rubrics for classifying his material. But the rubrics corresponded to the world of a man about town in the 1920s and 1930s rather than a Christian humanist from the sixteenth century. “Viniana,” for example, was devoted to wine itself, one of Madan’s three main passions, the others being old silver and rare books:

Queen Victoria “strengthening” claret with whisky.

—Gladstone, letter to Mrs. Gladstone, 1864

I see you have been brought up in the best school,—the school of port: and if you will take an old man’s advice, Sir, always drink it out of a claret-glass.

—The Revd. F. Bertie, to Lord Ernle at All Souls

Only half-full, thank you.” Shy woman, with Savoy brandy-glass.

Madan’s taste in anecdotes ran to the incongruous, which he listed in lapidary fashion under “Humorous and Memorable”:

Instead of being arrested, as we stated, for kicking his wife down a flight of stairs and hurling a lighted kerosene lamp after her, the Revd. James P. Wellman died unmarried four years ago.

—From an American newspaper, quoted by Burne-Jones in a letter to
Lady Horner

Omlet, Omlet, dies is dein Feyder’s spooke.

Dutch Hamlet
Important if true. Inscription which Kinglake wanted on all

Academica” provided a rubric for inside jokes, delivered straight, with an Eton-Oxford accent:

H.M. Butler: “Christ, in a very real sense, a Trinity man.”

What sort of place is it, sir? Something in the Keble line?

—Raymond Asquith’s scout on his return from Cambridge

Hornby [Headmaster of Eton]: “I rather wish Shelley had been at Harrow.”

Beauty, Point, and Charm” included Madan’s own observations along with those of others who knew how to pick out the revealing detail or the arresting turn of phrase:

Note in Gladstone’s Dante (which I saw at the Rosebery sale) on “Nel mezzo del cammin…“: 15-49 [years old].

Odd that we call the end of a rope or a chain, the end; while in Greek it is the beginning.

Peel’s smile: like the silver plate on a coffin.


Madan’s humor combined snobbery with patrician self-parody, the kind that reinforces social distinctions while making fun of them:

Trousers should shiver on the shoe but not break.

—Arnold Bennett’s tailor

A gentleman: superficially perhaps, a man who never looks as if he’d just had his hair cut.

No gentleman can be without three copies of a book; one for show (and this he will probably keep at his country house), another for use, and a third at the service of his friends.

Richard Heber

But his humor had an edge to it, because after the slaughter of World War I, everything looked absurd, including patriotism and religion:

We shelled the Turks from 9 to 11: and then, it being Sunday, had Divine Service.

—Commander, R.N., to Admiralty (1915)

I never read poetry. It might soften me.

—General Hindenburg (1912)

Duke of Wellington disapproved of soldiers cheering, as too nearly an expression of opinion.

Queen Victoria “indicating with uplifted fan” that a sermon should stop.

—Quarterly Review, April 1901

The citations and bons mots flow by endlessly; but instead of giving the impression of disordered jottings, they convey a coherent view of the world, one both intensely personal and shot through with the flavor of its time. Madan’s commonplace book blends Edwardian preciosity with postwar disabusement, and it does so without explanation or exposition, merely by juxtaposing remarks culled from reading and conversation.

Why pause over this arcane, forgotten book? Because it shows how an archaic genre could be used to impose order on experience in modern times. Commonplace books served far more effectively in this manner several centuries earlier, when they were standard tools of readers. By studying them, historians and literary scholars have come closer to understanding reading, both as a specific cultural practice and as a general way of construing the world. But it is a tricky business, especially when the researcher moves from questions about who readers were and what they read to the problems of how they made sense of books.

Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. When his commonplace book was first published in 1928, its editor, Gilbert Chinard, celebrated it as a key that would unlock Jefferson’s impenetrable personality as well as his view of the world. That world view came to epitomize the American Enlightenment, but it looked odd as a set of excerpts from Jefferson’s reading as a young man. From the age of about fifteen to thirty, he copied the excerpts on folded sheets of foolscap paper. Sometime in his mid-thirties, he sorted out the sheets that he wanted to keep and had them bound in a volume of 123 leaves, which he consulted and quoted for the rest of his life, though he did not add any more passages to it.

It is a “literary” commonplace book, as opposed to the “legal” commonplace book that he used for his work as a lawyer. Of its 407 entries, 339 are citations of poetry, including 14 from Ossian, the pseudo-Celtic bard invented by James Macpherson and considered by Jefferson to be “the greatest Poet that has ever existed.” Jefferson had a low opinion of novels and cited only one, Tristram Shandy. He preferred the standard classics that he studied as a schoolboy under the Reverend James Maury and as a student at the College of William and Mary: Homer, Euripides, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid—but not Plato, whom he scorned. His Cicero was the somber moralist of the Tusculan Disputations rather than the orator. His British poets included contemporary favorites like Edward Young and James Thomson along with Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope. But his selections from the poetry were less predictable than his choice of poets. For example, he treated Samuel Butler’s mock heroic Hudibras as a source of solemn moralizing, unlike other Virginians, who used it to poke fun at Yankee puritanism. In fact, he did not betray the slightest sense of humor anywhere in his commonplace book. Nothing could be further from the world of Geoffrey Madan, though Madan was a more accomplished classicist.

The lost world of Thomas Jefferson,” as Daniel Boorstin called it, was a serious place, saturated with Enlightenment philosophy; but few philosophers appeared in the commonplace book, perhaps because Jefferson used it primarily as a record of his favorite readings in the classics and belles-lettres. The exception is Henry Saint-John, Viscount Bolingbroke, who accounts for 40 percent of all the material that Jefferson selected for the final version, which he had bound in the 1780s. He admired Bolingbroke as a bold commentator on the Bible and copied passages such as the following, which is quoted as Jefferson copied it:

now there are gross defects, [a]nd palpable falsehoods, in almost every page of the [s]criptures, and the whole tenor of them is such as no man who acknowledges a supreme all-perfect being [c]an beleive to be his word.

Bolingbroke was the source of Jefferson’s famous advice to his nephew, Peter Carr: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion…. Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus.”

That may sound reassuringly familiar: the Founding Father was a secular rationalist as a young bachelor. But what is one to make of the passages Jefferson selected from Milton, such as Adam’s lament in Paradise Lost?

…all but a Rib,
Crooked by Nature, bent (as now appears)
More to the Part sinister from me drawn;
Well if thrown out, as supernumerary
To my just Number found!—O! Why did God[,]
Creator wise! that Peopl’d highest Heav’n
With Spirits masculine, create at last
This Novelty on Earth, this fair Defect
Of Nature? And not fill the World at once
With Men, as Angels, without feminine?
Or find some other Way to generate
Mankind? This Mischeif had not then befall[‘n,]
And more that shal befal: innumerable
Disturbances on Earth through female Snares,
And straight Conjunction with this Sex!—

Why did young Jefferson select that passage, one of the most infamous in the annals of misogyny? And why did he choose an equally damning selection from Samson Agonistes?

Therefore God’s universal Law
Gave to Man despotic Power
Over his Female in due Awe,
Nor from that Right to part an Hour,
Smile she or lour:
So shall he least Confusion draw
On his whole Life, no sway’d
By female Usurpation, or dismay’d.

Douglas Wilson, who produced the most recent and most scholarly edition of Jefferson’s commonplace book,1 has an answer. Jefferson copied out these passages and others that are equally unsettling—angry descriptions of rebellion, morbid accounts of death—during a period of emotional turmoil. He made his first excerpts soon after his father’s death, when he was fourteen, and the next ones as an adolescent, when he had difficulty adjusting to his mother’s rule over the household. The hostile references to women coincided with his prolonged bachelorhood, and they came to an end with his happy marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772. Jefferson’s commonplacing ended at about the same time. Having committed himself to a career as a lawyer and a politician, he stopped reading poetry and closed the book on his earlier emotions, although he opened it, consulted it, and quoted it at various times for the rest of his life.


This interpretation will not do for Kenneth Lockridge. In On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century, a fascinatingly original and iconoclastic monograph published in 1992,2 he treated Jefferson’s commonplace book as one of two great manifestoes of misogyny from eighteenth-century Virginia. The other was the commonplace book of William Byrd II, a collection of anecdotes about voracious females and inadequate males, interspersed with sexual folklore. For example:

Popilia being askt by a very curious Person of her own Sex, why Brutes woud never admit the male after they had once conceivd? answered with the true Spirit of a woman, because they are Brutes, and know no better.

Barren women are commonly more lascivious than fruitfull ones, because [of] the Heat of the womb, which is often the cause of Sterility, & at the same time the fomenter of wantoness.

To rub the Penis with oyl of Lavender is of great use to procure Erection: but the drink usd in Provence calld Sambajeu, is much better for that purpose; which is compounded of Wine, yolk of Eggs, Saffran, Sugar, & mace, which may be boild together, or else drunk raw with glorious Success.

Byrd makes an easy target. As Lockridge describes him, he was a nasty piece of work: an impotent patriarch, who vented his sexual, social, and political failures in rage against women. But Thomas Jefferson? He carried “patriarchal rage” even further, according to Lockridge. True, Jefferson did not accompany the citations in his commonplace book with comments of his own. But by selecting the most egregiously hostile remarks on women from the endless variety of literature available to him, he injected so much fear and loathing in his picture of the war between the sexes that, as Lockridge sees it, he expressed a pathological strain of “gendering” in his psyche and his culture.

To support this argument, Lockridge cites Jefferson’s supposedly difficult relations with his mother, who took over the patriarchal estate after the death of his father. He claims that Jefferson chose an especially submissive mate in Martha Wayles Skelton and avoided emotional engagement with women after her death. Instead of remarrying, he redesigned Monticello as “a single man’s pavilion of himself,” suppressing space for family. And insofar as he made room for family life, it took the form of paternal commands, which revealed his underlying anxieties. Thus his admonition about cleanliness to his eleven-year-old daughter Martha:

Some ladies think they may under the privileges of the dishabille be loose and negligent of their dress in the morning. But be you from the moment you rise till you go to bed as cleanly and properly dressed as at the hours of dinner or tea.

Lockridge’s evidence seems largely circumstantial; and we have been there before, in a long line of psycho-biographies that pretend to penetrate the souls of the dead by reading domestic details as if they were tea leaves. Most scholars probably will prefer harder facts, like the evidence from DNA that linked Jefferson to Sally Hemings—who does not figure in Lockridge’s argument, although she could fit into it. But Lockridge’s reading of Jefferson’s commonplace book challenges conventional wisdom in an interesting way. He treats it like a Rorschach test, and invokes Foucault rather than Freud. The bits and pieces of literature that Jefferson assembled are therefore deemed to function like an epistemological field: the relations among them and spaces between them suggest an unconscious process of ordering. The horror of female sexuality conjugates into fear of male inadequacy, anxiety over patriarchy, repulsion at disorder, and obsession with death.

In order to do justice to the argument, one must read all the entries in Jefferson’s commonplace book with an eye to the underlying affinities that hold it together as a whole. Lockridge does detect a pattern, even if he cannot accommodate exceptions to it, such as this passage from Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved:

Can there in Women be such glorious Faith?
Sure all ill Stories of thy Sex are false!
O Woman! lovely Woman! Nature made thee
To temper Man: we had been Brutes without you:
Angels are painted fair to look like you:
There’s in you all that we beleive of Heav’n,
Amazing Brightness, Purity & Truth,
Eternal joy, & everlasting Love.

Whether or not one accepts Lockridge’s conclusions, he showed that the lost world of Thomas Jefferson was not the happy, rational order imagined by Jefferson’s earlier biographers. And more important, he demonstrated the possibility of studying commonplace books as cosmologies.

For a still more thorough study and a richer run of commonplacing, one can turn to Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England, Kevin Sharpe’s new book on William Drake, a voracious reader and bit player in the conflicts that convulsed England from 1640 to 1660. Nothing set Drake apart from the other country squires of his time, except his love of books. He received a conventional education at Oxford, studied law for a while in London, managed an estate in Buckinghamshire, and got himself elected to Parliament in 1640.

Like many MPs, Drake avoided taking sides as England slid into civil war. In 1641, he published a speech that advocated both frequent parliaments and a strong executive power. In 1642, he subscribed å£200 for the maintenance of horse in the forces both of Parliament and of the Crown. In 1643, while battles raged, he left for the Continent and stayed there, except for some brief trips back to England, until the Restoration. He took up his seat in Parliament as a supporter of Charles II in 1660 and kept it until his death in 1669. He was a survivor rather than a man of action, an observer who watched politics from a safe distance, a backbencher who remained in the background.

Although Drake did not participate in the great events of the mid-century, he followed them closely through the press and spliced the information that he culled from pamphlets and broadsides with excerpts from wide-ranging reading in history and philosophy. All of it went into commonplace books: fifteen from about 1627 to the mid-1640s and twenty-two from the mid-1640s through the 1650s. A further seventeen volumes contain miscellaneous notes and letters. They can be supplemented by a one-volume political diary, which contains entries from 1631 to 1642, and books from Drake’s library, which have extensive annotations. Taken together, these sources provide the richest cache of material about a reader and his reading anywhere in existence.

Unfortunately, however, Drake rarely commented on events, probably because he did not want to compromise himself. His diary is a disappointment for anyone who wants to follow a backbencher’s reactions to a revolution, and the entries in his commonplace books cannot be dated with precision. They do, however, show how he understood reading and made use of it. Some examples:

The meat which we have taken, so long as it swimmeth whole in our stomachs, is a burden, but when it changeth from that which it was, then at length it turns into strength and nourishment. The same let us do in our reading books. Let us not suffer these things to remain entire which we have gathered from various authors for they will not then be ours, but let us endeavor to digest and concoct them—otherwise they will fill the memory and leave the understanding void and empty.

Be sure not to study much books of learning for they divert business, take up the memory too much and keep one from more useful things.

For the gaining wisdom there is nothing more effectual than frequent reading, apothegms, proverbs, pru-dent fables, wisest speeches… emblems, strategems, judgements and sentences raised upon various occasions in history.

Drake understood reading as digestion, a process of extracting the essence from books and incorporating them into himself. He favored bite-sized bits of text, which could be useful in their application to everyday life. For reading should not be aimed at erudition; it should help a man get ahead in the world, and its most helpful chunks came in the form of proverbs, fables, and even the mottoes written into emblem books.

Reading of this sort belonged to a mental universe far removed from ours, even though we, too, may read for utilitarian purposes. The alien quality of Drake’s mentality stands out in the examples of proverbial wisdom that he copied into his commonplace books:

Choose a horse made and a wife to make.

A man should never commend his wife, wine or horse, for it tempts borrowing.

Dissimulation is no less profitable …than preservatives in physic.

As a man is befriended so his cause is ended.

Of course, proverbs can be interpreted in a hundred different ways, and there is no obvious way to fit the hundreds of citations in Drake’s commonplace books into one, unifying interpretation. But help can be had from a study of some similar material by Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton.3 They published a dazzlingly original analysis of the marginalia of Gabriel Harvey, a lawyer and secretary to the Earl of Leicester in Elizabethan England. Harvey read and reread a 1555 edition of Livy’s History of Rome over a period of twenty-two years, leaving behind a trail of annotations, which often can be linked to contemporary events. In fact, he filled the margins with so many allusions and cross-references that they turned into a kind of palimpsest or a commonplace book within a book.

Jardine and Grafton showed that Harvey never read his Livy straight through or by itself. Instead, he selected passages appropriate to the exigencies of the moment and assembled them, with excerpts from other classics, to be used as ammunition in rhetorical battles or advice to potential patrons. The actual combat took place above his head, in diplomatic missions or power plays at court. Harvey merely functioned as a munitions man, hoping that one of his patrons would score a hit and reward him with a promotion. Classical culture belonged to the rough and tumble of Tudor-Stuart politics, and Harvey read his way through it, not in order to refine his knowledge but to get ahead in life.

When Kevin Sharpe set out to find the underlying logic in Drake’s commonplace books, he detected the same classical-political culture that Grafton and Jardine had found between the lines and around the margins of Harvey’s Livy. Drake and Harvey drew on the same sources and slanted them in the same direction: toward action rather than contemplation, for secular success instead of otherworldly wisdom. This ethos showed through glosses and cross-references. Like Harvey, Drake constantly cited Livy. He also cited Machiavelli and Machiavelli’s citations of Livy. Then he rearranged the citations, added other authors, and worked in allusions to recent as well as ancient history. From Latin to Italian to English, from ancient Rome to Renaissance Florence to Stuart England, everything was refracted in everything else; yet it held together as a view of the world, thanks to an ordering principle: an improvised, amateur Machiavellianism.

Drake cited Machiavelli more often than any other author, but he did not respond to the patriotic, republican aspects of Machiavelli’s writings. He merely culled through them for adages that might be useful in his efforts to improve his own lot in life while the Stuart monarchy disintegrated around him. The most striking quality of this selection process was its secularism. While his countrymen were killing themselves over disputes about the Book of Common Prayer, the legitimacy of bishops, and the meaning of the sacraments, Drake saw only power struggles. Never did he indicate the slightest sympathy for the conventional notion that England was and ought to be a Christian commonwealth. He worried about abuses of the royal prerogative in the 1630s and the need to reinforce it after 1642, but he did not mention the spiritual ingredient in the king’s authority. He even interpreted the Bible as a collection of cautionary tales about whose ox might be gored, and he cross-referenced passages from the Gospels with excerpts from Machiavelli and Guicciardini, one more secular than the other.

When Drake came upon themes like love and friendship, he glossed them in an equally cynical spirit:

Love doth often much mischief in human life.

Never make thyself too inwardly familiar with any, and though thou mightest have less joy thou shall be sure to have less sorrow.

He outdid Jefferson in his negative view of women:

The woman is an imperfect creature…a creature ungovernable, unfaithful, changeable, cruel, and the slave to a thousand passions.

Our marriage bed often proves suddenly our death bed.

Whether or not Drake really expected eros to be swallowed up in thanatos, he never married. He eagerly awaited his father’s death, when he expected to inherit the family estate; and he seems to have got on badly with his relatives. In social life, he did his best to disguise his feelings and to avoid intimate friendships. He saw little else than cunning and deceit in the world around him: every man pursued self-interest, no matter how loudly he proclaimed his allegiance to causes. Life was a war of all against all; politics, the rule of the strong; history, a cyclical movement in and out of chaos:

There is a secret, intestine war between man and man.

The stronger gives what law he likes to the weaker.

All things dissolve and fall back into anarchy and confusion.

The cynicism runs so deep that Drake seems to have compounded Machiavelli with Hobbes.


That is Kevin Sharpe’s interpretation. He pursues it with unflagging energy, through hundreds of pages of sibylline citations, across widely scattered manuscript sources, from histories to fables to proverbs to emblem books, and back again in a dizzying hermeneutic circle. It is a tour de force, but is it true?

As Sharpe sees it, “Drake out-machiavels even Old Nick” and made himself into a Hobbesian before he read Hobbes. But that raises a problem, because Drake merely cobbled together quotations, while Machiavelli and Hobbes wrote systematic treatises. Hobbes grounded his political theory in a carefully constructed materialist philosophy. And Machiavelli did not merely treat politics as a power game: he saw principles at work in power struggles, above all virtù—that is, patriotic virtue like the civic spirit that he hoped would save the Florentine republic. In contrast, Drake’s collection of cynical proverbs and secular aphorisms seem to represent nothing more than a disenchanted attitude toward politics as power struggles.

Nonetheless, Sharpe insists that Drake “devised an intellectual system”—a “fully Machiavellian theory” built with solidly Hobbesian material, which recast politics as part of a “new intellectual and political culture.” Drake forged a new sense of the self, in fact, a whole new world view, which, as Sharpe has it, belongs to the transformation of the mental landscape of early modern England, even though he never expounded any ideas of his own. How did he turn this trick? By reading. According to Sharpe, Drake’s journey through books can be equated with England’s passage through the seventeenth century.

Extravagant as it is, the argument deserves to be taken seriously. Drake read critically, excerpting passages and splicing them together in patterns that expressed an intensely personal outlook on the world. He read without regard for higher authority, either of Church or State, and in doing so he exercised his own judgment as an autonomous individual. His commonplace books bore the stamp of that consciousness. In a century of political and religious fervor, they expressed attitudes that would emerge a century later, in the age of Enlightenment: individualism, skepticism, secularism, utilitarianism, rationalism, and religious ideas bordering on deism.

Having immersed himself in Drake’s reading, Sharpe can come up with plenty of evidence to connect that string of “isms” to a pattern of culture implicit in the commonplace books. But he disputes the notion of evidence itself. To him, it smells of positivism, a mode of historical argument that, he claims, has carried the study of British history into a dead end.

In order to make that charge stick, Sharpe begins his book with a discourse on method and a survey of historiography. He goes over the great debates that have divided historians of seventeenth-century Britain for the last fifty years, stressing the opposition between an “old guard” of social historians like Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill and “revisionists” like Conrad Russell and himself. As he sees it, the revisionists demolished the old-guard notion that the English Civil War was actually a revolution ignited by social conflict and ideological division. They demonstrated the contrary: the monarchy collapsed as an unintended consequence of internecine squabbles among a political elite who shared a fundamental consensus about politics and religion. However, having routed their elders and occupied the main terrain in the historiographical battles, the revisionists faced the problem of what to do next. An endlessly detailed account of political events would lead nowhere. But by following the lead of Sharpe, they can find the only way out of “post-revisionism”—namely, postmodernism, or a great leap into theory.

By theory, Sharpe means an amalgam of the work of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Ferdinand de Saussure, Mikhail Bakhtin, Pierre Bourdieu, Roland Barthes, Hayden White, Clifford Geertz, Quentin Skinner, J.G.A. Pocock, Hans Robert Jauss, Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, Stephen Greenblatt, and the other familiar suspects. They make up “a gallery of unknowns” to early modern historians, he claims—rather oddly, considering the saturation of references to them in scholarly journals over the last thirty years. Odder still is his notion that “theory” is a coherent whole, something that can be used to rescue historians shipwrecked on the shoals of positivism:

My project is to suggest that for Renaissance scholars, for early modern historians, the issues and questions raised and some of the methods advocated by theory may help us to reimagine a Renaissance culture that did not share the positivism or “the organicist ideology of modernism….”

It seems doubtful that by invoking “evidence” and “facts” the older generation subscribed to a mindless variety of positivism. And it seems unlikely that their successors can be saved from future shipwrecks by means of self-reflective prolegomena about method and theory. Sharpe’s triumphalist version of historical debates and his claims to originality will put off many readers. But that would be a pity, because he has worked through a vast amount of unfamiliar material and arrived at some challenging conclusions.

He is right, I think, to treat commonplace books as sites to be mined for information about how people thought in a culture based on different assumptions from our own. By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. The elective affinities that bound their selections into patterns reveal an epistemology—a process of knowing—at work below the surface. That kind of phenomenon does not show up in conventional research and cannot be understood without some recourse to theory. Foucault probably offers the most helpful theoretical approach. His “archaeology of knowledge” suggests a way to study texts as sites that bear the marks of epistemological activity, and it has the advantage of doing justice to the social dimension of thought.

That dimension can be at least surmised, thanks to other studies of commonplace books and marginalia. Sharpe surveys them all and extracts enough material to indicate some underlying similarities in the reading practices of early modern Englishmen. They had all sorts of opinions and read all sorts of books. But they read in the same way—segmentally, by concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book, rather than sequentially, as readers did a century later, when the rise of the novel encouraged the habit of perusing books from cover to cover. Segmental reading compelled its practitioners to read actively, to exercise critical judgment, and to impose their own pattern on their reading matter. It was also adapted to “reading for action,” an appropriate mode for men like Drake, Harvey, John Dee, John Rous, Sir Robert Cotton, Edward Hyde, and other contemporaries, who consulted books in order to get their bearings in perilous times, not to pursue knowledge for its own sake or to amuse themselves.

By mastering so much material and synthesizing it so aptly, Sharpe has made an important contribution to the history of reading. But he wants to do more—to demonstrate that the history of reading is the key to history in general, or at least to the seventeenth century. To Drake and his contemporaries, he insists, the mental sorting that went into commonplace books proved to be crucial in finding a way through the cutthroat politics of Renaissance courts. The result was a Machiavellian mentality—not that everyone in the educated elite adopted the same philosophy, but everyone tended to read the world in the same disabused manner.

They also turned their reading into writing, because commonplacing made them into authors. It forced them to write their own books; and by doing so they developed a still sharper sense of themselves as autonomous individuals. The authorial self took shape in the common man’s commonplace book, not merely in the works of great writers. It belonged to the general tendency that Stephen Greenblatt has called “Renaissance self-fashioning.”

Although that idea has nearly been worked to death among Renaissance scholars, Sharpe tries to breathe new life in it by applying it to politics. In setting out “to write himself,” he argues, Drake “also wrote a script for society and state.” Everyone who made marginal notes and compiled references “scripted a new political culture.” At this point in the argument, the metaphors have to bear a good deal of strain. Sharpe claims that Englishmen “were able to…constitute themselves as political agents” by reading, whether or not they read about state affairs; for politics was “a type of consciousness” and the psyche “a text of politics.” “The Civil War itself became a contested text.” So reading was everything: “We are what we read.”

That may be better than the old slogan, proclaimed by the German Greens: “We are what we eat” (“Man ist was man isst“). But, again, is it true? Despite his mountain of notebooks and annotated volumes, Drake does not provide ideal material for a case study. He could not provide a close reading of English politics from 1643 to 1660, because he spent nearly all of that time abroad. Never does he mention the battles of the Civil War, the Putney debates, Pride’s purge of Parliament, the trial and execution of Charles I, Cromwell’s rise to power, the Commonwealth, Protectorate, or anything of importance during those momentous years. Instead of studying for action, he ran away from the action and shut himself up in his study. His notes about ancient Rome and Renaissance Florence may suggest concern about the spectacular events across the Channel, but were they really his? Only fifteen of the thirty-seven commonplace books were written in his hand. He might have dictated the others to a secretary, but the nature of his authorship, if it existed, remains a matter of conjecture. A great deal of guesswork also must go into the interpretation of the entries in his own hand, because none of them are dated. Unlike the notes of Harvey, they consist of endless excerpts, which cannot be connected with anything that was happening in the world of politics.

In attempting to answer that objection, Sharpe musters some evidence of the kind that he had rejected at the outset in his discourse on method. But ultimately he falls back on references to literary theory, as if they can do the job when the paper trail gives out in the archives. Sharpe’s use of theory would carry more conviction if he did not proclaim it like a preacher. He harangues the reader, declaiming Derrida and brandishing Foucault. To those who have been through it all, it will sound suspiciously like Bible-thumping.

If so, more’s the pity, because at the heart of the book Sharpe demonstrates the existence of a Machiavellian style of reading that colored the political culture of early modern England. He does not prove that it was a philosophy, but he shows that it was a way of construing the world. This hard-nosed, street-smart, seat-of-the-pants Machiavellianism, reinforced in places with vulgar, Hobbesian Realpolitik, probably spread from the courts of fifteenth-century Italy to the centralizing monarchies of France and Britain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the time of Drake, Englishmen had learned to work through books in the same way that they negotiated through power systems. Their reading complemented their politics, even if it was not the same thing.

That point warrants pondering, because the history of reading has become one of the most vital fields of research in the humanities; yet it consists for the most part of case studies, which do not fit into a general pattern. Instead of sharing a common view of long-term trends, historians of reading tend to treat their subject as a moving target driven by the interplay of binary opposites: reading by turning the leaves of a codex as opposed to reading by unrolling a volumen, reading printed texts in contrast to reading manuscripts, silent reading as distinct from reading aloud, reading alone rather than reading in groups, reading extensively by racing through different kinds of material vs. reading intensively by perusing a few books many times. Now that the research has shifted to commonplace books, we may add segmental vs. sequential reading to the list.

More important, we may pay closer attention to reading as an element in what used to be called the history of mentalities—that is, world views and ways of thinking. All the keepers of commonplace books, from Drake to Madan, read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns. The underlying affinities that held those patterns together represented an attempt to get a grip on life, to make sense of it, not by elaborating theories but by imposing form on matter. Commonplacing was like quilting: it produced pictures, some more beautiful than others, but each of them interesting in its own way. The assembled texts reveal patterns of culture: the segments that went into it, the stitching that connected them, the tears that pulled them apart, and the common cloth of which they were composed.

  1. 1

    Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book (Princeton University Press, 1989).

  2. 2

    New York University Press.

  3. 3

    Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton, “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” in Past & Present, Vol. 129 (November 1990), pp. 31-78.

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