Teaching English composition with early modern-style “commonplace books”

This fall, I have been trying out a number of strategies to integrate writing exercises, literary readings, and Special Collections visits in my undergraduate pedagogy. These experiments – that’s the word I prefer to use – allow the classroom to become a kind of laboratory for humanistic inquiry and expression. In the course I’m currently teaching, an English composition seminar entitled “Forms of Belonging,” I use a variety of writing technologies and pedagogical media to help my students think carefully about the texts they read and the ideas they communicate verbally and in written forms. One assignment I’ve been using for this course is a seventeenth century-style “commonplace book.” Here, I’m adopting a pedagogical technique used already by many of my colleagues in early modern studies, including Colleen Kennedy, Adam G. Hooks, and many others; this account simply represents what has worked for me.

In this course, the commonplace book has encouraged my students to write regularly in an informal and process-oriented (rather than product-oriented) way. On the first day of class, I introduced my students to the idea of a commonplace book, spending about 5 to 10 minutes talking about what they were, who used them, and why. As a specialist in early modern literature, this was an opportunity to bring some field-specific knowledge into the composition classroom, but I kept it very light and brief so as to foreground the actual purpose of the exercise: regular writing practice. For commonplacers, I said, originality wasn’t a requirement – in fact, “gathering and framing” textual material from various sources (advertisements, texts we read in class we read, texts we don’t read in class, songs overheard on the radio, etc.) would be an ideal way to fulfill the assignment.

commonplace-book-1An affordable, spiral-bound “commonplace book” for my Eng 105 course  (with iPhone for size comparison).

I then passed out cheap, plastic-covered, pocket-size notebooks I bought at a local drugstore earlier that week, urging students to write their names in them and to personalize them textually as the term proceeded. I’ve collected these books every two weeks, not to scrutinize their contents but to survey my students’ writerly practice in an impressionistic way. If the three essay assignments in this course offer chances for me to evaluate my students’ work formally, the commonplace book (which stands as a portion of the participation grade) provides a more experimental platform to try out writing and to do it regularly. In my students’ books, I’ve found poetry, journal entries, notes on literature and class discussion, math problems, diagrams, and a variety of other kinds of scribbles and doodles. (For the sake of my students’ privacy, I will not show any examples, but leave you to imagine the range of creative and critical expression here.)

If this pedagogical strategy integrates the regular and experimental physical activity of writing with the readings in the course (and beyond), it also connects with the Special Collections units I’ve organized. For the first of these, which provided a material-textual dimension to our class discussions of Isabella Whitney’s “The Manner of Her Will” and Michel de Montaigne’s “On the Cannibals,” my students got a chance to see a real early modern commonplace book up close. On the first inscribed page, they observed how this book’s compiler was doing something similar to what they were in their blank books:

NU-MS-67-1Northwestern MS 67, fol. 2r. Kind courtesy of the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections.

This book, Northwestern MS 67, has handwriting in both italic and secretary scripts; arranged alphabetically, it includes passages from authors including Lucretius, Shakespeare, and Sidney. My students were particularly struck by the unfinished quality of this vellum-bound volume — over half its leaves are completely blank, really exposing this kind of text as a work-in-progress. Altogether, looking at this book enabled my students to think across time and across textual media, linking their own commonplacing experiments and composition exercises to the material text in front of them. It made for one of the best class meetings we had. Not all colleges or universities have commonplace books like MS 67, but digital resources can acquaint students with English miscellanies such as Folger E.a.1. This is certainly an exercise I’ll want to continue for a variety of courses, and I’ll be eager to learn new ideas about recruiting the commonplace book for teaching purposes (including from you, dear reader).

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A 1549 Giolito Anthology at Northwestern

The Giolito anthologies are a series of volumes of collected lyric poetry published in Italy during the mid-16th century. The poems in these books are deeply indebted to Petrarch, and one can find in them conventional images and language that were becoming increasingly common in Renaissance lyric. Scholars have given the volumes their name on account of their publisher, Gabriel Giolito, who ran an enormously successful and wide-reaching publishing institution in Renaissance Italy. The presses operated mainly out of Venice, but the trade reached well into France.

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Title page of Rime diverse di molti eccellentiss. auttori nuovamente raccolte. (Venice, 1549). McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, 851.08 D668r v.1

The poems contained in these volumes have been known widely among critics as being, well, pretty bad – they are commonly referred to as the work of “minor poets.” Recently, however, JoAnn Della Neva has argued that these Giolito anthologies exerted a profound, if underacknowledged, influence upon the literary efforts of 16th century France. (Joachim Du Bellay’s sonnet collection Olive is a particularly useful example of this.) By extension, these volumes can be seen to have had an effect on emerging poetic traditions in England, which one can begin to find in numerous English poetic anthologies (Tottel’s Miscellany of 1557 being only one of many published in London before 1600).

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Verses by Laura Terracina to the volume’s editor, Lodovico Domenichi. In Rime diverse di molti eccellentiss. auttori nuovamente raccolte. (Venice, 1549), R4r. McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, 851.08 D668r v.1

Part of the interest in the Giolito anthologies comes from their compilatory nature and rather unusual printing history. Following Salvatore Bongi’s Annali di Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari, Diana Robin has laid out a useful set of appendices that organizes the anthologies’ bibliographical data by publication date or people’s names, along with descriptions of the 15 volumes in the Newberry Library. (Her book is entitled Publishing Women and has a special eye to the women contributors in the volumes; it was released in 2007).

I’ve looked at a few of the Newberry volumes researched by Robin, but I also found a surviving Giolito anthology in the McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern. There is only one up here, published in 1549 (and, in Robin’s appendix, the 3rd edition of volume 1, or 1c), but it features some interesting elements and annotations that tell us something about how the Giolito volumes could be used. Already, one can find a printed index to the poets in the volume, which is especially helpful because the poems are not grouped sequentially by individual author. Note the initial woodblock representing Actaeon pursued by his dogs after seeing the naked Diana, a figure invoked repeatedly by Renaissance sonneteers:

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Index of poets included in the volume. In Rime diverse di molti eccellentiss. auttori nuovamente raccolte. (Venice, 1549), 2A4r. McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, 851.08 D668r v.1

The Northwestern volume has interesting features beyond the index, though. An early owner inscribed the volume’s tailside foredge with “Rime Diuerse.” While we can’t derive a whole lot of information from this, it may be suggestive of the way the book was stored on a shelf (likely, before it received its marbled binding). Because no number follows “Rime Diuerse,” perhaps this particular owner possessed this volume and none of the other Giolito anthologies (two other first editions and two second editions were available in 1549, when this book saw print).

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Exterior binding and foredge, Rime diverse di molti eccellentiss. auttori nuovamente raccolte. (Venice, 1549). McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, 851.08 D668r v.1

If we open up the book, there are further traces of use in a number of early reader’s annotations. (You can already begin to see this on the title page, pictured above (one can easily make out “Raymondi” to the right of the ornament.) Here, a reader disagreed with the editor Domenichi’s attribution of a sonnet to Pietro Bembo. “questo sonetto / non è del / Bembo” [This sonnet isn’t by Bembo.]

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Rime diverse di molti eccellentiss. auttori nuovamente raccolte. (Venice, 1549). McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, 851.08 D668r v.1

Bembo is featured very prominently in the volume; in fact, his name in the index stands out in a much larger type than those used for the “lesser” poets. But this reader’s marginal comment is interesting in that it expresses concern about correct authorial attribution in a literary genre (that is, the c16 lyric anthology) that generally seems to strain against it. (This point I gather from Wendy Wall’s great book The Imprint of Gender.) At least, later in England, poetic anthologies were characterized by unrepresentative titles and authorial attributions, interventions by editors and printers, and the inclusion of “uncertain authors.” From here, one might investigate if this reader is actually onto something, or if the attribution is sustained or corrected in later or other editions. But that’s beyond the scope of this post, which is simply to point out an interesting item at Northwestern’s Special Collections Library.