Active reading in the 16th century: Commonplace books and sammelbands

Sammelband of four Lutheran doctrinal publications, 1578. Folger Shakespeare Library. 218- 705q

Collecting extracts of text in commonplace books and binding multiple books together to create a sammelband were two notable practices of readers in the 16th and 17th centuries, as Jason Scott-Warren (University of Cambridge) explains in the below excerpt from a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode about books and reading in Shakespeare’s England.

Scott-Warren is the author of Shakespeare’s First Reader (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), which dissects the library of Richard Stonley, an Elizabethan bureaucrat who was the first person we know of to buy a printed book written by Shakespeare—a copy of the Venus and Adonis that Stonley picked up on June 12, 1593. He was also the one to identify John Milton as the annotator of a copy of the Shakespeare First Folio in the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2019; you can listen to that story on another episode of Shakespeare Unlimited.

In the excerpt below, Scott-Warren is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Excerpt from “Books and Reading in Shakespeare’s England”

SCOTT-WARREN: Commonplacing is a very long-established practice of reading where you’re essentially breaking the text down into constituent parts. So, ideally, you’re reading everything that’s ever been written. You’re flitting through the whole garden of literature.

You are on the lookout for little extracts, which you can then take away to your commonplace book, which is a book, a paper book, where you have written headings: death, love, God, angels, whatever it may be. And when you find a quotation which is pertinent to one of those headings, you copy it down under that heading in your commonplace book.

As you’re reading, you’re always thinking, “What is there that I can take away?” And it’s often a physical book, but it’s also a mental box. So, you’re compiling this book, but you’re doing so because you’re trying to stock your mind.

BOGAEV: So, it’s like highlighting?

SCOTT-WARREN: It’s like highlighting, but it’s also kind of reorganizing, or it’s a process of reorganization. And it’s a process of re-forming as well, because in the process of taking this away and storing it in your mind, what you’re doing is you’re filling yourself up with resources for your own speech or for your own composition, for your own writing. So, as you’re reading, you’re on the lookout for passages which have a kind of general applicability, which can go under a particular heading. And then, when you yourself have to speak on that subject or when you have to think about that subject, you will then be able to use these commonplaces.

If you’re aware of that reading practice and how widespread it was, and then you go away to the writers of the 16th and 17th centuries and you think about the ways in which they write, you can very often see that they’re appealing to that mode of reading. You can see that they’re actually playing to the reader’s desire for commonplaces. I mean, it’s a process of textual recycling.

BOGAEV: Books were so fluid. And as you’re saying, you’re buying just leaves of paper often, nothing bound. This other common practice at the time—What is sammelbanding?

SCOTT-WARREN: So the sammelband, the kind of the gathering of books bound together. Essentially, if you’re buying books unbound, you often have a choice about how you’re going to put them together with other books. And if you’ve got a flimsy book like a play, you’re very often going to need various other books to thicken it out. So, you find people putting books together in this period. Sometimes, thematic compilations. So, one book we have in the Cambridge University library is a collection of three music books. A book on dancing, books on composition, musical composition, which was owned by an Elizabethan court musician. He’s kind of bound them together in a very fancy binding with his name on the front.

BOGAEV: So, you’re making your own personal anthology?

SCOTT-WARREN: Yeah, absolutely. And kind of asserting that certain books belong together, sometimes. Yeah, so, just exploiting the possibilities of creativity that the book market is offering you.

BOGAEV: So, when we think about the quarto, the quartos, we know that people bought these quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays. Are these examples of sammelbanding?

SCOTT-WARREN: So, we know that people do create compilations of plays in this period, and this is quite… It’s an important issue because it bears on the question, what is the status of a play? It is popular entertainment, and I guess the snootier members of society, you know, might well have read plays but then disposed of them.

But then it matters that some people do actually start binding plays together. They start collecting bundles of plays. They start putting them together in compilations, which suggest that they have this appreciation for a drama as a kind of literary medium. That they’re starting to see that although this is racy and popular, it also has a claim to a certain kind of status. That perhaps literature and English could be the equal of literature in Latin or Greek. And it could be worthy of preservation.