A famous journal can be a fascinating historical record. With some journals dating back to the thirteenth century (and sometimes even earlier), individuals from all walks of life have used them to record their innermost feelings and experiences.
7 Famous Journals
These famous diary entries are incredibly valuable and offer insight and context for some of the most pivotal moments in history.
Long before the days of podcasts or YouTube soliloquies, these diaries provided us with a window into the daily life of notable people. From the travel journals written by Marco Polo, all the way up to modern-day entries by rock musicians, the journal is a great way to record a snapshot of your personal life at any given moment.
In this article, we take a look at seven famous journals through history, and explore why these were kept and what they offered to the world.
Marco Polo (1254-1324)
(Handwritten notes by Christopher Columbus on Marco Polo’s diary. Source - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ColombusNotesToMarcoPolo.jpg)
One of the earliest recorded travel journals was by the Venetian merchant and explorer, Marco Polo. His journal, Livre des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World), documented his travels to Asia, and explained to Europeans the vast size and wealth of one of the unexplored corners of the planet.
This travelogue helped to inspire the likes of Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the United States, as well as other explorers - and provided important geographic detail that had been unavailable prior to Polo’s journal.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
(Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook. Source - https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/leonardo-da-vinci-notebook)
The Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci recorded his thoughts in a series of papers and notes, which was then put together after his death. The notebooks contain his notes on a range of topics, including mechanics and astronomy, offering an insight into da Vinci’s thought process.
da Vinci also used the notebooks to record architectural designs and sketches, which serve as further examples of his artistic talent. Examples of da Vinci’s journal are available from the British Library.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
(The beginning of Beethoven’s Heilgenstadt Testament. Source - http://www.lvbeethoven.com/Bio/BiographyHeiligenstadtTestament.html)
One of the most renowned composers of all-time, Ludwig van Beethoven kept numerous notebooks, journals and letters which provided an indication of the man behind the compositions.
Despite a quick temper and sometimes furious demeanour, a compilation of letters released after his death revealed a different side to Beethoven. In one entry - known as the Heiligenstadt Testament - the German composer reveals his deafness, as well as a deep depression and struggles with keeping it a secret. As a diary is such a personal document, it is common for authors to use journal entries as coping mechanisms for stress.
Charles Darwin (1809-1881)
(Charles Darwin’s 1838 diary entry. Source - http://darwin-online.org.uk/EditorialIntroductions/vanWyhe_Manuscripts.html )
Prior to keeping a personal journal, the English geologist and biologist Charles Darwin had already achieved a degree of fame for The Voyage of the Beagle, which recorded his experiences aboard HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836. Darwin then started keeping a personal journal in August 1838.
Darwin sometimes condensed a whole year of journal entries into one page of a 3 x 4 inch notebook, causing his son, Francis, to remark that “it [the journal]...is unfortunately written with great brevity.”
The journal does contain important and oft-quoted passages, including his impressions upon reading back his original notes from his travels to the Galapagos Islands. A full copy of the journal is available at the Darwin Online archive.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
(Screenshot of Marie Curie’s journal - Wellcome Library)
The first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie pioneered research into radioactivity. Her notes and journals are on display at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, with many of her discoveries contained within them.
Whilst it is widely known that Curie’s health suffered as a consequence of her work, it also impacted her belongings - and journals. Due to the potential dangers posed by the radioactive levels, French authorities keep her notebooks in lead-lined boxes and visitors to the Bibliothèque Nationale must sign a liability waiver before viewing them.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
(Draft of Churchill’s ‘Finest Hour’ speech with his own handwritten amendments. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/world/europe/18churchhill.html)
Aside from serving as Prime Minister and leading Britain through the Second World War, Winston Churchill was also an accomplished writer and journalist.
Churchill’s personal thoughts from throughout his life show that, owing to his journalistic flair, he had a tendency to paint history - even in his own private musings - to favour his own reputation. A searchable archive is available at the Churchill Papers catalogue.
Courtney Love (1964-)
(Journal excerpt from Courtney Love’s ‘Dirty Blonde’. Source: http://www.geekculture.com/joyoftech/joystuff/baywatch/blonde_pg150.jpg )
Whilst perhaps not as famous as others on this list, American musician Courtney Love’s 2006 memoir, Dirty Blonde, is an intriguing collection of journal entries and letters.
From a bleak childhood in Oregon, to lead singer with the rock band Hole, up to her tempestuous relationship with Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Love uses her diary entries and personal artefacts to show the highs and lows of her life in the public eye. As is the case with several diarists, Love confesses that the experience was cathartic, giving her some relief and closure.
Make your own history
Keeping a journal is a timeless way to record your thoughts, feelings and experiences. Whether you’re trying to keep track of your day-to-day life, using it as catharsis to get thoughts out of your head and on to paper, or simply for something to look back on when you’re old and grey - you can record your own history.
Just think - perhaps long after you’re gone, future generations of your family could look back and learn what life was about hundreds of years ago, just as we’re able to do with Marco Polo and da Vinci. Why not start your journal today with one of our stunning personalised products?