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Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought.

Ann Moss. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. xiv + 345 pp. [pounds] 80. ISBN: 0-19815908-0.

More than anything else, rhetoric divided the Middle Ages from the Renaissance. Men and women of the two eras expressed themselves differently. And for the Renaissance, the ubiquitous notebook of classical sayings, the Latin commonplace book topically organized, was the indispensable guide to eloquent Latin expression. These printed or handwritten compilations structured the thought and moral universe of Renaissance men and women. Ann Moss provides a learned historical account of the rise and fall of the Renaissance commonplace book.

The author begins with medieval florilegia, the ancestors of the Renaissance commonplace books. She then charts the emergence of the concept of the commonplace book in the works of the fifteenth-century Italian humanists. They developed a new style of rhetoric based on classical sources, especially Cicero, and a fruitful view of imitation. Imitation did not mean exact reproduction; rather, words could be added or substracted, and a passage reworked in order to express the same or a contrary view (52).

Erasmus created the fully organized Renaissance commonplace book with his De copra (1511) and explained its use. The teacher was expected to select classical quotations for his pupils and to organize them topically. Erasmus approached thought and discourse rhetorically, not dialectically. "Ideas are generated by linguistic variation, rather than by logical inference" (105), and "texts illuminate texts in a self-sufficient environment" (106). Neither dialectic nor additional explanation was needed. But Erasmus also insisted on diversity, variety, and eclecticism in the texts to be exploited by teacher and pupil. Thus, the commonplace book came of age and found a commanding place in the Latin schoolroom. Publishers quickly produced numerous printed commonplace books in order to satisfy the demand.

Moss goes on to the other great northern creators of the genre, Juan Luis Vives and Philip Melanchthon. The latter's headings were closely connected to the world of things, i.e. nature. And Melanchthon employed commonplaces in order to train students to make judgments on religious doctrines and to determine the interpretation of passages of scripture, as well as for expression. In subsequent chapters Moss shows how Protestant pedagogues such as Johann Sturm at Strasbourg used commonplace books in the schoolroom. As Moss puts it, the commonplace book was intended to help Lutheran schoolboys become morally responsible and articulate servants of church and state. Jesuit schools also used commonplace books, including Erasmus's De copia, either directly and in a disguised format. One of Moss's interesting observations is that Jesuit schools detached dialectic from grammar and rhetoric, and realigned it with philosophy. Protestant schools, by contrast, wanted rhetorical and dialectical analysis to run in parallel.

After a long and influential career, commonplace books lost their influence in the late seventeenth century. Classical passages were relegated to the antiquarian scholar; they no longer molded discourse and life. Men who sought confirmation in empirical evidence and scientific measurement had little use for commonplace books.

Moss has read and analyzed a very large number of original sources from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century. She charts a course through a large and complex intellectual forest with a sure hand. The chapter on Erasmus, Vives, and Melanchthon is particularly good. Not least, Moss includes the original Latin for all her numerous translations of key passages. Criticisms are few. Sometimes the author conscripts a noun into service as a verb, e.g. "to resource." Then the prose limps. Judicious use of the Monumenta Paedagogica Societatis Iesu (six volumes published to date) might have broadened the discussion of Jesuit education. Overall, this is an excellent book; it will become required reading for anyone interested in rhetoric, Latin education, and the broader intellectual world of northern Europe during the Renaissance.

PAUL F. GRENDLER University of Toronto
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Author:Grendler, Paul F.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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