The Reading of Books and the Reading of Literature

The Art of Compiling > Early Modern Compiling

Compilatio was a dominant form of literary and non-literary writing in the medieval period, beginning in the thirteenth century. Medieval compilations were sophisticated forms of literary, religious, and philosophical writing. Compilations are derivative in a positive sense: texts designated as such are made up of other texts; compilers artfully rearrange preexisting materials to form new works.


Before writers could compile a text, they would need a storehouse of stories, quotations, or biblical passages to include in their compositions. Early modern miscellanies and commonplace books are a treasure trove of extracted material to be used in future compositions. Moreover, these books are compilations themselves, as they gather together a variety of texts and literary forms in a sometimes more, sometimes less, organized fashion.


Columbia University holds three fine fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscript miscellanies, which can be read in terms of compilation. One is Arthur Golding's A Morall Fabletalke, an anthology of beast fables, which was augmented by later readers, and a fifteenth-century commonplace book that contains sayings of the philosophers and the words of a good horse. The RBML also holds a less organized sixteenth-century specimen, which contains household accounts, copies of letters, the most notable of which is from one William Somers. (The letter is pictured here.) Somers may or may not be the famously possessed Nottingham man who was the subject of a series of pamphlets.

Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 /