Voices on the Medieval Page (1): The Reader

This is the first part of a series highlighting instances where medieval individuals added information to an existing book, either right after its production or centuries later. What precisely did scribes, readers, booksellers and librarians scribble down? And what do these voices tell us about their relationship to the manuscript? Part 1: the reader.

A medieval book was made because an individual wanted to read, own, the text contained on its pages. However, owning a book in the age before print was a luxury. Due to the long production time (easily half a year for a long text) and the materials used (up to c. 1300 the skins of animals) the cost of a book’s production was steep, even if it contained no decoration or miniatures. This is why up to the later Middle Ages book ownership was generally confined to affluent environments, such as religious houses, courts, and the residences of merchants and patricians.

Considering how special it was to own a manuscript, it may seem remarkable that medieval readers wrote in their books. Indeed, their uninvited contributions could be considerable. While in our modern day scribbling on the page is by many perceived as an almost offensive deed, condoned perhaps only when done for study purposes, medieval readers regarded it a normal practice, an integral part of the reading experience. Marginal notes, underscored text, pointing fingers all helped to digest the text and open a dialogue with the author. Thus the pen was as important as reading glasses.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 144 (12th c): annotations added in 13th century
1) Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 144 (12th c): annotations, 13th century

The most common readers’ voices heard on the medieval page concern marginal annotations to the text (Image 1). Reading St Augustine a reader may suddenly remember a relevant passage in the work of another Church Father. With a quick pen action he could opt to place a reference in the margin, perhaps evens with the name of the other authority next to it. He could even quote the referenced text, either by heart or copied from another book. Monks in particular had access to a sizable reference library, a true temptation for the critical reader seeking to interact with the text in front of him.

Alternatively, a reader may jot down a clarifying sentence next to a passage that was hard to understand. In Latin books such notes may start with “Id est”(this is, this means). They are particularly common in university textbooks, but they are also frequently encountered in learned books from other environments – including monasteries. Clarifying notes are usually placed in the margin, that inviting ocean of empty space (as much as 50% of the medieval page was margin). Shorter notes were sometimes scribbled in between the lines. More exceptionally, readers drew clarifying schemes to makes sense of the sense (Image 2).

Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, MS 101 F 23 KL (12th c): diagram added in 13th century
2) Deventer, Athenaeumbibliotheek, 101 F 23 KL (12th c): diagram, 13th century

Highlighting information
Alternatively, a reader may use his pen to highlight important information. He could do so by drawing lines in the margin alongside the text, as we would do today, but there were also more sophisticated means. A particularly attractive one is the pointing finger (Image 3). This well-known signpost comes in different variants. On the one end of the spectrum there is merely the hand with its pointing finger, which is usually extended; on the other end there are hands with elaborated sleeves (like this one), or even those with entire bodies attached to them. A less conspicuous way of pointing out important information was to place the word “nota” (attention) next to it in the margin. The manner in which these signs were executed is highly personal: readers made their own customized pictogram out of the four letters of the word.

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 60: finger pointing at marginal note
3) St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, 60 (11th c): finger pointing at marginal note

Pointing out flaws
Sometimes a reader noticed that something he read was terribly wrong, prompting him to dip his quill in the ink pot. He may, for example, expunge the incorrect words by placing dots underneath them and write the correct reading nearby. Scribes often rid the text of copying flaws after they finished their job, but the picky reader may still find plenty to correct. Some got agitated by the mistakes they encountered as they made their way through the book. The individual who read a late-fourteenth century Dutch Gospel Book now in Vienna remarked the following when he was a third-way into the text, having already corrected dozens of mistakes: “These Gospels have been translated poorly; [the translator] did not understand them very well” (Dese evangelien sijn alte matelec gedietscht, diet dede verstont se qualec). (Image 4).

Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th c): "what a poor translation!"
4) Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th c): “what a poor translation!”

Personal remarks
This frustrated outcry shows that readers’ corrections did not just concern flaws left behind by the scribe, but also included mistakes that were “baked” into the text from its very conception – when it was first made by the author or translator. They also show how personal (and opinionated!) readers’ remarks may be. There were other reasons to leave personal statements in a book. An enjoyable case for those who love medieval book culture is what Hector van Moerdrecht, Carthusian in Utrecht, had to say about two particularly narrow books in the library. In both he jotted on the flyleaf: “This book does not have the required width; it is too narrow and high”. His verdict was correct because the books do break with the rule for medieval page proportions. Van Moerdrecht’s words sound like those of a disappointed reader, or perhaps they were meant to offer an apology to his fellow monks. As the examples above emphasize, Carthusians were keen on presenting text in a “proper” manner.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS VLQ 1 (11th c).
5) Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 1 (11th c): “Alter liber habet…”.

Logistic remarks
Then there are, finally, instances where it was necessary to add signposts to the page. A reader could, for example, point to another relevant text in the same manuscript (“see also further, on page …”). Particularly interesting are references to books in the library that presented alternative readings of a word or a passage. “Alter liber habet calatis” (our other book has “calatis”) we read in the margin of Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS VLQ 1, a late-eleventh century copy of Dioscorides’ De materia medica (Image 5). Such a remark suggests that the individual went through the text critically, comparing it, apparently, with a second copy in his vicinity. Indeed, another reader of the same manuscript frequently placed the letter “r” for “require” (check!) in the margins, showing that he, too, had felt the need to check up on the quality of the text.

Looking at the input of readers on the medieval page makes for exciting research as it allows us to look over the shoulder of the very individuals whose books we study. Evidently, many medieval readers read with a pen in their hand, ready and willing to make their mark on the page and in the text. It is remarkable to observe, finally, how the reader did not shy away from exposing himself as a know-it-all, perfectionist, micro manager, or even, in case of the sneer about the poor translation, as a bit of a grump.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

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