Before there were Spark Notes, there were epitomes. Early modern epitomes were compact summaries of lengthy texts, and like such abridgements today, epitomes had their allies and detractors. They found at least one influential advocate in the humanist educational theorist Desiderius Erasmus, who was delighted with the abridgements of his Adages (1500) that appeared in print in the first half of the sixteenth century. Indeed, in 1521, he congratulated one of these epitomists on his “admirable undertaking,” writing that since the original volume had been “too large...to be within reach of those of modest circumstances, or to be read in grammar schools,” he was glad that now the book could be “thumbed by schoolboys, and will add little weight to a traveler’s baggage.”
Other authors made similar claims for the epitome as a public good, placing books within the reach of those who might not have the financial means or education to purchase and read the originals. As David Scott Kastan and Chloe Wheatley have shown, John Foxe's famously monumental martyrology Actes and Monuments (1563), also known as the "Book of Martyrs," was frequently abridged into smaller and more inexpensive versions.
Thomas Mason's Christs Victorie (1615) was one such abridgement. In the preface, Mason pointed out that due to "[t]he labor of reading so large a volume, together with the dearness of the price thereof...few that haue the Booke read it ouer, and the most part of men are not able to buy it." By contrast, a short volume "faithfully abstracted"--as the title page promised--could offer readers similar spiritual benefits for a fraction of the price.
Epitomes did not only appear in print: some readers wrote their own epitomes in manuscript as well. For example, a 1660s manuscript by an anonymous reader, titled "A short epitomy of the first book of martyrs," contains compressed summaries of the many martyrdoms in the Actes and Monuments: "Under this Mar: Antonius there suffered Policarpus Bishop of Smirna see ye story page 55...Justinus ye Phylosopher sufferd &: there is also a persecution in Lyons & Vienna page: 188.8.131.52."
This manuscript account suggests that early modern readers did not only extract passages into their commonplace books and notebooks: they also epitomized what they read, putting their own mark on texts by summarizing and paraphrasing them.
The educational reformer Roger Ascham had a less positive assessment of the epitome, writing in The Scholemaster (1570) that "Epitome, is good privatlie for himself that doth worke it, but ill commonlie for all other that use other mens labor therein: a silie poore kinde of studie, not unlike to the doing of those poore folke, which neyther tille, nor sowe, nor reape themselves, but gleane by stelth, upon other mens growndes." The reader who relies on summaries rather than reckoning with the original texts is compared to a farmer who steals his neighbor's crops: "Such have emptie barnes, for deare yeares."
At the same time, however, he acknowledges that the epitome "is good...for himself that doth worke it," since distilling a text down to its essence is hard intellectual work. In other words, writers of epitomes--like the author of the above manuscript--are to be commended, but readers of epitomes--like the people who buy Thomas Mason's abridgement--are taking the easy way out.