Renaissance learning, as is now generally recognized, was organized around “commonplacing”, the extraction of useful sentences on important subjects from significant works of literature. As the practice became more widespread and the culture of print developed, books of commonplaces appeared to go alongside manuscript commonplace books in which individuals recorded their own favourite maxims, proverbs and notable insights, ready to recycle them as guides for life or more writing.
Undoubtedly the most important figure in the production of printed English commonplace books was John Bodenham (c.1559–1610), a product of the Merchant Taylor’s School in London, where the innovative educational ideas of the headmaster, Richard Mulcaster (1531–1611), helped shape the careers of Lancelot Andrewes, Thomas Kyd and Edmund Spenser. Bodenham both extracted commonplaces himself and inspired and supported others to do so, producing a series of volumes in the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign. Politeuphuia: Wit’s commonwealth (1597), Palladis Tamia: Wit’s treasury (1598), which contained numerous Shakespeare allusions, and Wit’s Theatre of the Little World (1599), demonstrated that English literary works, including drama, could be used as a repository for memorable phrases that could be read alongside Latin and Greek examples. As the modern editors of Bel Verdere (1600) point out, the prose extracts in these works served as “a rhetorical toolbox for the upwardly mobile middle classes” who were eager to improve their speech and writing.
Bel Vedere, a collection of almost 4,500 quotations, was probably overseen rather than personally compiled by Bodenham, and it provides a guide to commonplaces in English poetry. Its compilers recycle a lot of material from the earlier volumes as well as setting themselves the daunting task of producing everything in verse, which probably explains why their dutiful modern editors cannot locate the origin of every commonplace: many must surely have been invented to fit the rigid demands of the form. The task is made harder because, unlike in other commonplace collections, the quotations are anonymized.