Methodology - The Manuscripts

A Definition of the Manuscript Verse Miscellany

Although it is often catalogued or described in critical studies under the umbrella term “commonplace book,” the manuscript verse miscellany is something quite distinct from the book of extracts or the catchall collection of sermons, recipes, and tables of postal distances that is usually meant by the term. Where the commonplace book is a gathering of materials for the sake of memory and reference, the manuscript verse miscellany is a curated and in some way coherent aestheticized object, embodying and appealing to poetic and visual tastes. It offers a collection of predominantly contemporary, relatively short poems copied primarily in a single hand, and it often includes local or “original” verse from within the compiler’s own circle. Together these features suggest a self-conscious and temporally focused act of literary creation. While there are manuscript books that blend commonplace and literary functions, the following criteria have been used to select manuscripts for inclusion in this database:

  1. The book conveys a sense of having been conceived of as a whole and created for its own sake, rather than as an interim storehouse of material destined for other uses. Evidence for this may include organizational features, such as a title page or table of contents, or decorative features, such as standardized marks between items or calligraphic titles.
  2. It is compiled by one primary hand, even though there may be interspersed items copied in another hand (occasionally a book may contain several distinct sections, each created by a different hand in a sequence; such books have been included). 
  3. It is made up entirely or primarily of poems (occasionally this may be true of a distinct segment of a book, perhaps with a prose section beginning at the opposite end of the book; in such cases, the poetry section is analyzed for this database). For the purposes of this database, epitaphs, epigrams, and riddles, which are commonly included in such books, are considered as poetry.
  4. The poems are primarily contemporary (in other words, composed from the English Restoration (1660) onwards. A book is included even if the poems are all or mostly the original work of one author, provided that the book is still an end product in its manuscript form (i.e. not simply a manuscript of works being prepared for the press).

Bibliographical Description

Each physical manuscript is described bibliographically, in terms of its:

  • archival location and call number
  • title – title given by the compiler, if there is one; if not, the manuscript is listed as “Untitled”
  • format – generally folio, quarto, or octavo
  • size – measured as height and width of the front cover
  • number of filled pages – omits blanks at the front or back of the volume, as well as significant blank stretches between filled sections; occasional interspersed blank pages are included in the filled page count*
  • number of items** - a count of the total number of text items in the miscellany, including prose pieces, lists, and dramatic excerpts
  • number of poems**– includes epitaphs, epigrams, and riddles in verse form. 

*   All counts are by pages; where a manuscript is numbered by folios, these numbers are multiplied by two.

**  In some cases, where items are not clearly distinguished from one another or where large folio books contain multiple very short items per page, item and poem counts are approximate only. Nevertheless, a compilation of three poems clearly differs from one of 600 items, and so even approximate counts are useful indicators.

General Characteristics

Each manuscript is described in terms of its general contents and origins. 

  • period – since the majority of manuscripts can only be dated approximately on the basis of contents (with assistance from watermarks, bindings, compiler biographies, etc.), each manuscript is assigned to one of four 30-year periods: 1701-1730, 1731-1760, 1761-1790, or 1791-1820. Manuscripts are assigned to two or more date blocks if they straddle the line of division. For manuscripts which bear specific dates, these are recorded in the manuscript’s summary description (see below). 
  • region – the geographical region with which the manuscript is associated, whether a city, town, or county, when this can be determined by internal evidence, ownership markings, or biographical research.
  • themes – themes prominent among the manuscript contents are identified in descending order of prominence.
  • additional genres – any non-verse genres which may be interspersed among the poems – for e.g., anecdotes, essays, letters, lists.
  • print sources – this includes only sources named somewhere in the manuscript. These are listed by their standard short-title form (excluding the initial article “The”) rather than by variant designations that may be used in the manuscript (e.g. “Xians Mag.” in the manuscript is listed in the database as “Christian’s Magazine”). These sources are primarily newspapers, magazines, or print miscellanies; single-text or single-author print sources are not listed in the database.


Each manuscript is given a short, summary description that appears on its display card. This description is searchable by keyword, and while not standardized, provides (where available) the compiler name, date of compilation, number of items, and notable themes or other features of the manuscript.

Other Resources

Each manuscript entry provides a link to images of the full manuscript if available in digitized form at the time of entry into the database. If its poetic contents are recorded in the Union First Line Index of English Verse (the FLI, this is noted. Although very few of these miscellanies have been discussed in the critical literature, any known bibliographical references are provided.