How to Read like a Renaissance Reader

In the Renaissance, reading always demanded writing. Readers were trained to encounter a text with a pen in hand in order to mark up -- and hence actively engage with -- the text. Simple reading alone was not sufficient; the proper scholarly reader needed to actively use the text, taking the time and expending the effort to fully comprehend its meanings and implications. Reading was also aimed at some practical or intellectual goal: a used text was inevitably incorporated into one's own writing.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries learned the rudiments of rhetoric in grammar school, including the structure, and the necessary steps required to construct, a successful argument. The first and most important step was called inventio, in which the writer found and organized the necessary material evidence. Inventio and our modern word "invention" share a Latin root, roughly meaning "to find." So the task was not -- and is not -- to "invent" an argument or work in isolation, but to draw on the inventory of skills and materials that have been collected and organized.

To do so, you need the right tools: namely, 1) a material text of some kind; 2) a writing implement of some kind; and 3) a willingness to apply the latter to the former. The following models were designed to teach Renaissance readers how to read by offering an outline of the tools and methods (not to mention the ethical and intellectual mindset) one needs to become a successful reader and writer.

The first comes from Johannes Comenius (aka Jan Amos Komensky), a prolific and influential educational theorist and reformer of the 17th century. His most well-known work -- unsurprising, considering that it was designed to be eminently accessible -- is the Orbis sensualium pictus ("The world in pictures") first published in Nuremberg in 1658, but subsequently translated and published all over Europe. This ground-breaking educational work used conveniently annotated pictures to teach children (or any other reader, for that matter) about crucial aspects of the known world. (For more on Comenius, go here and here and for a set of images from the Orbis, go here).

Here is the illustration and the first page of the "Museum," translated into English as "The Study" (in Charles Hoole's English translation of the Orbis, first published in 1659 and often reprinted):

The image is taken from the Folger Digital Image Collections (for more information, go here).

Here is a transcription of the complete description (I've transcribed the black letter type in simple roman, and underlined the roman-type terms that are numbered in the image):
The Study is a place where a Student, a part from men, sitteth alone, addicted to his Studies, whilst he readeth Books, which being within his reach, he layeth open upon a Desk, and picketh all the best things out of them into his own Manual, or marketh them in them with a dash, or a little star, in the Margent.  Being to sit up late, he setteth a Candle, on a Candle-stick, which is snuffed with Snuffers; before the Candle he placeth a Screen, which is green, that it may not hurt his eye-sight; richer persons use a Taper, for a Tallow-Candle sticketh, and smoaketh.  A Letter is wrapped up, writ upon, and sealed.  Going abroad by night, he maketh use of a Lantern or a Torch.
This Renaissance study looks familiar in many ways: the student sits, isolated from all potential distractions, alone in a dark room, reading his books (whether being "addicted" to your studies is a good or a bad thing is up to you -- and it's probably a fair measure of both). He -- and as the phrase "a part from men" shows, the early modern student was almost exclusively male -- does not merely read, though, for there is a multi-step process that he must undertake.

First comes the actual reading of the book, followed by one of two options: the student either "picketh all the best things out of" the book into his "own Manual" -- that is, a blank notebook or commonplace book -- or, the student can mark certain notable passages with marginal symbols (a -- or an * ). The latter could then later be copied into the commonplace book in the appropriate topical section. (I've written about the practice of commonplacing here and here and here). The commonplace book was an indispensable tool for the Renaissance reader: here quotations from various sources could be collected and arranged according to some structural system (or, in many cases, without such an organizational system) so that they could be retrieved and used at some later point. Commonplacing was a ubiquitous practice, and it encouraged and developed the very kind of opportunistic reading on display here.

Our student needs more than a book, a pen, and his own notebook, though, for there are many other tools listed here: a proper desk, and a light source -- including a candle, something (crucially) to snuff out the candle, a screen to protect one's eyes, and a torch to make one's way home from the study. (Note the class distinctions here -- "richer persons" can afford to use a taper, which isn't sticky and doesn't smoke).

Elsewhere Comenius shows the instruments of writing in more detail, in the process offering a short history of the technologies of writing (shown here in the Ars Scriptoria, taken again from the Folger collection here)

For those who could afford it, and who had the expertise (or simply the wherewithal) to do it, a more sophisticated way of lighting one's study could be achieved. John White, in A Rich Cabinet, with Variety of Inventions (1651), gives instructions on "How to make a glorious light with a Candle, like the Sun-shine."

Basically, this method required you to acquire a globe made of blown glass, to fill it with water (with a dash of aqua vitae to prevent freezing), to carefully hang it above your desk, and to position your candle behind it (White notes that some prefer to place "a sheet of oyled paper" in front of the light, similar to the screen described by Comenius). The result is "a glorious light through the Glasse." (Early modern London had the technological and productivity expertise of a John White; we have ProfHacker).

So, those are some of the important tools you need to read and write. John Brinsley, in his educational treatise Ludus Literarius: or, The Grammar Schoole (first published 1612), offers some more concrete practical advice about the actual practice of marking up one's books. (You can read more about Brinsley and about writing in printed books from the Folger here). There is an abundance of useful material in Brinsley's book, including the series of appropriately pithy marginal maxims below (taken from that Folger link) on the method for keeping notes at a sermon, which also features the ubiquitous "manicule," or pointing finger:

I'll focus here on Brinsley's advice on "causing all things to be done with understanding." I've transcribed what I think to be the most important passage below:

It would bring withall so much ease, pleasure, and delight, both to all teachers & learners, and also so much certainty, & cause them to go forward with such cheerfulness, boldness and contention, as will hardly be believed until it be tried by experience. In a word: It would cause all things to be gotten much more speedily, layed up more safely, and kept more surely in memory. Therefore, that old rule is true:
Legere & non intelligere negligere est.
To read and not to understand what we read, or not to know how to make use of it, is nothing else but a neglect of all good learning; and a mere abuse of the means & helps to attain the same. It is no other thing but a very loss of our precious time, and of all our labour and cost bestowed therein, in regard of that which is read with understanding. 
Note that Brinsley's injunctions are not aimed simply at the "pleasure, and delight" of teachers and their students, but at the central ethical and behavioral qualities of "cheerfulness, boldness and contention" -- reading for understanding, that is, reading texts in order to make some use of them, is a necessary component in a thoroughly active life. This is no matter for a life of isolated leisure.

Note also the decidedly economic terms Brinsley uses to characterize the labor of reading and understanding: merely reading without actively engaging with, and therefore coming to an understanding of, a text means the "loss of our precious time, and of all our labour and cost bestowed therein." Reading passively is not just bad scholarship; it's bad business, too.

This is one of Brinsley's more emblematic or theoretical passages -- he offers a lot of detailed, even micro-managing, instructions for the proper (and properly meticulous) methods that students should use while reading, writing, and commonplacing. Here is a similar sentiment, in the form of an actual emblem, taken from  Geffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblemes (1586) -- again, this image can be found in the Folger's digital collection here). A transcription of the accompanying poem follows:

The use, not the reading of books makes us wise.

The volumes great, who so doth still peruse,
And daily turns, and gazeth on the same,
If that the fruicte thereof, he do not vse,
He reapes but toile, and neuer gaineth fame:
Firste reade, then marke, then practise that is good,
For without vse, we drinke but LETHE flood.

Of practise longe, experience doth proceede;
And wisedome then, doth euermore ensue:
Then printe in minde, what wee in printe do reade,
Else loose wee time, and bookes in vaine do vewe:
Wee maie not haste, our talent to bestowe,
Nor hide it vp, whereby no good shall growe.

The first thing to note is that in the image the two scholars are standing, in an active pose -- just as the reader in Comenius eagerly leans forward over his desk. The first stanza outlines the dire consequences for those who would simply "peruse" or "gaze" on a book, failing to reap the "fruit" -- and, again, a metaphor of labor is employed, for those who fail to reap the fruit will reap only "toil" (and will not possess that all-important "fame"). The final couplet distills the method of active reading: first read, then mark up the book, then put into practice what you have read and marked -- that is, you must use what you have read, or risk drowning in the flood of Lethe (i.e., you'll drown in forgetfulness).

The second stanza both builds on and recapitulates the first: by practicing, one gains experience; with experience comes wisdom. Here employing a pervasive metaphor for memory (especially within print culture), the next line urges us to "print in mind, what we in print do read" -- an image of physically impressing the text in our minds (like "the book and volume" of Hamlet's brain). The final couplet expresses a sentiment near and dear to the guiding motto of this blog -- make haste slowly!

A fitting end to this post, then, is a link back to Festina Lente where I outlined the crucial advice of Erasmus in his adages, following Seneca on the metaphors and methods of commonplacing, on how to make sense of the overload of information in the age of print. It is advice that we would do well to keep following today.