Miscellanies originated in the ancient world as books containing assorted literary works and sometimes illustrations. The word “miscellany” isn't always used in book titles, and literature experts sometimes disagree on what's classified as a miscellany. Nonetheless, as the word “miscellany” implies, a miscellany can include just about anything that fits in its pages, such as:
* Fantastic tales
* Social commentary
* Medical remedies
* Legal proceedings
Although some miscellanies are compiled from various sources by multiple authors, many miscellanies present one author’s work. Most miscellanies in antiquity were single-authored; medieval miscellanies, on the other hand, were more akin to literary mix tapes.
Some miscellanies feature only one literary genre, such as poetry. Others focus on a particular theme or subject. Still more present an eclectic mix of material in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience.
Unlike anthologies, miscellanies usually focus on contemporary pieces relevant to the day rather than well-known literature. However, classic works do occasionally appear in miscellanies. One notable example is Beowulf in the Nowell Codex, which was compiled from the late 10th to early 11th century.
Due partly to the emphasis on new and diverse works, historical miscellanies offered one of the few publication outlets to women and other underrepresented writers. In fact, some miscellanies featured content exclusively written by women, such as Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755).
One infamous publication, The Merry-Thought: or the Glass-Window and Bog-House Miscellany (1731), exclusively featured graffiti written on various tavern surfaces, such as windows, drinking glasses, tables, and restroom walls. Though considered vulgar by polite society, it clearly found an appreciative audience because several volumes were published.
Miscellanies span a wide variety of cultures and eras. Here’s a small sample:
(a.k.a. Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang)
by Duan Chengshi
China, 853 A.D.
Public Domain in the U.S., Google-digitized
(a.k.a. Sviatoslav’s Miscellany)
Russia, 1073 & 1076 A.D.
Persia, 1410 A.D.
Public domain, The British Library
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, miscellanies by single authors dominated. However, writing in popular forms like essays, treatises, commentaries, and dialogues allowed them to present the ideas of others alongside their own. They also occasionally included material written by others in their books.
Titles did not include the word “miscellany,” though they often hinted at the work’s miscellaneous nature with words that translate to things like “hodgepodge,” “honeycomb,” and “patchwork.” Some miscellanies were stand-alone works while others were released in multiple volumes, such as Pliny’s Natural History (37 books). (Of course, manuscripts written on scrolls were limited in length by practical considerations.)
A few examples of ancient miscellanies include:
* Deipnosophistae (a.k.a. Banquet of the Learned), by Athenaeus
* Noctes Atticae (a.k.a. Attic Nights), by Aulus Gellius
* Silvae, by Statius
* Moralia, by Plutarch
* Epigrams, by Martial
Although miscellaneous literature was generally well-accepted by readers of the day, the form had its critics. Perhaps this is why ancient miscellanies often began with an explanation and defense of the material’s variety and how it was arranged.
Illustrated title page of 1665 Dutch edition of Noctes Atticae, by Aulus Gellius
While the majority of writers at this time were men, a small number of women writers became widely known and respected. Pamphila (a.k.a. Pamphile) of Epidaurus, who lived in Greece during the first century A.D., published 33 volumes of Historical Commentaries (Historika Hypomnēmata). Only a few fragments survive today; however, eight books still existed 700 years later when Photius wrote of them.
Photius described her work as diverse, spanning many subjects and disciplines. According to him, Pamphila said in her preface that she wrote down noteworthy accounts that she heard from her husband and his visitors, keeping material in the order she recorded them because she thought readers would find it more interesting that way.
Pamphila’s Historical Commentaries became one of the most influential ancient miscellanies. Her contemporaries held her work in such high regard that at least several of them referenced her in their own works, including Aulus Gellius, Apuleius, and Diogenes Laertius.
“Esther Before Ahasuerus,” The North French Hebrew Miscellany (1278 A.D.)
During the Medieval period, many illustrated manuscripts – the beautifully adorned and gilded works so popular during this period – were miscellanies. Until about 1200 A.D., the vast majority of these books were created in monasteries for use by monks; therefore, earlier miscellanies often consisted solely of religious material. Old English poetry also survives thanks to early Medieval miscellanies.
As miscellanies moved outside the cloisters, music, romances, and recipes became favorite inclusions. Medical and health-related texts were also common, including topics like herbal medicine, medical procedures, alchemy, prayers, and charms.
To create miscellanies, scribes copied original material, turning each individual work into its own booklet. People then selected the booklets they wanted and had them bound together. Alternatively, a person might decide what they wanted in their book and hire scribes to copy and bind the material for them.
Medieval miscellanies sometimes mixed texts in several different languages, especially between the mid-13th to mid-14th centuries. For instance, different parts might be written in Latin, Irish, and English.
As printing presses spread across Europe, manuscript miscellanies gave way to printed miscellanies. Though the era of the illuminated manuscript ended, printed books still included illustrations. One interesting trend in miscellanies during this period was the inclusion of embroidery patterns.
In England, the popularity of ballads and songbooks strongly influenced miscellanies, which often consisted of lyric poetry and/or song lyrics. In fact, some miscellanies were meant to be performed musically or read aloud for an audience. Musicians also appropriated lyric poetry and set it to music.
Courtly authors featured prominently in these miscellanies. For instance, works by Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Phillip Sydney, and Queen Elizabeth herself appeared in the Arundel Harington manuscript. Despite this, pieces by writers of other social classes mixed in with their aristocratic contemporaries.
Proper credit to authors varied greatly, with works sometimes attributed through pseudonyms, initials, or vague references. Some credited the wrong person.
Anonymous contributions were common, especially for poems from a female perspective (though how many of these were actually written by women is unknown). Anonymity was conferred regardless of social status, and courtly authors tended to prefer it.
Miscellanies soared in popularity during the 1700s. Trying to appeal to a wide audience became important, and successful miscellanies inspired imitations and pirated copies.
Poetic miscellanies remained a favorite, with almost 5000 English volumes printed over the century. Religious poetry and hymns competed with irreverent material, such as bawdy humor and comic songs. Sex, death, and love became the most common topics. Politics also ranked highly, though not surpassing religion.
Title page, The Foundling Hospital for Wit (1743)
While most miscellanies contained material intended for adults, a small number appealed to children. For instance, the miscellany series A Museum for Young Gentlemen and Ladies aimed to educate youth. First published in 1750, it eventually included 15 editions. In later years its content shifted, making it more of an encyclopedia.
With the 1700s came the miscellany’s eventual supplanter: the magazine. Edward Cave coined the word “magazine” in 1731 when he began publishing The Gentleman’s Magazine.
Magazines published similar content as miscellanies, but as periodicals. The crossover between miscellanies and magazines is apparent in such publications as The Edinburgh Magazine, or Literary Miscellany
The 1770s and 1780s brought a spate of collections for oratory practice, like The British Spouter or Stage Assistant. These were useful for participating in “spouting clubs,” fairly akin to today's Toastmasters, though with less focus on business and a much higher chance of public mockery.
Despite the proliferation of verse miscellanies in the 1700s, by the end of the century prose had become trendy.
During the 1800s, miscellanies morphed into magazines. Prose gradually overtook poetry, with verse miscellanies dying out during the Victorian era. Although miscellanies still interspersed occasional poems amongst the prose, readers devoured miscellanies primarily for their serialized novels.
Bentley’s Miscellany started off with great success in 1836, thanks to its first two editors and contributors, Charles Dickens and William Harrison Ainsworth. Bentley’s published serials of Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, which both became big hits.
Cover of Bentley's Miscellany (March 1, 1841)
Other literary luminaries of the day who contributed to Bentley’s included Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Mrs. Henry Wood (Ellen Wood). The publication also commissioned illustrations from reknowned artist George Cruikshank and newcomer John Leech, who later became famous for illustrating Punch.
Dickens and Ainsworth both quit Bentley’s due to disagreements with publisher Richard Bentley. Both founded their own miscellanies/magazines: All the Year Round (Dickens) and Ainsworth’s Magazine: A Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, and Art.
In addition to such literary publications, readers loved weekly news miscellanies. These featured plenty of instructive and entertaining content, such as critical essays and columns for women and children.
By the early 1900s, the miscellany’s heydey ended, though both periodical and book miscellanies continued to be published sporadically. Currently, miscellanies seem be enjoying a small resurgence.
Reprints of miscellanies by classic authors like Plutarch, Clement of Alexandria, Oscar Wilde, E.E. Cummings, and Beatrix Potter abound. More recent gems include Ben Schott’s series, beginning with Schott’s Original Miscellany (2002); Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps (2015), by Martin Vargic; and The Golden Age of the Garden: A Miscellany (2017), by Claire Cock-Starkey (Editor).
Miscellanies have also made their way online as well, with such websites and blogs as:
* Dance’s Historical Miscellany
* Legal History Miscellany
* Magpie’s Miscellany
* Misfits’ Miscellany
* Nihon Zatsuroku: An Online Japanese Miscellany
And, of course, my own site which you are currently visiting, Muses Miscellany. Thank you!
Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept
by William Fitzgerald
University of Chicago Press, 2016
The Philosopher’s Banquet: Plutarch’s Table Talk in the Intellectual Culture of the Roman Empire
by Frieda Klotz & Katerina Oikonomopoulou (eds.)
Oxford University Press, 2011
“Pamphila’s Historical Commentaries”
by Dina Guth
Society for Classical Studies
“Medieval Mysteries: Miscellanies and Mix Tapes”
by Danièle Cybulskie
July 1, 2016
Verse Miscellanies Online: Printed Poetry Collections of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
University of Reading, University of Oxford
“Word & Image: The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608”
Folger Shakespeare Library
July 8, 2015
“Recipes in Manuscript Miscellanies”
by Lisa Smith
The Recipes Project
October 20, 2016
Digital Miscellanies Index
University of Oxford, 2013
by Philip Soundy Unwin, George Unwin, et al.
Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc.
“The Kalender of Shepherds Miscellany”
December 22, 2007
Banner image composited from:
“Anatomical Man with the Planets” illustration from The Kalender of Shepherdes. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
“Bog House” illustration from The Merry Thought: or, The Glass-Window and Bog-house Miscellany. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Vargic's Miscellany of Curious Maps book cover.
© 2015 HarperCollins Publishers.