The Reading of Books and the Reading of Literature

The Art of Compiling > Fifteenth-Century Commonplace Book

The compiler of this commonplace book included a section on the sayings of the philosophers. These witty sayings, which touch on a variety of topics, are a repository of ancient wisdom. They are a brief reference guide in this context, but they are also ready for redeployment in a new composition.

Philosophical sentences are not the only kernels of wisdom in this commonplace book: the book's compiler also included a list of proverbs. What is especially interesting about this particular list is the fact that English translations are sometimes provided for the Latin originals. “It is seldom fals that everi man sayth is true” thus renders the Latin “raro falsatur quod quisquis testificatur.”

Compilations of ancient or commonplace wisdom occasionally hide unique poetical experiments. It seems that this funny poem addressed by “a good horse to his mayster in illis diebus when horse coulde speake” survives only in this Columbia manuscript.

This was found in an olde written booke”: the Latin verses by Regiomontanus that follow describe the ancient prophecy that the world will end in 1588. How close 1588 was when one of the owners of this manuscript wrote the prophecy down in his book is hard to say, but Regiomontanus composed the verses in mid-fifteenth century and the second half of the sixteenth-century seems therefore a plausible date for this addition to the manuscript.


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