Angus Vine

Paper-books and the Reform of Learning

Angus Vine, University of Stirling

Discussant: Peter Jones, University of Cambridge

The importance of notebooks and commonplace books to Sir Francis Bacon’s writing and thought has long been recognised. So, too, have Bacon’s arguments for a new kind of commonplace book – one that, as he puts it in The Advancement of Learning (1605), carries not ‘the face of a Schoole’, but of ‘a World’. What are less familiar are the paper-books themselves that he actually compiled and kept. And yet the Baconian archive turns out to contain a number of examples. This paper therefore attempts to fill at least part of this gap by examining one of these: the oft-cited, but little read, Comentarius solutus (British Library, Additional MS 27278), which Bacon compiled in the summer of 1608. The paper will show how the compilation of this manuscript, but also Bacon’s classification of it – he describes it variously as ‘Comentarius solutus’, ‘pandecta’, and ‘ancilla memoriæ’ – exemplify his different arguments about how notebooks should be used. It will also show how the contents of the book, which include memoranda, medical notes, bills and accounts, outlines of philosophical and scientific projects, and legal and political plans, mostly for the advancement of his own career, work in a similar way. The paper will suggest that the Comentarius solutus therefore operates as a kind of pilot project for the reforms that Bacon proposes in his philosophical works. Building on my previous work on Bacon’s notebooks, and also suggestions made by some of the other participants in this workshop, the paper will trace the origins of this pilot project to a set of annotative practices previously found in the counting house and most often associated with early modern merchants. It will show that both the manner in which Bacon compiled his notes and the way in which he later used them follow this mercantile model. While the paper focuses on the Comentarius solutus, its aim is not only to shed light on Bacon and Baconian epistemology, but also to suggest a model by which we might understand the compilation and organization of early modern notebooks more generally.

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