Further proof that old books are probably haunted, or, the Newberry Book Fair Part II

Once again, I went to the Newberry Library’s annual book fair and couldn’t control myself.



Actually, that’s not entirely true. You should see how many I put back! I had nine volumes of a ten volume 1908 Edgar Allen Poe set that I decided–VERY PAINFULLY AND WITH GREAT WILLPOWER–to leave behind because one was missing. I know I will live to regret that one. Still, there’s a lot of great stuff here. One in particular had some surprises inside.


Dark green with gilt, but hard to tell because my lighting is awful

Dark green with gilt. My lighting is awful.

Continue reading

Seeing All of Us: Diversity in European History

Portrait of a wealthy African man ca.1540s

Portrait of a wealthy African man ca.1540s

In 2012, while researching a historical novel, I came across Imtiaz Habib’s book, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677. I’ve wanted to blog about it for awhile, then yesterday I saw this article: “The Missing Tudors: black people in 16th century England” posted at BBC History Magazine’s website, historyextra.com.

There have been discussions and blogs about this popping up everywhere. It seems that medieval multiculturalism is having its own Renaissance. And it’s long overdue.

Continue reading

The Winchester Austen


I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest Jane Austen fan in the world (shocking to say these days, I know) but my love of literature, history, feminist icons, and books in general means I have an interest in and deep respect for her work. I read Pride and Prejudice during my classics phase as a teenager (around the time I decided I also had to read lots of Twain, Dickens, Poe, Rossetti, and make a decent attempt at Les Mis–though I never got around to that last one). I’ve seen the Jane Austen movies and the BBC productions; I donated to the RPG and I even own the scarf.

Maybe I am a bigger fan than I admit? Except I haven’t read her other books. Yikes! In my defense, my interests tend to fall either earlier or later than the Regency period, so these haven’t been top priority. I do own a few paperback editions, but like many of the other books I collect, they’re pushed ever further down the to-read list by other that demand my attention. That might change now, though, since I found these fabulous editions, which are known as the Winchester Austen, in honor of her home and final resting place in Winchester.

If you’re a Jane Austen geek, you have to have these.

Continue reading

Commonplace Books, Then and Now

When paper became more accessible in the 15th and 16th centuries, people began keeping little books full of recipes, psalms, quotes, and prose called commonplace books, in an attempt to organize and filter what they felt was a barrage of information raining down upon them after the introduction of the printing press. (Imagine what they’d think of the internet?) They became, like their name, quite common, and the method–commonplacing– was even taught in universities. What probably began as a private practice grew into a hobby intended to be shared with any willing reader, to help them navigate a large amount of text– like a cross between CliffsNotes, Reader’s Digest, and Tumblr.

commonplace book beinecke

Commonplace Book ca. early 17th century at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Of course, like most other things, the practice was still limited to those who could afford blank books or paper (which were still quite pricey for the average person) and who had the time and education to dedicate to it. Women, therefore, were largely excluded–most early commonplace books, especially those still extant, were made by men, scholars mostly, though merchants and artisans kept them as well. There are more recent exceptions to this–for example, Kate Chopin’s 19thc commonplace book survives as published in Kate Chopin’s Private Papers  and Milcah Martha Moore’s Revolutionary War era commonplace book is also in print. But the farther back in history you go, the rarer women’s commonplace books become.

elizabeth lyttleton commonplace book

A page from Elizabeth Lyttleton’s commonplace book, ca. late 17th/early18th century

Women were more likely to have books of household recipes and maybe herbal cures for common illnesses, like Jane Baber’s 17th century book of recipes below:

jane baber recipe book jane baber recipe book2


Another example of a woman’s recipe (called “receipt” back then) book from the 1600s:

Copyright Lydiard House / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Lady Johanna St. John (1631-1705)

johanna st john recipe book 1600s

Johanna St. Johns’ recipe book


A stickler would say that housewives’ collections of recipes, cures, and the occasional prayer or personal musing aren’t commonplace books, but they serve the same purpose for the early modern woman as a philosopher’s notes on Biblical passages or the budding poet’s collection of bits of prose and quotes. (These books were also called miscellanies.)

Over time, commonplacing became something of an art, with great care spent in choosing passages and organizing them for an audience. They were often given as gifts and some were published and studied, like John Locke’s A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books (1706) and Commonplace Book to the Holy Bible (1725).

If you’d like to see one in person, plenty of old commonplace books can be found in research libraries and universities, as long as you qualify for a reader’s card. For instance, the Newberry Library in Chicago requires a valid photo I.D. (age 16+) and a relevant research interest to access their collection and some universities may allow non-students to use theirs.

john hancock commonplace booke 1687

John Hancock’s commonplace book, ca.1687, housed at Harvard (not the John Hancock)

Commonplace books are often referred to as antique blogs (and what are blogs, but an attempt to organize a barrage of text and information?), though technically blogs are often are more like diaries or newspapers. Tumblr and Pinterest are probably the closest thing in the blogosphere to commonplace books.

But even before the internet was widely available, I had my own scrapbooks, and I know a lot of people did the same. I realized recently that they were pretty much commonplace books, in that I collected various poems, quotes, and images that appealed to me, and that I wanted to remember. Unlike my diary, there were no personal passages, just clips from articles, pictures from magazines, and a lot of poetry cut from Sassy magazine. But there was no rhyme or reason to the order, and it wasn’t intended to be particularly pretty. Nor was it organized with any theme in mind other than “things that caught the eye of a 1990s teenage girl”:


pages from my scrapbook, ca. mid-90s


My grandmother handmade these blank scrapbooks using a technique she learned at Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts


annabel lee

Copied Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee” ca.1994

This fabulous modern commonplace book was created by DeviantArt user Madelei in honor of the movie 9:


Commonplace Book by Madelei at DeviantArt, ca. 2012

Do a quick search and you’ll find that commonplacing is having a bit of a comeback. If you would like to start your own commonplace book, website Self-Made Scholar has an introduction and tutorial here. Or you could go the digital route and start a Tumblr account, if you haven’t already.

Leave your mark for future historians studying everyday life in the 21st century. Who knows? Your work could be immortalized in Harvard’s special collections.

Meta Reading

As soon as I stumbled upon a picture of Anne of Green Gables reading Anne of Green Gables, I knew I had to find more pictures of actors as fictional characters reading the book that inspired the film they were starring in. (That was a mouthful!) Here’s what I came up with so far:

It turns out that it’s much easier to find pictures of famous people reading than it is to find them in character reading their own character’s story. Hollywood: from now on, if you’re doing a movie based on a  book, be sure to get some photos of your stars doing this.

The Bard’s World Tour

shakespeare open folio

The first copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio came off the press in early November of 1623. To honor the 390th birthday of one of the most coveted books of all time, here is a fictionalized (but true!) account of the journey two of them took, from the printer’s shop to contemporary guarded display.

Continue reading

The Amazing Life of Marie-Anne Lenormand, Cartomancienne Extraordinaire

“She remembers,” writes one who was much in communication with her between the years 1811 and 1813, “having a singular power of observation and imagination since she was seven years old, and an expression she often uses, in reference to that period of her life, is – I was a waking somnambulist.”

Marie-Anne Lenormand from "The Court of Napoleon" by Frank Boott Goodrich.

Marie-Anne Lenormand (1768 or 1772-1843) from “The Court of Napoleon” by Frank Boott Goodrich.

If you have ever had your fortune read with tarot, you may owe the experience to Marie-Anne Lenormand, an 18th and 19th century French cartomancer who popularized the art of card divination.

Legend has it Mlle Lenormand, orphaned in childhood, received her first deck from a Romani fortune teller as a young teenager; whether that is true or not is anybody’s guess. (My guess–probably not.) This would not have been her first foray into fortune telling though. It is said that Mlle Lenormand told the superior at her Benedictine school that she would soon lose her position and even identified her replacement. Lenormand was punished, but supposedly the prediction came to pass.

We do know that early on in her career she used astrology and palmistry as well as a deck designed by occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738 – 1791). The Etteilla deck was the first set of cards created specifically for divination. (It is hotly debated whether other decks were previously used for this purpose by Europeans or not.) However, the practice of cartomancy was apparently not fashionable until Lenormand began giving eerily prescient advice to France’s rich and famous–including Empress Josephine.

At an early age, Paris became her abode, and here we find her, in her seventeenth year, already embarked in the profession of a fortune-teller, and applying herself with ardour to the study of astronomy and algebra, the knowledge of which she believed indispensable to the perfection she aimed at in the divinatory art.

She rose rapdily into note. The persons who came, led perhaps more by curiosity than by credulity, to test her prophetic powers, were confounded by the acquaintance she displayed with the most secret details of their past history, and learned to place a reluctant confidence, at variance with all their habits of thought, in her predictions of the future.

lenormand reading

Continue reading