Tag Archives: Annotations

Facebook Before Facebook: Tagging in Antiquity

This is a guest blog by Sarah E. Bond, ancient historian in the Classics Department at the University of Iowa. The post highlights the link between media in the past and in our own digital world, a theme that is frequently addressed here. Sarah maintains a blog devoted to classical culture. EK

In the digital world, tags are ubiquitous. When we digitally tag items, we are essentially applying metadata (information about your information) to an object. We practice this all the time: when we write a blog post and want to increase viewership, when we upload an image onto Flickr, or when we identify individuals or places in Facebook posts. At Facebook’s Desktop Help center, they attempt to explain the reasons for tagging: “When you tag someone, you create a link to their profile…Your status update may also show up on that friend’s Timeline.” In antiquity, tags functioned in a similar manner to today. Though on stone, ceramics, mosaics, and other media rather than the screen, they still broadcast literary and social networks while also providing context for the viewer.

Fig. 1 - Monticello
Fig. 1 – Monticello Archeological Field School, 2005 – Source: Facebook Sarah Bond

In the book Evolution and Ethics (1893), biologist T.H. Huxley wrote that, “One of the unpardonable sins, in the eyes of most people, is for a man to go about unlabeled. The world regards such a person as the police do an unmuzzled dog, not under proper control.” What Huxley meant was that there is a human proclivity toward labeling individuals, objects, places, and concepts. In short? Our minds prefer to organize knowledge.

I couldn’t help but recall this quote not long ago, while recording an inscription at the Art Institute of Chicago for the U.S. Epigraphy Project (Fig. 1). On display in the newly reopened Greek, Roman, and Byzantine galleries of the ArtIC is a funeral monument from the 4th century BCE shaped like a Greek lekythos, an oil jar (Fig. 2). The marble marker didn’t just imitate a ceramic vessel in regard to its shape; it also replicated the tags that often identify figures on Greek pottery. Interestingly, with steady precision, the stonecutter labeled the three figures: Leon Alaieus, Demagora, and Helike (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2 - Leon
Fig. 2 – Funerary Lekythos, 4th century BCE. Katherine K. Adler Memorial Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Alexander Classical Endowment Fund, Costa A. Pandaleon Greek Art Memorial Fund, and David P. Earle III Fund, 2009.76 – Photo SB
Fig. 3 – Funerary Lekythos, 4th century BCE  (detail of Fig. 2)

One of my jobs—along with the other contributors to the USEP—is to visit museums and record the inscriptions on various objects. Many of these epigraphic notations receive little attention from viewers, not only because most visitors can no longer read Latin or Greek (O tempora!), but also because the modern focus tends to champion the figures rather than the texts. However, we must ask ourselves whether this is a modern bias. By all accounts, there was a strong interplay between texts and images in antiquity that cannot be ignored. Moreover, the inclination toward the organization of information through labeling went beyond simple identification. Much like today, labels functioned in a myriad of ways: to articulate space, to exhibit notions of proper paideia (education) and legitimacy, to trigger collective memory, and to provide deeper engagement with an object.

Fig. 4 - Jerusalem portion of the Madaba Map
Fig. 4 – Jerusalem portion of the Madaba Map, 6th century CE – Source

Moving away from classical antiquity and into the late antique period, the interplay between texts and images became more pronounced, particularly through mosaics. Perhaps the most well known example of this is the Madaba Map, a mid 6th century CE mosaic from Jordan depicting the Holy Land (Fig. 4, interactive version here). Discovered in 1884, the map has a mix of topographical tags and buildings in order to project a worldview of the Christian Near East. The buildings are not to scale, areas are highly distorted, and it would be of little use to a traveller, but then again, the objective of the map is not functionality. To my mind, the incredibly clustered tags are visually advertising the abundance of Christian sites in general. Here the tags and the architecture work together to claim dominion.

It is important to remember that just as there are trends in writing materials or in fonts, there were fashions in tagging based on period, place, and medium. During the later Roman empire, it appears to have become vogue in the East in particular to label mosaics. Mosaics from Cyprus, Syria, and modern day Turkey often have labels overtop figures identifying classical figures such as Dionysus or Theseus. Rather than simply assuming these tags were provided due to the ignorance of the viewer in regard to Greek mythology, we should perhaps think about it as a shift in the landscape of writing. In terms of literacy levels and who could read these captions, labels on mosaics likely required a minimal amount of “recognition vocabulary” (as Greg Woolf calls it) in order to read. They functioned to prompt conversation between dinner guests staring at the floor or perhaps congregants within a basilica, and lured viewers into interaction while perhaps serving to display the education of the patron.

Fig. 5 Apollo Paphos
Fig. 5 Apollo Paphos mosaic, 4th century CE (Apollo enthroned) – Source
Fig. 6 - Theseus Paphos
Fig. 6 – Theseus Paphos, 2nd century CE (Struggle of Theseus and Minotaur) – Source

What are we to make of this apparent increase in the use of labels on mosaics in the late Roman East? One could perhaps argue that it was the expression of the import of writing and literacy within early Christian communities, but as we can see at Paphos, this trend predated the rise of Christianity. More likely is that labels at various times came into vogue as a means of provoking literary or perhaps geographic discussions that could then be tied spatially (or in later memories) back to the owner of house. As they had previously done in funerary or symposium contexts, mosaic labels also worked in tandem with the space and the image to heighten the viewer’s overall engagement. Just like the Facebook tagging of today, these labels helped the ancient viewer to access and to organize information more thoroughly, often while enhancing the prestige of the tagger.

Fig. 7 - Atropos
Fig. 7 –  Wikipedia screen shot showing mosaic with tagged name – Source

Although the digital tags of today link to databases, both ancient and modern tags similarly function to create a network that individuals are visibly situated within. Wikipedia, for example, allows users to translate tags into their own language (Fig. 7). In antiquity, even if the patron or the deceased was not tagged in a vase or a mosaic, there was an implied association. Just think about your friend who constantly tags people to view New York Times articles or posts Kierkegaard quotes on their walls. What are they really telling you? The walls may have changed, but the coded purposes behind curated images and tagging remain ever the same. Viewers of your posts visit your digital home to view tagged images, even if they have no knowledge of the people within them. Tagging still functions to create networks and to elevate the poster in terms of social capital—the principal coinage in the Facebook marketplace.

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.