‘A brefe cronicle for memorie’

Dr Agata Gomolka, Assistant Curator: Royal Palace Reborn

Among the most unknown treasures of the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery is the sixteenth-century commonplace book of Henry Appleyard.

Commonplace books were compilations of notes, scientific and biblical texts, fragments of tracts and transcribed legal documents that acted as aids to memory and as an important means for an individual and family to preserve information. This individual focus makes every commonplace book unique. The book in our collection thus offers a fascinating glimpse into the intellectual, moral, and spiritual legacy of one Norfolk family in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The volume, which is comprised of more than 200 pages and which still retains its original elegant leather binding, consists of texts written in several different handwriting styles accompanied by coloured drawings, diagrams, maps, and colour-coded captions.

The book was begun in the Appleyard family circle in about 1560 and continued over the ensuing decades. One writer whose contribution is certain was Henry Appleyard, son and heir of John Appleyard, and owner of the manor at Dunston, less than a few miles south of Norwich. In 1592 Henry copied into the book a selection of old documents preserved in the family archive, partly in an attempt to stake out family claims of the lands, partly, too, to preserve and record for posterity the memory of his father as a landowner. The documents included an important survey of the lands in Dunston, East Carleston and Braken in 1482.

A small rectangular book, opened. Handwritten text in a variety of different handwriting styles and colours are placed alongside fantastical drawings of mythological creatures, such as a beast with 7 heads being ridden by a man wearing a crown.
A page from the Commonplace Book. detailing exploits of the Saints alongside colourful drawings of mythological creatures. Both pages seem to show different handwriting styles.

But the interest of Henry and his predecessors went far beyond their property and inheritance. Also included in the book is the list of mayors and sheriffs of Norwich between the year 1403 and 1606. Heading this list of mayors is their ancestor, William Appleyard, mayor between 1403 and 1406. Another entry of local importance is a list of gentlemen of Norfolk whose ancestors came to England with Duke William during the Norman Conquest in 1066. The medieval past of their county community clearly mattered to the Appleyard family.

The volume…could stand as a monument to human curiosity and quest for knowledge’

The focus on history extends beyond the boundaries of Norfolk to the history of the world from biblical and ancient times. The line this book creates between historical events and biblical and legendary episodes is a thin one. And so, the deeds of Roman emperors and popes and the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 AD are narrated alongside references to the lives of the Prophets. Elsewhere, the author offers a detailed glossary of concepts such as the invention of carpentry or persons such as Plato and Julius Caesar. Events and characters are frequently accompanied by colourful drawings of mythical beasts serving the purpose of moral commentary. The history of both Norfolk and the Appleyard family is thus situated within an ambitious and moralising survey of global history and Christian narrative.

The book includes several calendars such as ‘an almanacke for XXXIII yeres to come’, started in 1588, and the unfinished computation of the regnal years of the kings of England from William the Conqueror to Henry III. Among other contents are theological writings including the reflections on the knowledge of God, knowledge of ourselves, on faith, on repentance etc., with some sections unfinished and blank spaces and whole blank pages still present.

The theological texts and world’s histories are accompanied by illustrated texts on science. Henry and his predecessor write about the planets and the cosmos, illustrating their texts with splendid drawings such as a diagram of the solar system, accompanied by the signs of the zodiac and the four winds. The entries on astronomy, philosophy and even medicine continue across several pages. Elsewhere, a colourful fold-out map of the world is complemented with biblical quotations.

A page concertinas out from the book, illustrating a rough, yet colourful map of the world. Their depiction is recognisable by modern-day standards with some major differences. All the seas are labelled 'Tarshish', and other areas around the globe are marked with symbols and drawings to represent events from the Bible.
The fold-out map of the world, as the creators of the Book understood it.

The text is bookended with yet another evidence of the authors’ intellectual curiosity—on the inside of the binding and several accompanying pages nearby, we find Latin and Greek maxims and proverbs translated into English. While focus of the commonplace book of Henry Appleyard shifts between the local and the global, the truly broad scope of themes ranges from biblical and theological, to social and legal, to scientific.

For this reason, the volume in our collections could stand as a monument to human curiosity and quest for knowledge about history and nature of our presence in the world—and the place of one extended Norfolk family within it. Crucially important in all this is the fact that the knowledge feeding this curiosity was sourced from the range of printed books available at the time. Those printed books, in turn, built upon the learning inherited from the middle ages—the period that facilitated the rebirths and enlightenments that came after.

This fascinating manuscript will finally be accessible to more people than ever before, thanks to a generous grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust. Thanks to the support of the NMCT, this priceless yet fragile artifact will be preserved, to be displayed as part of a brand new Medieval Gallery in Norwich Castle Keep.


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