The Human Tradition of Keeping A Diary

Since time immemorial people have been recording their lives and surroundings.  As far back as the Stone Age people recorded the world around them on the walls of caves in the form of art.  They depicted the animals they shared an environment with and recorded hunting events.  They reflected on the world around them and set it to stone in the same way we set it to paper today.

This reflection on the world and our place in it is an unavoidable aspect of being human.  It’s what we do.  We observe both our internal and external worlds, and try to make sense of them.  Naturally, with the rise of literacy came the rise of the diary as daily record for the masses.

“Swiftly, swiftly, record your thoughts before they are forever lost in time.”
Trevor Wright

The earliest reference to a diary as a book in which one recorded daily life was in Ben Jonson’s 1605 comedy, Volpone.  In 17th century England diary keeping became quite popular with people recording all kinds of different aspects of life.   Like today, there were many kinds of diaries you could commit to keeping.

In John Beadle’s 1656 Diary of a Thankful Christian he wrote:

“‘We have our state diurnals, relating to national affairs. Tradesmen keep their shop books. Merchants their account books. Lawyers have their books of pre[c]edents. Physitians have their experiments. Some wary husbands have kept a diary of daily disbursements. Travellers a Journall of all that they have seen and hath befallen them in their way. A Christian that would be more exact hath more need and may reap much more good by such a journal as this. We are all but stewards, factors here, and must give a strict account in that great day to the high Lord of all our wayes, and of all his wayes towards us’.” (Source)

While Beadle was making use of the diary genre to keep a record of his life as a Christian for God, many others were using it to record other elements of life that were important to them.  Four centuries later we continue to do the same.

Samuel Pepys was another famous diarist of the 17th century but instead of a religious purpose, Pepys’ diaries beginning in 1660 were private accounts of his personal life and feelings.

“Pepys wrote consistently on subjects such as personal finances, the time he got up in the morning, the weather, and what he ate. He talked at length about his new watch (which had an alarm, a new thing at the time) which he was very proud of, a country visitor who did not enjoy his time in London because he felt that it was too crowded, and his cat waking him up at one in the morning.  Pepys diary is one of the only known sources which provides such length in details of everyday life of an upper middle class man during the seventeenth century.” (Source)

As much as Pepys recorded his daily life for ten years, he also wrote about significant events taking place at the time, like; the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London.

The need to process our thoughts and record our lives remains strong even today.  The diary or journal has and always will be a powerful life tool.  There has never been just one type of diary either.  The diary is a fluid and malleable genre that you can bend and mould to fit your needs and suite your personal style.

In truth you can keep track of and express anything you like in your diary or journal.  Increased literacy meant that more and more people were able to put pen (or quill) to paper, but long before the journal became accessible to the masses great thinkers and artists were keeping journals of their ideas, thoughts, and drawings.

The most famous of these has to be the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci which were brought together into a collection in 1883.  Da Vinci lived from 1452 to 1519 and so long before his writings were collected into volumes he was making use of the valuable practise of keeping track of and writing down his great ideas, research, and sketches.  Da Vinci’s notebooks are another example of the direction we can take our journaling in and just how far back collecting and recording our thoughts really goes.

I have kept a diary since I was a teenager.  They haven’t always been the same type though, and I haven’t always written every day.  The older I got, the more my needs changed, and so too the purpose and style of my diary changed.

There’s debate about which kind of diary is the most beneficial for you.  I believe it’s the habit of keeping a diary that is the beneficial part, the kind you choose is a personal choice.  In the coming weeks I’ll be writing a series of posts exploring the different kinds of diaries or journals people are keeping and I hope you’ll find inspiration to begin keeping a diary or journal of your choice or renew your journaling habit.  It’s a creative and cathartic habit that can be loads of fun when you find the right type of journal to keep.  Stay tuned.


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Verity M

WRITER #Reading #Photography #Creativity #LifeDesign blogging on Lilolia. Van Gogh: "It is good to love many things, for therein lies strength..."

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