Ann Blair: Renaissance Writing Tables

In this episode of Houghton75, we speak with Ann Blair, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard, about the development of note-taking devices from early wax tablets to our modern smartphones. We start with an early modern writing tablet – a small reference book which also contains specially treated pages for recording notes while on the road.

Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at


From La Luna (Ensemble for 17th Century Music), Wild Boar Records, WLBR 9605.

Podcast Transcript and Music Notes

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

[end music]

JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit for more information.

[background music: Folias echa para mi Senora Dofia Tarolilla de Carallenos by Andrea Falconieri. Performed by La Luna. Track 8 on their CD Falconieri: 29 Selections from the Primo Libro. Wild Boar Records, catalog number WLBR 9605]

HF: We take notes all the time. If your refrigerator looks anything like mine, it’s covered in lists of groceries to buy, errands to run, bills to pay, and other “to-do” lists. And that doesn’t even include the electronic notes! Even my phone and computer are covered in virtual sticky notes with reminders of important dates. Our society is fast paced, and we have a lot to remember! But the need to write everything down isn’t unique to modern life. Throughout history, people have developed tools for temporarily recording important information.

JC: We spoke with Ann Blair, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor here at Harvard, about the development of note-taking devices from early wax tablets to our modern smartphones. Her selection for our online exhibition HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library, is an early modern writing tablet – a small reference book which also contains specially treated pages for recording notes while on the road. Approximately 10 of the volume’s pages are coated with gesso, a hard, waxy material which can be engraved using a stylus and erased with a damp cloth. According to Professor Blair, this technique of recording information can be traced back hundreds of years.

[end music]

Ann Blair (AB): This idea of taking notes on a hard surface really has roots way back in antiquity when wax tablets were the principal way of taking short term text. When you were drafting or doing school exercises, you would use a stylus to press into wax on a board. Those wax boards could be actually bound together at the spine, and that would be a codex. And you can see that our book form, the codex form, actually is derived from the way you stored your wax tablets together in antiquity. And the wax tablets continued to be used in the Middle Ages, particularly before the invention of paper when parchment was a very expensive medium, being made from sheepskin or calfskin, and is going to only be used for final product, not for drafts or anything temporary.

This idea of having a special kind of surface meant for temporary notes that could be erased and reused is sort of long standing in European note-taking media. And in that sense, these writing tablets really reproduced, in a more convenient form maybe, the wax tablets of the previous centuries. And, of course, in the meantime, paper had come in. Paper was much cheaper than parchment. Paper is essential to this printed book and any other printed book, because printing makes the reproduction of many copies much cheaper, but you have to have a relatively inexpensive medium on which to print. Otherwise, it’s pointless to have a cheaper method of reproduction. Most of this book is paper that’s been printed on in a normal way, and we have here about ten pages where it is, at the origin, the regular paper, but it’s been treated and thickened with gesso to make it into (taps page) this special surface that can be written on and erased from. I’m going to tap it (tapping), you can hear the hardness of the page. This is the writing part of the tables. The gesso here, you can see, has sort of created yellowness to the page, and you can see places of previous writing.

[background music: Folias echa para mi Senora Dofia Tarolilla de Carallenos by Andrea Falconieri. Performed by La Luna. Track 8 on their CD Falconieri: 29 Selections from the Primo Libro. Wild Boar Records, catalog number WLBR 9605]

JC: Paper was a revolutionary invention. Parchment was extremely expensive, and was carefully used for important projects. Using such a valuable resource for temporary notes would be inconceivable! But paper was relatively cheap in comparison, and, along with printing, allowed for the inexpensive production of books.

HF: The Renaissance writing tables were more than just notebooks, however. They were filled with all sorts of useful information, such as monetary conversion rates, distances between cities, and cyclical calendars that were accurate for 24 years. But it’s difficult to tell how popular they were at the time, as they were often heavily used and then discarded.

[end music]

AB: So, there are 16 editions of these writing tables with calendar over a span of about 50 years from 1577-1628. We don’t know of course how many copies were printed in each edition but obviously you want to make hundreds of copies, otherwise why bother printing? Maybe a thousand actually would be a perfectly standard print run for the late 16th Century. So that would be 16 editions at a thousand a piece, 16,000 copies printed. And yet, how many survive? So far we know of 24, but it was buried in library catalogs and library shelves until Peter Stallybrass, a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, noticed them and brought them to our attention in a wonderful article titled “Hamlet’s tables and the technologies of writing in Renaissance England.” We expect that there were many other editions printed during this period, of which no surviving copies are known, either because they just haven’t turned up yet, they’re in private hands, they are maybe buried in the floorboards of a house somewhere. There are always discoveries to be made.

It’s also possible that this whole technology and genre of a calendar plus pages to be written on is present in other cultures. In particular, Stallybrass suspects that the low countries with their very highly developed mercantile culture might well have been a point of origin or at least a point of production of these kinds of books. So you have your stiff writing surface, you could do this without a desk, without ink. No quill, just the stylus and the specially treated pages of this writing tables, and then this little piece of sponge or maybe your finger that you would use to erase when you were done. It’s truly a fascinating window into how someone might have taken notes while on the go. Just as today your iPhone would contain a lot of information but also a place where you can take notes, so too this little booklet, which is interestingly sort of shaped like an iPad or an iPhone, will give you information and a place for you to enter things you want to retain.

JC: A Renaissance iPhone – that’s an interesting way to think about it! Lots of useful information at your fingertips, space to save notes, a rectangular device that fits in your pocket – Certainly sounds like a smartphone to me! Maybe that’s why we call some of our devices tablets – they’re the modern descendants of ancient wax tablets and Renaissance writing tables like this one.

HF: But what were Renaissance users of this technology writing about in their notes?

AB: The Renaissance was a period of great awareness of note-taking. Surprisingly, perhaps, people at the time complained of an overload of information, too much to read. And some of the techniques then advertised to help you retain the important parts and remember and master all of the material you had to have at your fingertips was to take notes. It was a method that was taught in schools. Take notes from the books you’re studying so that you can return to the best bits conveniently. This kind of notebook was no doubt principally aimed at merchants, given all of the very practical information about coins and distances, but really many walks of life were concerned about recording information and having it available again for retrieval, because there was so much going on that you wouldn’t be able to retain it all in memory with confidence.

JC: It’s interesting to think about Renaissance scholars and information overload from our modern perspective. We can all relate to the daunting challenge of keeping pace with new developments. But was it really as overwhelming during the Renaissance as it is today? Surely we have it worse, right?

AB: Well, it’s interesting also though to think about [how] we have it a lot worse, there’s a lot more out there, but, of course, we have better tools. Each technology generates that overabundance, but also gives you the tools to deal with it. And, in a way, I think the real limiting factor is our own minds. What we know about how scholars worked in the Renaissance is they were wildly overbooked and over-busy. Say a doctor, for example, might be writing books and seeing patients and going to seek patronage and always on the go. And therefore needing a nice notebook like this to record observations that then, probably, obviously, if you wanted to store these notes long term you would copy them over into a ledger if it was merchant information or into a notebook which would then be sort of more classic ink on paper that you could store and archive and so on. This is designed for temporary notes, things that are while you’re on the go.

[background music: La Dichosa Fantasia by Andrea Falconieri. Performed by La Luna. Track 21 on their CD Falconieri: 29 Selections from the Primo Libro. Wild Boar Records, catalog number WLBR 9605]

HF: Since Professor Blair is a book historian, our conversation eventually moved to the ways that we study books. How do we know how a particular book was once used? What connections can we draw between the use of these objects and our own reading habits today?

[end music]

AB: We read texts, you know, in these kind of denatured forms and Penguin editions, which are very convenient – I have nothing against them, but they’re translated and they’ve been turned into modern spelling and modern contexts with a nice introduction and you know what you’re getting. Part of the thrill of engaging with the original manuscripts and printed copies themselves is you have the mysteries of how did this copy come to us? What signs of previous use and ownership does this copy have? Is that really how it was printed and laid out, and isn’t the font kind of strange compared to what we’re used to today? And it brings these questions to the fore and forces people to plunge back in time and put themselves in the context in which the readers first read this text – what it meant then, which isn’t necessarily what it means to us now.

It’s a challenge sometimes to know what to say because you have no clue about the specifics of who used this and, you know, if the printing information isn’t very detailed you don’t even necessarily know when it was printed with precision. And that is the challenge of the historian, really, is to figure out how to highlight the significance of the object. What context do you want to put it in? So, this object could be in the history of the life of merchants, or the history of writing and note-taking, or the history of the calendar and how people, you know, engaged with the calendar. You only buy your calendar once every twenty-four years! That’s pretty different from our practice. But then there are also great continuities, because we see the same kind of convenience of having information and a note-taking platform in the same handheld device is still with us today. That’s the beauty of history. The past is different and similar.

[background music: La Dichosa Fantasia by Andrea Falconieri. Performed by La Luna. Track 21 on their CD Falconieri: 29 Selections from the Primo Libro. Wild Boar Records, catalog number WLBR 9605]

JC: Speaking of different and similar, Professor Blair and I both had earlier experiences with Houghton as undergraduates. You may have heard in our earlier podcast with Professor Donoghue, that I visited Houghton with his class, not imagining I would one day work here. Professor Blair actually worked in Houghton as a student. Did she imagine one day she would be a leading scholar in the study of book history, using the library for her research and teaching?

[end music]

AB: That’s a good question! I had no idea. No, book history was not on my radar at all. When you think about the famous article by Robert Darnton, formerly University Librarian and the holder of the Chair I now hold, he wrote “What is the History of Books” in 1981. So that field was just becoming formalized. Of course there had always been bibliophiles and bibliographers and great people with those skills within the Harvard system, but the idea that there was a field called book history that historians and literary scholars engaged in, with its own journals and annual conferences and all that, was completely in its beginning phases.

So, no. I mean I did soon decide I wanted to work on either late Medieval or 16th century materials, and I wrote my senior thesis in the History of Science concentration on a French scholar from the late 16th century, Peter Ramus, whose books I came to read in Houghton. I’m very grateful that they had so many of them here. That was what made my thesis possible.

So, yeah. The book history really took much longer to germinate. When I was in graduate school and actually took courses with Professor Darnton at Princeton, then I was, first of all, older and more aware of the kinds of fine distinctions that academics make within a discipline like history. And so I was aware of book history and I took courses with him and with Natalie Davis which had book historical elements. But even then, I think, I thought of myself principally as an intellectual historian, a cultural historian, an early modern historian. And I think I first taught book history at Harvard in something like 1998. And so that was, obviously, a moment of realizing, “Oh! I actually know something about this that is a coherent subject that there is interest in.” And, sure enough, I’ve had wonderful times teaching undergraduate lecture courses, and graduate seminars and graduate reading courses in book history, and I look forward to many more years of this.

[background music: La Dichosa Fantasia by Andrea Falconieri. Performed by La Luna. Track 21 on their CD Falconieri: 29 Selections from the Primo Libro. Wild Boar Records, catalog number WLBR 9605]

AB: The wonderful thing about books, they survive very well. Even if they’re forgotten, they just sit there and they’re still there to be seen years later and each time they carry with them the signs of how people have cared for them. And we’re really lucky that this one has come down through probably the rare book market, and collectors, and then into an institution that’ll really care for it for the long term. Books are some of the oldest things you’ll ever be this close to, really.

A daily use kind of book like this is especially fascinating because, for a long time, they haven’t gotten much attention. Of course people care about the First Folio of Shakespeare or the Gutenberg Bible, which are also tremendously interesting books full of clues, but this kind of utilitarian book often survives less well because it had no particular commercial value at the time. And so, you know, you kind of junk it or don’t watch out for it the way you would an heirloom piece. And so when one comes down to us, it’s a real treat.

[background music: Canzona non detta la Luna by Andrea Falconieri. Performed by La Luna. Track 1 on their CD Falconieri: 29 Selections from the Primo Libro. Wild Boar Records, catalog number WLBR 9605]

JC: We’d like to thank Professor Ann Blair for joining us and sharing her knowledge of book history and note-taking with us. It’s always interesting to look back on history through daily use books like these writing tables.

HF: Throughout the podcast, you’ve heard music performed by La Luna, an instrumental ensemble specializing in music of the 17th century. Our thanks to them for the recordings.

JC: To view this Renaissance writing table, as well as other fascinating objects from Houghton’s collections, visit HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library. This online exhibition of faculty selected items is available at

HF: Podcast transcripts and detailed music notes are also available online at

JC: Thanks so much for listening, and we hope you’ll join us next time here at Houghton75.

[music continues to end]