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Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print
Manuals for Memory

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Manuals for Memory

Renaissance readers were constantly encouraged to take notes.  Comenius claims that the good student "while he readeth Books," "picketh all the best things out of them into his own Manual." But taking notes while reading (whether in the margins of the book, in a blank notebook, or on erasable writing tables) was only the first step in an organized system that would enable the reader both to remember selected passages and to retrieve them, often through a commonplace book organized under alphabetical headings.

Comenius. Orbis sensualium pictus. English and Latin. London, 1700

Cicero. De oratore. Venice, 1569

John Evans. Hesperides or the Muses Garden. Manuscript, ca. 1655-1569

Baildon. Flowers divine and human. Manuscript, ca. 1625.

(left) In his best-selling textbook, Comenius took it for granted that one should write as one reads. The student, surrounded by the necessary writing equipment, either marks selected passages “with a dash, or a little star, in the Margent” or transfers them “into his own Manual.” Although readers often did both, marking up passages before transferring them to their notebooks, Comenius points to the increasing importance and availability of “manuals” in the form of blank notebooks and writing tables.


(middle, left) Readers frequently collected "nectar" from their reading by marking selected passages in their books with stylized flowers. On the last page of this copy of Cicero, a reader has jotted down an elaborate key to marginal symbols for marking the rhetorical tropes in the text. Several of these symbols (including symbols for amplification, metaphor, and simile) are shaped like flowers.


(middle, right) Evans’s alphabetically-organized commonplace book is unusual only because he selected most of his "flowers" from printed English plays. Under "Remember" one finds Hamlet’s comparison of the mind to an erasable tablet: "from ye table of my memory Ile wipe away all triviall fond records." Having erased those records, Hamlet then writes his father’s words in the permanent “booke and volume” of his brain.


(right) Collections of "flowers" were commonly organized alphabetically. But they could also be organized hierarchically or by related topics. Baildon combines these latter methods in Flowers Divine and Human . These "flowers" could then “be cited to various and divers purposes." A complete index at the end of the notebook makes it easy to find the topical headings.


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