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Exploring the Renaissance Mind

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The doodles, underlinings and comments that fill the margins of Smith’s books open a window not only to the thinking of Thomas Smith, but also more generally to that of his age. Although this kind of ‘active reading’ was then common, a distinct approach to it can be perceived in the books of Smith’s Cambridge contemporaries such as Roger Ascham and the polymath John Dee whose annotated icons closely mirror Smith’s.

Whilst we cannot always be sure of Smith’s intentions, it seems obvious that ‘active reading’ provided the means to memorise, highlight, summarise, correct and comment. We see this not only in the underlining of words and passages but also in the finely executed (and usually generic) images of kings and queens, as well as adulterous wives, marriages, deaths, and towns, that flag-up and even illustrate passages Smith found interesting. But perhaps above all else, by marking his books Smith sought to make them his own, an objective evident in his gruff reaction to the loss of one of them: ‘That book was wont never to go from me because it was noted with my observations and notes. I had rather lost a far better thing’.

The ‘active reading’ that came so naturally to Smith is a boon to the modern scholar. Through it we discern passages that interested him most together with indications as to what he thought about them. Most importantly, we perceive the role and place of books in the life and career of a Renaissance scholar and politician.

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