Dancing around the Well

The Circulation of Commonplaces in Renaissance Humanism


This study examines the transmission and transformation of commonplace wisdom in Renaissance humanism by tracing a series of filiations between classical sayings, anecdotes, and exampes and Renaissance poems, essays, and fictions. The circulation of commonplaces can be understood either as a process of reanimation and revitalization, where frozen sayings thaw out and come to life, or conversely as a process of immobilization and incrustation that petrifies tradition. The paradigmatic figure for this process is the proverbial dance around the well, which expresses both the danger and the compulsion of borrowed speech.
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Biographical Note

Eric MacPhail, Ph.D. (1988) Princeton University, is Professor of French at Indiana University. He has published widely on French Renaissance literature and on the classical tradition in Renaissance humanism, including The Sophistic Renaissance (Droz, 2011).

Review Quotes

“MacPhail’s book offers a highly readable and informative reconstruction of the circulation of classical adages in diverse genres of Latin and vernacular literature in the last decades of the sixteenth century. […] The technique of using proverbial sayings in dedicatory and familiar epistles had been developed by Angelo Poliziano and perfected by Erasmus, who noted that proverbs in letters are like jewels mounted on a ring, and so promote a special relationship between writer and addressee. […] By drawing our attention to this recurring feature of Renaissance literary discourse, MacPhail makes a splendid contribution that is certain to stimulate further discussion about the humanists’ manipulation of classical commonplaces. As MacPhail demonstrates so effectively, the adages are important components of a fascinating literary era.”
Riemer A. Faber, University of Waterloo. In: Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Winter 2015), pp. 1352-1354.

Table of contents

Introduction: Dancing Around the Well
1. In the Beginning there was Chaos
2. A Gem in its Setting
3. Words Frozen and Thawed
4. Rhapsody in Prose
5. The Mosaic of Speech
6. The Universal Library
7. In a Roman Mirror
Conclusion: Emptying the Well
Index locorum communium
Index rerum
Index nominum
Index Erasmianus


Students and teachers of European Renaissance literature and history, and all readers of Erasmus.