John Milton's commonplace book

Description

This is John Milton’s commonplace book ‒ a handwritten compilation of quotes and notes from the books that he was reading between the 1630s and 1660s. It gives us a glimpse of the author as an avid reader with fierce political interests and multilingual skills. In his notes on kingship and tyranny, marriage and divorce, we see Milton using his reading to shape his own reactions to public and personal crises – especially his fraught marriage to Mary Powell in 1642, and the execution of Charles I in 1649.

What is a commonplace book?

Personal anthologies like this were popular in 17th-century Britain. Their owners used the books to collect inspiring quotes, which they copied from sources ranging from poems and prayers to recipes and music. Sometimes the books were organised into thematic sections, enabling the user to connect and memorise ideas.

Milton’s notebook has quotations from over 90 authors, including Chaucer and Dante, Holinshed and Machiavelli. It is divided into three sections on ethics, economics and politics, with an index to these different parts at the end.

Divorce, kingship and free speech

Milton pulls together ideas that would become central to his poems and polemical pamphlets. The notes on ‘Divortio’ pave the way for his pro-divorce tracts (1643‒45), while those questioning ‘the prohibition of books’ are echoed in Areopagitica (1644).

In sections headed ‘Republica’ (republic), ‘Leges’ (laws) and ‘Rex’ (the king), Milton weighs up different concepts of monarchy and commonwealth, and considers whether the king should be bound by the law. These ideas emerge in his pamphlets defending the regicide (1649). They also resurface in Paradise Lost (1667), with its complex power struggles between God and Satan.

Who wrote in Milton’s commonplace book?

Many sections are written by Milton, with his typical lack of concern for capital letters at the start of sentences. Elsewhere, others have acted as scribes, because Milton lost his sight around 1652. The notes range across five different languages: Latin, Greek, English, French and Italian.

After Milton’s death, another man took over the notebook; Richard Graham, 1st Viscount of Preston (1648‒1695), added his own notes at the end. Originally there were 126 leaves, though some have been cut out and about two-thirds of the pages are left blank.

Full title:
COMMONPLACE-BOOK OF JOHN MILTON, chiefly autograph. The contents are extracts from books under headings classified as Index Ethicus, Index Oeconomicus or Index Politicus.
Published:
London
Created:
c. 1630–1650
Format:
Manuscript
Creator:
John Milton
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
Add MS 36354

Full catalogue details

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