Commonplace Books and Uncommon Readers

From the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, educated people often used what we call “commonplace books” to store and retrieve bits of text and other information, chiefly gleaned from printed books. European readers filled blank paper notebooks with information organized under specific headings to facilitate later retrieval and use. While the word commonplace (from the Latin term locus communis) suggests learned themes or arguments, these notebooks could be used for information of any sort, from theology and natural philosophy, to popular songs and recipes, brief quotations and extracts, and practical information for working professional physicians and lawyers. Over the centuries, commonplace books became so ubiquitous in the western world that more than two hundred such volumes survive just in the Princeton University Library’s Manuscripts Division. They are of research interest not only for the information they contain, but also because of how that information was gathered, the variety of sources, and what the contents may tell us about the life and reception of particular authors, books, and ideas. Commonplace books are perhaps most fascinating and revealing when they act as a window into the minds, social milieu, and intellectual circles of people, whether famous or obscure, who kept and used them so long ago. We can see this vividly with the Manuscript Division’s most most recent acquisition, a commonplace book of medicine and secrets.

Bernardino Ciarpaglini (b. 1655), an Italian physician and experimental anatomist, kept this volume in Tuscany from around 1680 to 1730. His ownership is attested by an inscription written on the turn-in of the upper cover, which records his birth date and hour, as well as that of his brother Belisario. Ciarpaglini copied most of the entries in 23 alphabetical sections, within a blank stationer’s volume, using heavy laid paper with a tre lune watermark, especially popular with Venetian papermakers at the time. The text block was modified with a thumb index cut along the fore edge (see illustration below). Ciarpaglini was born in Pratovecchio and practiced medicine there until he relocated to Cortona, some 75 kilometers to the southeast. There he spent the rest of his professional life and even served for a while as one of the priori of the Communal Council of Cortona, 1716–22. To judge from the contents of the commonplace book, Ciarpaglini was something of a general practitioner, interested in everything from gout to plague. Ailments of women and children were part of his practice. At the same time, he developed a strong professional reputation, which was no small achievement at a time when physicians had to compete with charlatans and healers.

Ciarpaglini is mentioned positively in contemporary medical and scientific literature for his expertise on epilepsy, concerning which there is extended discussion in the commonplace book; fistulas of the tear ducts; and other disorders. While still living in Pratovecchio around 1679, Ciarpaglini conducted anatomical experiments, unfortunately on live dogs, to remove an entire spleen and a portion of the liver. In 1680, he was among the distinguished physicians who observed the Italian anatomist Giuseppe Zambeccari (1655–1728) performing an excision of a dog’s spleen. In 1723, he provided autobiographical information before giving expert testimony to the Sagra Congregatione de’ Riti about the state of the sacred body of St. Margaret of Cortona (canonized in 1728), including the condition of her head, face, eyes, mouth, arms, hands, and feet. His appearance as an expert witness was ancillary to the Church practice since the second half of the thirteenth century to call on respected physicians to testify in canonization processes in order to establish that miraculous cures had no natural explanation. Concerning such cases, see Joseph Ziegler, “Practitioners and Saints: Medical Men in Canonization Processes in the Thirteenth to Fifteenth Centuries,” Social History of Medicine, vol. 12, no. 2 (1999), pp. 191-225.

Our physician wrote his entries in Italian, always in a rapid but clear cursive hand. Some of the content was copied from published books, such as the reference on the turn-in of the back cover, mentioning Albertus Magnus (d. 1280), Liber mineralium (“Libro de minerali”). Many entries are credited to particular physicians and clerics in Tuscany, probably by oral transmission. There are recipes of every type, many of which are preceded by the Latin abbreviation Rx, indicating a medical prescription. There are preparations for a wide array of conditions and circumstances, such as to induce vomiting, help one fall asleep, clean teeth, facilitate childbirth, and suppress lactation. Particular remedies include a Chinese elixir said to have been used by King Louis XIV; an aphrodisiac ointment made from crushed ants; and a cure for sexual dysfunction, prepared from chocolate, orchids, champagne, and other ingredients. A few recipes were crossed out with critical notes saying that they were ineffective. Some recipes identify their source and note where and when they were transcribed. Secrets include alchemical transmutation of lead into silver, production of a liquid that would turn a person’s face black, removing stains, cleaning gold objects, fishing effortlessly, preparing tobacco, preserving wine, and making a woman tell the truth in her sleep. There is a five-page section on cryptology, accompanied by an separate cipher table and key written on a small piece of parchment, probably for use while traveling. Ciarpaglini notes that he had learned the cipher from Giuseppe da Contignano, a local Capuchin friar. There is also a loose paper copy of a 1599 recipe for wine vinegar, attributed to a certain Giacomo Buonaparte.

To identify relevant holdings in the Manuscripts Division, one should search for “Commonplace Books” (as a subject heading) in the online catalog, where bibliographic records are found by country and century; and in the finding aids site. One can also do a Subject Browse search in Blacklight. Please contact Public Services for other information, at

Commonplace book tabs
Tabs in Ciarpaglini’s Commonplace Book

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