History,  Literature

The Renaissance Writing Tablet

The first reference to a Renaissance writing tablet I remember reading is in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, just after Hamlet’s first meeting with the ghost wherein the ghost tells Hamlet that Hamlet’s father the king was murdered by the king’s brother Claudius, Hamlet echoes the ghost’s last injunction to “remember me” in one of his soliloquies:

Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile and smile and be a villain.
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark (Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 1 scene 5).

I want to look closely at the word table as used by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play. Table here is short for tablet as in definition 2b in AHD:

a. A thin sheet or leaf, used as a writing surface.
b. A set of such leaves fastened together, as in a book.
c. A pad of writing paper glued together along one edge.
d. A lightweight, portable computer having a touchscreen as the method by which data is input.

This is the meaning of table discussed in the OED as Table 2b.

A small portable tablet for writing upon, esp. for notes or memoranda; a writing tablet. Frequently in a pair (of) tables. Now chiefly historical (s.v. OED table 2b).

Hamlet’s table is a writing tablet that’s a re-usable writing surface. These are not the wax tablets favored by the Romans and others of the Classical era. Instead, these tablets are made of specially coated parchment or paper, and are erased by means of a damp cloth. The hint that Hamlet’s tables are not wax is the use of wipe rather than the word smooth. There was, moreover, a gradual historical movement from wax tablets towards coated paper or parchment for use as an erasable temporary writing surface. Generally the parchment or paper was prepared by coating it with gesso, then carefully smoothed and a top coating of varnish or glue or another sealant was applied.

The best place to start researching the Renaissance erasable writing tablet is probably the 2004 article “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England” by Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe.[ref]FN Stallybrass, Peter and Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe. “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England.” <cite>Shakespeare Quarterly</cite>. Volume 55, Number 4, (Winter 2004): pp. 379–419.[/ref] Stallybrass et al discuss multiple extant Renaissance erasable tablets, several of which are in the Folger’s collections, and I’ve used their research liberally in this post.

Most eraseable tables or writing tablets consisted of blank tables bound with small pamphlets, typically  almanacs. These contained a front section of printed data; calendars, charts of weight and currency values, followed by several leaves of specially treated paper for use as an erasable writing surface. Most often, a metal stylus was used to write on the treated pages, though water soluble ink was also used. One almanac bound with several pages of erasable tables has the following instructions for erasing a page after use:

To make cleane your Tables, when they are written on.

Take a lyttle peece of a Spunge, or a Linnen cloath, being cleane without any soyle: wet it in water, and wring it hard, & wipe that you haue written very lightly, and it wyll out, and within one quarter of an howre, you maye wryte in the same place agayne: put not your leaues together, whylst they be very wet with wyping.[ref]From Stallybrass p. 382 from Robert Triplet, Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres, with sundry necessarie rules (London, 1604).[/ref]

The ability to erase or wipe clean the writing tablet was a distinct feature of the tablet’s utility; the writing was temporary, and old data could be replaced by new data. When Hamlet says

Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,

Hamlet is referring to wiping away the old, prior data in the table (tablet) of his memory (wetware; his brain). He describes the kinds of data he has currently stored in his memory; his “saws of books” is a clear reference to the commonplaces entered in commonplace books. Hamlet will wipe away the commonplaces, and instead, store information the ghost has given him regarding the murder of Hamlet’s father. But then Hamlet closes the soliloquy asking for his tables, his writing tablet, so that he may “set it down / That one may smile and smile and be a villain,” that is, Hamlet wishes to write in his tablet a commonplace.

Many writing tablets or tables were pocket-sized, and were used in very similar ways to modern paper “pocket notebooks.” Some of the tables were elaborately decorated and bound; others were very inexpensive, and sold as household commodities.

open leather cover of an English 16th century table book
Late 16th century English table book with panel stamped covers covering an erasable tablet. Image: Folger Library STC 101.2.
Inside the tables showing the coated tablet page with writing
Inside tablet page showing coated surface, Image: Folger Library STC 101.2.


In the first half of the sixteenth century Netherlandish paint Jan Gossaert painted a merchant in his office, surrounded by his everyday tools, including a writing tablet. As the National Gallery says:

Gossaert’s portrait shows a merchant seated in a cramped yet cozy space, surrounded by the tools of his trade. Scattered over the table are such useful items as a talc shaker used to dry ink, an ink pot, a pair of scales for testing the weight (and hence the quality) of coins, and a metal receptacle for sealing wax, quill pens, and paper. Attached to the wall are balls of twine and batches of papers labeled “miscellaneous letters” and “miscellaneous drafts.” The monogram on the sitter’s hat pin and index finger ring have led to his tentative identification as Jan Jacobsz Snoeck.

Jan Gossaert Portrait of a Merchant
Netherlandish c. 1530
Oil on panel National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Detail from Jan Gossaert Portrait of a Merchant Netherlandish c. 1530 Oil on panel National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

If you look closely at the painting, at the far right of the painting  (on the merchant’s left) is a small leather bound writing tablet. It’s a little obscured by the round set of coin scales on top of it. I’ve inserted a detail showing the bound tablet and stylus to the right. This small bound notebook is an almanac with reusable tables. The clue that this is a writing tablet rather than a normal bound book is the hooked stylus on the cover. The stylus serves a double purpose in that it keeps the tablet closed when it is not in use.

There are several references, like this from John Aubrey’s biography of Sir Phillip Sydney, that suggest that writing tablets were often used the way we might today use Field Notes or other pocket-sized notebooks; to make notes while on the go. Aubrey writes:

My great uncle, Mr. Thomas Browne, remembred him; and sayd that he was often wont, as he was hunting on our pleasant plaines, to take his table booke out of his pocket, and write downe his notions as they came into his head, when he was writing his Arcadia, (which was never finished by him).[ref]John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696. Ed. Clark (1898) 2:247-52. Available here. [/ref]

The Renaissance writing tablet was valued for erasability and reuse, and for its portable nature, allowing someone like Sidney to write while standing, because tablets didn’t require an ink-stand, and, properly bound, didn’t require a hard surface. They were both temporary and portable.