The marginalia of Sir Thomas Smith: Reading the mind of a Renaissance scholar

P1200920When the Library of Sion College closed its doors in 1996, the College’s collection of rare and early printed books were transferred to Lambeth Palace Library. As well as forming an important and wide-ranging collection in their own right, these books are especially interesting for their provenance, as many of the volumes were owned and donated by prominent citizens of 17th century London, including scholars, clergy, merchants and aristocrats. These citizens have left significant evidence of their former ownership, and inscriptions, bookplates, personal bindings and marginal annotations are all common additions. P1200943One book in particular, a 1534 edition of the works of Plato printed in Basel by Johann Walder, is full of hundreds of drawings, miniature portraits, detailed landscapes, notes,and other marginalia. On the title page is a signature written in Greek: “Θωμας ο Σμιτθος”, i.e. Thomas Smith.


Title page of “Hapanta Platōnos … Platonis Omnia opera” with the signature of Sir Thomas Smith

Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577) was a Tudor scholar and a politician who attained high office during P1200946the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, serving as Ambassador to France and Secretary of State. Born at Saffron Walden, Smith was educated at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he was appointed professor in 1533 and lectured in Greek language and philosophy. Along with his friend and tutor Sir John Cheke, Smith was considered one of the foremost classical scholars of the day and his best known work, De republica Anglorum. The maner of gouernement or policie of the realme of England (1583), achieved widespread influence. Throughout his life, however, Smith maintained many and varied interests beyond his classical scholarship; he was passionate about astronomy, mathematics and architecture, and obsessively conducted his own practical experiments in chemistry and alchemy. P1200935Alongside his other interests, Smith was an enthusiastic collector of books and assembled a large library over his career. Although his collection was scattered following his death and many books were lost, surviving volumes are identifiable on account of his practice of systematically annotating and illustrating ideas and passages, a habit which provides a unique reflection of the interests and thinking of a humanist scholar of the English Renaissance. P1200929During his time at Cambridge University, Smith was trained in the art of active reading. This technique is based on the idea that reading is an interactive and adversarial process with the reader making notes opposite, and sometimes also in opposition to, the author’s text (the classicist Isaac Casaubon coined the term “adversaria” specifically to describe volumes whose margins showed evidence of this type of engagement). Smith thus acquired the “habit … of annotating his P1200974books in their margins with endless corrections, underlinings, and comments” (Sherman, 1997). In Sion College’s copy of Plato, Smith has added summaries, subject headings and symbols alongside important sections of text. When an author is mentioned, Smith noted his name in the margin as an aidemémoire. Throughout the book there are portraits of kings and rulers and sketches of crowns, ships, fortresses and mythological beasts. References in the text to ancient towns and cities, such as Sparta or Athens, are illustrated with a tiny, intricately detailed cityscape. Smith appears to have read straight through the book, adding notes as he progressed as an aid to digestion of the text. P1200930Of Smith’s marginalia, William Sherman writes: “Although we are most inclined to appreciate the P1200945artistic and entertainment value of these pictures, they were not merely doodles: they certainly played an important mnemonic role. It is possible that this use of illustrations was advocated by Cheke and others and may even point to a general annotational style in mid-Tudor Cambridge.” Another student of John Cheke was Dr John Dee, later to become Elizabeth I’s trusted advisor, and he is also known to have added sketches and notes to the margins of books as he read. P1200948P1200956Through his marginalia we can learn not only about the books Smith owned, but also how he interpreted texts and approached his scholarly work. Of his huge library, only a small number of books remain and most that survive are held in the library of Queens’ College, Cambridge, making the book in the Sion College collection a very rare find.

Plato. Hapanta Platōnos … Platonis Omnia Opera, Basel: Johann Walder, 1534. (Sion C11/P69 GRY)

Sherman, William Howard. John Dee: The politics of reading and writing in the English Renaissance, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.


2 responses to “The marginalia of Sir Thomas Smith: Reading the mind of a Renaissance scholar

  1. Pingback: Emanuel College Sixth Form visits Lambeth Palace Library | A Monument of Fame·

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