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Angus Vine, Miscellaneous Order: Manuscript Culture and the Early Modern Organization of Knowledge
by Jonathan Gibson

Angus Vine, Miscellaneous Order: Manuscript Culture and the Early Modern Organization of Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xvi + 285 pp. ISBN: 9780198809708. £63 cloth.


This is a richly researched, elegantly written and important book that everyone interested in early modern manuscript construction, textual composition, information management and knowledge discovery will want to read. Its most obvious contribution is its undermining of a popular scholarly trope deployed pretty much universally in present-day work on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuscript miscellanies: the amused listing of a miscellany’s varied contents (poetry, accounts, recipes for ink, epigrams, shopping lists, extracts from books of history, transcripts of deeds and so on) as if the whole thing is simply a charmingly eccentric jumble. In each chapter, Vine picks away at such rhetoric by convincingly laying out the logical structure of manuscripts that look at first sight random and chaotic. This is no mean feat: to sort through these materials with Vine’s level of precision and puzzle out the compositional process underlying each often highly rebarbative artefact requires considerable biographical, codicological and palaeographical research, as well as detailed study of the texts themselves and of their intellectual affiliations and sources. Vine has provided all this for a large number of manuscripts, and worked with inspiring diligence. In contrast to most writers on early modern miscellanies, his focus is on prose rather than poetry. He has had to master the contexts behind compilers interested in a rich variety of fields including antiquarian topography or ‘chorography’, scientific experiment and the ‘book of secrets’ tradition, mercantile practice and political administration.  Moving with enviable deftness, salting away many important details in his footnotes, he maintains a light and witty tone. Entertaining little vignettes (including Sir Hugh Plat’s scheme for cross-referencing his plant pots with his notebooks (158), and Sir Thomas Roe’s inability to classify the penguin (19-20)) stud the argument.

The framework within which Vine is working is the thesis set out by Richard Yeo that the later seventeenth century saw a shift away from the ‘humanist’ use of notebooks as memory aids—compilations designed to help their creators become more effective rhetorical performers—towards a different agenda: namely, their deployment as storehouses of words, ideas and things—forms  of ‘alternative external memory’ in their own right (11)—and seedbeds, the argument goes, for the scientific revolution.[1] Through his close attention to the manuscript miscellanies of a variety of early modern compilers—a wider range than those studied by Yeo (albeit, rather dismayingly, practically all male)—Vine is able to push back this development into the earlier part of the century. The first chapter locates the process in ‘Commonplace Failure’. Many early modern men, trained up (unlike their female contemporaries) in the Erasmian tradition of text production, made themselves commonplace books in which to copy the highlights of their reading. These were paper books structured using set headings—a Procrustean frame derived from pre-existent classification systems of one sort or another. The evidence from the archive is that, all too often, good humanist intentions went awry: as Vine says, ‘compilers increasingly struggled with their restrictiveness and turned to alternative, often more flexible, organizational structures’ (48). Here, it seems—in embarrassment and failure (and presumably also laziness)—are the epistemologically valuable origins of the early modern miscellany: not so much the chaotic jumble of legend as a flexible set of sections and other types of internal organisation (indexes, keys, tables, cross-references to other manuscripts) put together ad hoc by multiple compilers unable and/or unwilling to fit what they read and experienced under Erasmian heads. Vine’s examples (as well as Yeo’s work) suggest that this development was, as it were, unofficial: students continued to be instructed to produce commonplace books in the humanist tradition well into the seventeenth century.

The second chapter moves on to look in more detail at the looser structuring (much of it essentially what I would call ‘sectionalisation’) in miscellany manuscripts—or, as Vine dubs it, ‘miscellaneous order’. (I have to admit finding this phrase slightly over-concentrated, implying as it does that there is something miscellaneous about the ordering itself. A more accurate though unsaleable title for Vine’s book would be Different Types of Ordering Used Differently in Different Types of Early Modern Miscellany.) Chapter 2’s point d’appui is London Metropolitan Archive CLC/521/MS 00777, an encyclopaedic miscellany given the arresting title ‘Omnegatherum’ by its compiler John Fitzjames. It is in relation to this manuscript that Vine introduces one of the most important elements in his book: the distinction between ‘first order’ notes (original notes) and ‘second (or ‘third’, ‘fourth’ and so on) order notes’, ‘written up after the event’, copied from the originally-used manuscript or table-book into a different manuscript context (75). In the same chapter, Vine looks at the manuscripts of a compiler, Henry Oxinden, among whose textual remains both first order and second order manuscripts can be found: the former, in a selection of small notebooks (88), the latter in Oxinden’s own ‘omnegatherum’, a combination of literary and ‘how-to’ materials he called his ‘Thesaurus’ (Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, MS V.b.110). The omnegatherum uses a wide range of ‘finding devices’, including variously shaped pointing fingers or ‘manicules’, ‘underlining, rubrication, marginal headings and annotations, and an index to the volume as a whole, arranged alphabetically’ (87).

Chapter 3, picking up on the topic of Vine’s first book, In Defiance of Time,[2] looks at the ‘by definition accumulative and accretive’ (97) work of chorographers such as William Lambarde, William Camden, their ill-fated precursor John Leland, and less well-known figures such as one-time Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney and George Owen of Henllys (compiler of the wonderfully-named manuscript miscellany The Taylors Cussion (Cardiff Central Library MS 4.8)), antiquarians interested in recording everything about the past of a specific place. Here again, we encounter the crucial distinction between first and second order note-taking and manuscript construction, with the difference that these antiquarian researches seem to have been undertaken, unlike the ‘miscellaneous ordering’ of the compilers discussed earlier in the book, with a view to specific print publication projects.

Chapter 4, on the fascinating genre of merchants’ manuscripts, accounts and zibaldoni (educationally-oriented manuscripts combining cultural materials with useful how-to information for tiro traders) puts flesh on the bone of the distinction between first and second order note-taking, introducing the mercantile ‘waste and ledger’ method of financial record keeping. This method originated in Luca Pacioli’s revolutionary Summa of 1494, the treatise which pioneered the use of double-entry book-keeping. The first stage of the process involved recording transactions ad hoc as they occurred in a ‘waste book’ (‘waste’ signifying, Vine tells us, ‘not detritus, that is, what was produced after a process […] but space that was spare, uncultivated, and unused, and thus what existed before a process’ (151)). In the second stage, the transactions were transferred later to formally organised ‘journals’ and ‘ledgers’. Vine seems to imply that this mercantile practice influenced the production of first and second order note-taking—though he does not really evidence or argue the point (157).

Chapter 5 discusses the network of waste- and ledger-type manuscripts compiled by Sir Hugh Plat, horticulturist, cookery writer, inventor, scientist, agriculturist, and purveyor to Elizabethan London of toys, practical jokes, fancy goods and the secrets of the universe. One of the key arguments of the book now emerges: ‘Individuals commonly kept multiple manuscript books, as they participated in extensive processes of reading and writing, extracting, digesting, transferring, and transcribing items across volumes, with the aim not only of collecting material, but also of generating new discourse and new knowledge’ (160). Vine suggests that, as the son of a brewer and with his own business interests, Plat would have known about the waste and ledger method (190). This sounds right—though it leaves open the question of whether or not the waste and ledger method underlay all uses of first and second order note-taking.

Chapter 6 focuses on Francis Bacon, ‘the pivotal figure’ in the book (223). Bacon brings together, and was perhaps the original inspiration for, the key ideas that I have been tracing in Miscellaneous Order: the shift from pre-determined commonplace book headings to more exploratory miscellany (or ‘miscellaneous’) structures, and the underpinning of this shift by the application outside accountancy of the waste and ledger method of record keeping. Bacon compares his own note-taking activities to the waste and ledger method (219-20) and the contrast between miscellany ordering and commonplace ordering maps very nicely onto the development of the inductive method (220).

Miscellaneous Order ends with a ‘Coda’ in which Vine intriguingly suggests that much of the most innovative miscellany ordering was the work of geographically and culturally isolated individuals stranded outside the supportive networks characteristic of institutions such as the Inns of Court or the universities. He also traces the evolution of miscellany construction into the eighteenth century.

One of the many features of this richly enjoyable book (arguably both a virtue and a drawback), is that it opens up many other questions for the reader to ponder. In this review, I have flagged up the uncertainty about the extent to which the miscellanies’ waste and ledger method can be said to have influenced the use of first and second order note-taking. I also wondered what more might be said or deduced about the material storage places of these manuscripts and their effect on the structures of the manuscripts themselves, an issue very briefly discussed on page 197. In the final chapter, for example, we learn about Bacon’s stress on the importance of the principal himself or herself making the key categorisations, leaving subsidiary filing to their assistants. Can anything else be said about the difference between the roles of scribes and their employers in the construction of these manuscripts? Equally, are there distinctions to be made between the transcription of printed sources and manuscript ones? And how similar or different are the structuring activities in Miscellaneous Order to those used by manuscripts containing other genres (historical, religious and alchemical collections, for example, and, of course, the over-exposed case of poetry)?[3] I was not sure that Vine said enough about how exactly the structures he described led to the production of new knowledge; and I also found myself wanting more detail about what had gone before—about ancient and medieval practice—to gauge exactly what was or wasn’t innovative about the methods Vine describes. Most substantively, perhaps, I wondered what relationship there might be between the genre(s) in and of specific miscellanies and the structural methods they used: are some types of ‘miscellaneous order’ particularly popular among antiquarians, for example? There is material one could use to begin to answer these and other similar questions in Miscellaneous Order, but the book’s structure by groups of case studies does not make it easy to pick out.

Other aspects of the book’s organisation are a bit more inconvenient. There is an excellent and occasionally witty glossary, and a nicely-constructed index, but both are far from comprehensive. Meanwhile, as, unlike other manuscript scholars like Henry Woudhuysen and Joshua Eckhardt,[4] Vine does not provide an appendix of manuscript descriptions, his skeletal list of manuscripts would have been much more useful if the relevant page numbers were attached to each classmark. As things stand, at some point I will need to work carefully through the whole book again noting down these page numbers myself—a task which the elegance of Vine’s writing, the depth of his research and the fascination of his materials will make extremely enjoyable and worthwhile.

Jonathan Gibson

Open University


[1] Richard Yeo, Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). A very similar, and presumably related, shift in historical research methods, with similar implications for the history of ideas, is described in Nicholas Popper, Walter Ralegh’s History of the World and the Historical Culture of the Late Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012; see The Spenser Review 44.3.61 (Winter 2015)).

[2] Angus Vine, In Defiance of Time: Antiquarian Writing in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[3] A very different approach to the construction of miscellanies is taken, for example, in Joshua Eckhardt’s Manuscript Verse Collectors and the Politics of Anti-Courtly Love Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] H. R. Woudhuysen, Sir Philip Sidney and the Circulation of Manuscripts 1558-1640 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Eckhardt, op. cit.


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Cite as:

Jonathan Gibson, "Angus Vine, Miscellaneous Order: Manuscript Culture and the Early Modern Organization of Knowledge," Spenser Review 51.2.6 (Spring-Summer 2021). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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