Elizabethan Advice

On the subject of taking notes about articles (see Task: Analyzing Essay Structure ), I ran across an interesting bit of advice,

He that shall out of his own Reading gather for the use of another most (as I think) do it by Epitome, our Abridgment, or under Heads and Common Places.

The author — almost surely Francis Bacon writing to Sir Fulke Greville, probably in 1599-1600 — is very much of the opinion that summarizing and abridging is a bad idea. Far better, he thinks, to set up topical headings, and place notes under the headings.

Francis Bacon’s Advice to Fulke Greville on Research Techniques
Vernon F. Snow
Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Aug., 1960), pp. 369-378 (10 pages)


But isn’t that the cornerstone of what popular culture tells you to do in order to remember what you’re reading?

By their very nature, summaries and abbreviations may run the risk of losing important details. I don’t see that problem for my Zettelkasten. I don’t want to store knowledge redundantly, but to document insights. Luhmann does not see notes as a simple archive of knowledge. He sees notes as building blocks whose information content is decided only in retrospect and through internal connectivity. To this end, the notes are not written as a summary of what has been read, but rather, in their own words, as an individual preparation of the texts that has already taken place. There are two points in time when one’s own creativity comes into play. When translating what has been read into one’s own words and thus into a first, own interpretation and then when using the notes again. Here, the links play a decisive role. What our brain does continuously: it rearranges all the PostIts over and over again.

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I believe the quote in the OP has a few typos. Vernon Snow’s paper quoting the supposed-Bacon writer has:

…etc., the letter continues from here

Note: "must" not "most" in the first line. The writer is not saying to not use epitome or abridgment, but rather to use them and gain knowledge by carefully placing one's epitome's and abridgments in one's notes under "headings and 'Common Places'", terms of art that had a slightly different meaning in the 16th century than today. Bacon would have benefited from Tinderbox. The entire letter is worth reading.

That makes a whole lot more sense. So in summarising you are then placing that summary under a relevant topic. This is similar to Luhmann linking his notes to topics.


Commonplace books were a thing among literate people in the 16th-19th centuries. Copying quotations from books one read (often from recommended lists of books), and writing them into a personal commonplace book under subject headings, along with one’s own observations.

John Locke created a complex method of organizing commonplace books. Publishers printed up blank notebooks with the headings in them and sold them to people who wanted to join in on the commonplace trend. Locke’s template wasn’t the only one – there were many of these extant.

There is a direct line from Francis Bacon (actually beginning centuries before him) to Niklas Luhmann to the “second brain” crowd on YouTube. Same sun; same curiosity.


I was just thinking about Locke’s system, which is in some ways more sophisticated than Luhmann’s. I think it might be an interesting exploration.

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It seems though that a lot of people never used it because it was too cumbersome.

[edit: sorry this is marked as a reply to @PaulWalters , but I meant to put it on the main thread. I’m not dissenting from his points!]

From today’s perspective we tend to forget part of the reason for this record was that books were expensive and scarce. You had to go to where the book was. So, if you write and afford paper/ink, it made sense to write things down so the knowledge travelled home with you.

Commonplace book usages of this type died as books and the printed word became more accessible. Arguably the Readers Digest was a commonplace book for the common person (who either lacked their own books or the depth of education to make sense of them).

A day book—essentially “what I did today” is a different type of note-taking, closer to a diary. Academics, or others who are interest in study have a different task… In fact two primary ones, to assist their future self:

  • where did I find this thing/in what context? IOW, how do I find it again?
  • what insights do I take from the reading?

Of course, trying to figure out now what out future self might need is not always obvious. Thus the myriad of note-taking practices, many of which carry unintentional but unhelpful legacies from previous tech (e.g. print vs digital).

A benison of the digital age is the ability to make literal, followable in the moment, links between things. This replaces having to walk to another room 9or place) find the source (book, recording, whatever), find the right place within it, etc…

It’s worth remembering all these things were new. The mechanism of the first alphabetical indexes had to be explained to an audience who ‘knew’ the natural order was things divine coming before more earthly matters. The first such indexes only indexed on the first letter of the word. so, under ‘A’ things might then be added in the order they occurred to the author or indexer. (Sorry, I’ve probably read too much about this…)