Tag Archives: layout

Half Full, Half Empty: The Peculiar Medieval Page

Margins are both a universal and remarkable feature of books. From the very earliest specimens produced two millennia ago, to the e-readers we use today, books contain pages that hold both text and a significant amount of blank space. What a strange pair they are: words, the primary reason for the book’s existence; and a vast emptiness present on all sides of the text. A particularly remarkable aspect of marginal space is that there is so much of it in medieval books. My own work on the twelfth century, reflecting broader medieval patterns, shows that pages from that period consist of approximately 50% margin, although in some cases it can be significantly more. This implies, astonishingly, that the majority of medieval books are half empty, despite the fact that parchment was expensive and sometimes even hard to come by. Why is this?


London, British Library, Add. MS 43725 (4th century)
Fig. 1 – London, British Library, Add. MS 43725 (4th century) – Source

One answer to this question is a simple one: because this is how books were traditionally made. Medieval scribes took over a great deal of material features first introduced by their counterparts in Antiquity. The book as we know it – i.e. an object produced from quires (bundles of folded sheets) – came into existence in the fourth century, as discussed in my post What is the Oldest Book in the World?  The pages of the famous Codex Sinaiticus, a Greek New Testament copied around the middle of the fourth century, measures 381 x 345 mm (height x width), while the text itself only takes up 250×310 mm (height x width). A simple calculation reveals that the text takes up 58% of the page, while 42% is reserved for the outer margins. In other words, a little under half of this magnificent book is empty.

Michigan, Ann Arbor, P.Mich.Inv.6238 (made 150-250)
Fig. 2 – Michigan, Ann Arbor, P.Mich.Inv.6238 (made 150-250) –  Source

Going back even further, papyrus manuscripts from Antiquity also included a considerable amount of marginal space. This is seen, for example, in Fig. 2, which shows the remains of a copy of Paul’s Epistles written between 150 and 250 CE. While the margins have been reduced post-production through damage (the edges of the papyrus eroded), the upper margin, which is largely intact, shows how the scribe reserved ample marginal space. The extensive medieval margin is, in one way, simply a continuation of an older practice.

The early papyrus book in Fig. 2 highlights that it was also convenient to have an empty space around the text. It meant that you could fill them with tools that may be helpful when consulting the book. A particularly important reading aid is visible at the top of the papyrus page: the capital version of the Greek letter Mu (looking like an M), which represents the Greek number 40 (Fig. 3). In other words, this is a very early page number (folium number), an instrument that is apparently some two thousand years old and predates the printed book by over a millennium.

Detail of Fig. 1
Fig. 3 – Detail of Fig. 2

There are many other kinds of aids encountered in the margins of medieval books, including cross references to other books or locations in the same manuscript, quotation marks, labels that indicate who the quoted author is, and chapter numbers. A particularly prominent aid is the running title placed in the upper margin. The one in Fig. 4 states “Physicorum”, indicating this is Aristotle’s Physics. This particular manuscript contains several Aristotle texts, which were popular in the university classroom. The student or teacher who was browsing through the book for certain information was greatly helped by these sign posts.

London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century)
Fig. 4 – London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century) – Source

While the margin did a good job accommodating the relatively short reading aids, it could be challenging to add large amounts of text to the void surrounding the main text. Fig. 5 shows a schoolbook from c. 1100 that was donated to Egmond Abbey near Amsterdam by one Baldwinus, a teacher in Flanders. The text in the book, Lucan’s Pharsalia, was used in the medieval classroom, and it is therefore no surprise that numerous explanatory notes have been added to the text, probably by Baldwinus himself.

Leiden, University Library, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100)
Fig. 4 – Leiden, University Library, BUR Q 1 (c. 1100) – Photo EK

There is something special about these marginal notes: they are preceded by symbols that are the precursor of our modern footnote (more about this early practice in this post). The symbol links a remark in the margin to a specific location in the main text. The symbol seen in Fig. 5 resembles the number 7 and is perhaps the Tironian note for “et”.

Detail of Fig. 3
Fig. 5 – Detail of Fig. 4

Despite these add-ons, the schoolbook from c. 1100 is not really prepared to hold extensive notes. Baldwinus could have crammed more text in the margins, had he copied in a smaller script or increased the number of lines for the marginal text passages (presently, their number corresponds to the main text). However, this was not yet common practice in his day and age. In the scholastic age, by contrast, when university students needed to add a lot of extra information in the margin, these two tricks were applied, as seen in Fig. 3 – note the tiny script of the marginal notes, as well as the increased number of lines compared to the main text.

The examples in this post have shown different ways in which the margin, that handy device inherited from Antiquity, was put to good use by scribes and readers. However, it has not discussed why medieval margins were so large. Why keep as much as half of the page blank? Surely a quarter would be sufficient to add notes or tools?  While there are manuscripts that exhibit pages with tiny or no margins, there are not many. Leiden University library owns one of these exceptions: an early-eleventh-century schoolbook made from scrap parchment, the pages of which were filled to the brim (Fig. 6).

Leiden, University Library, VLO 92 (1000-1025)
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, VLO 92 (1000-1025)

Interestingly, the teacher who copied this book diverted from the medieval convention related to page design in that he opted not to add substantial blank spaces. His use of scrap parchment (offcuts that were left over after the regular sheets were cut from the animal skin) indicates this was a low-cost book project. In other words, making maximum use of the available space on the page is likely motivated by cost considerations: it ultimately limited the number sheets necessary to copy this collection of (classical) texts.

While the choice for large margins may have a basis in a shared idea of perfect proportions, something modern book designers would call the “golden ratio” (see herehere and here), the notion of convention is probably the ultimate drive. There are plenty of conventions in medieval book production that don’t have an obvious explanation. The relative dimensions of the page is one of them: the width of medieval books tends to be about 70% of its height (see my Books on a Diet post for some curious exceptions), but why is this so? And why do quires predominantly consist of four folded sheets? Why are page numbers placed in the upper rather than lower margin? The bottom line is that large margins may simply have been something that medieval readers had come to expect from the object in front of them.

Postscriptum – This post was written in celebration of a conference devoted to the medieval margin, which I attended in June 2015 (details and abstracts here). More on the unusual Leiden scrap manuscript in the essay I wrote for this volume. Also make sure to check out this blog by the Marginal Scholarship project. I owe the title of this post to Julie Somers.

Medieval Speech Bubbles

This blog frequently highlights parallels between medieval and modern technology and media. My recent posts on SpamGPS and Selfies in medieval times are good examples of that. As odd as this may sound, as a medieval book historian I see such parallels with modern concepts all the time: all you need is a pair of eyes and a little imagination. A few days ago, however, I encountered (and tweeted) a parallel I had never seen before: a drawing with the appearance of a page from a modern comic book (Fig. 1, tweet here).

British Library, Stowe 49 (14th century)
Fig. 1 – British Library, Stowe MS 49, fol. 122r (c. 1300) – Source

The drawing from c. 1300 shows a group of people walking, some of them with a walking stick in their hand. You can almost hear the sing-songs in the background. As it turns out, this merry scene bears more than one parallel to a modern comic book story.

Speech bubbles
According to the description of the British Library we are looking at a group of travellers conversing in English. What the description does not mention, however, is something that is rarely seen in medieval drawings: the different parts of conversation are given the appearance of speech bubbles. That is to say, just like in modern comic books, sentences are visually connected to the individual who utters them, by means of a tiny line (Fig. 2).

British Library, Stowe 49, fol. 122r, detail
Fig. 2 – British Library, Stowe MS 49, fol. 122r, detail

Also in parallel to modern comic books, the story that unfolds is funny and familiar. The art historian Lucy Freeman Sandler has devoted considerable attention to this scene (a transcription and literal translation is found in this publication). Using her work, while rewording her literal translation, the following conversation may be overheard:

The figure on the left starts, with a strange mantra: “They die because of heat, they die because of heat.” Then the two young people on his right speak, probably addressing their father [according to Sandler], who is walking behind them: “Sir, we die of cold!” The father, carrying a heavy toddler, orders them to stop whining: “Behold your little brother in front of us, he is only wearing a hood.” (He is right, because he is otherwise naked.) Then the toddler speaks, uttering universal toddler sounds: “Wa we”. Finally the two children in the back come into play (Fig. 2). “Sir, I am carrying too much weight,” says the one on the left.  The one on the right closes the conversation by comparing his own misery to that of his brother and father, stating “It is not they who carry the heaviest burden.”

The Middle English scene is familiar to many of us. We are shown a family en route to an unknown location (as if it were an alternative version of the Canterbury Tales). The young ones are verbally poking at each other, and complain about the temperature and the weight of their suitcases. It is the medieval version of a modern parent’s nightmare: being on the road with a crying toddler and whiny kids that egg each other on.  “Are we there yet?”


Lons Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 66 (
Fig. 3 – Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 66 – Source

Books before print had another way to make a silent figure on the page speak: the banderole. This clever device gave the decorator the ability to make someone deliver a short statement. Short, because it had to fit on a tiny scroll (see a collection of them here and in this blog post). In Fig. 3, for example, we see a fool repeat the words whispered in his ear by the devil: “There is no God” (Non est deus). The speaker holds the tip of the scroll in his hand, so as to claim the words as his own. It also happened that the speaker was pointing at the banderol, often touching it with his finger.

Schøyen Collection MS 33 (14th century)
Fig. 4 – Schoyen Collection MS 33 (14th century) – Source

Such points of contact (holding the scroll or touching it) were particularly important when an image presented more than one speaking person. It allowed the viewer to identify who was saying what. Fig. 4 shows a classroom where two teachers appear to be in a lively debate. One is holding the scroll, the other is pointing at it, each firmly securing the text to their own person.

Interesting in light of the comic book parallel is that the banderole was not always held in or close to the speaker’s hand: it could also flow from his or her mouth. While such cases are less common, they have a strikingly modern appearance because of the banderole’s white background, which creates the illusion of a real text bubble (Fig. 5).

Paris, BnF, lat. 11978 (15th century)
Fig. 5 – Paris, BnF, lat. 11978 (15th century) – Source, found via
Frankfurt, Staatsbibliothek Ms. barth. 42
Fig. 6 – Frankfurt, Staatsbibliothek, Ms. barth. 42 (12th century)

Not all banderoles present such a “live” text. Some label a scene, while others clarify the identity of a person. For example, the banderole in Fig. 6 introduces the twelfth-century illuminator Guda, who decorated the book in question, but it does not present direct speech (more about the image in this post). Instead, it is the medieval equivalent of tagging a person in an image.

No bubbles
Then there are, finally, manuscripts where direct speech is written in mid air, unsupported by a banderole or a bubble. In order to relate the uttered text to a given person, the scribe wrote the lines in such a way that they appeared to flow from the speaker’s mouth. The result are wavy lines of text that dance across the page. A great example is seen in Fig. 7. This miniature is part of a cycle on the life and work of the scholar Raymond Lull (d. 1316). Here he is shown discussing with Thomas Méysier, his student and disciple. The images in the cycle were made under personal supervision of Thomas, who also compiled the contents of the manuscript, which presents a compilation of Lull’s work called the Electorium parvum sue breviculum (more here).

Karlsruhe, Badische LandesBibliothek, St Peter Perg. 92 (14th century)
Fig. 7 – Karlsruhe, Badische LandesBibliothek, St Peter Perg. 92 (14th century) – Source

Although serious in subject matter, the conversation between the master and the student has a funny, almost grotesque appearance. Over a big and authoritative pile of books we see the scholars engaged in a lively discussion. Arguments fly across the page. It looks like the scribe is trying to help the viewer keep track of the discussion through the use of different colours (red and black). Also, the scribe presents the conversation in such a way that each component begins with a line that sticks out slightly. Cleverly, the extended tip is found next to the speaker’s mouth, leaving no doubt as to who is saying what. No bubble required.

Acknowledgments – I wish to thank Thijs Porck (Leiden) for his help with the Middle English translation of the scene in Fig. 1. My PhD student Jenneka Janzen (Leiden) introduced me to the Karlsruhe manuscript in Fig. 7.

The Medieval Origins of the Modern Footnote

Last week I posted a blog on note-taking in medieval times. It showed how individuals who wanted to jot down a note dealt with the absence of notepads and scrap paper. As in our modern day, the urge to write down a note in medieval times often came while reading a book. And so the margins of the page grew into a prime location where the reader could vent his objections or – albeit more rarely – express his or her approval.

The present post deals with the logistics behind this “window dressing”: it shows how a reader with many important things to say kept track of his marginal comments. Particularly, it deals with a serious problem that came with adding notes to the page: how to connect a particular comment, placed among a dozen others, to the specific text passage it refers to. The clever system that was created for this purpose lives on as our modern footnote.


Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 234 (10th century)
Fig. 1 – Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 234, fol. 11r (9th century) – Source

The crux of our footnote system is the presence of a symbol that connects the note to the relevant location in the text. Curiously, in medieval times it was quite common not to have such connections in place, perhaps especially in the earlier period (Fig. 1). When few remarks were added to the page, a reader could deduce with relative ease to which passage a marginal note referred. It helped if a text was in popular use or known by heart, as many medieval works were. In such cases the note made sense instantly because the reader was familiar with the referenced literary context. Moreover, as long as notes were few and short, a reader could simply insert them – interlinearly – over the relevant word or passage (Fig. 2).

Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12, fol. 21v (9th century)
Fig. 2 – Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12, fol. 21v (10th century)
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. 89, fol. 59v
Fig. 3 – Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. 89, fol. 59v (Horace, 12th century) – Source

Cleverly, in this system the very position of the remark identified the word to which it referred. However, as the number and size of such comments increased, it became impossible to place them between the lines. The great blank space provided by the margins was now drafted into service. It is here that the absence of a proper reference system was felt. As the marginal body of remarks and critique began to accumulate, the page became a real messy place, a labyrinth in which it became impossible for readers to find specific pieces of information (Fig. 3). In came the footnote.

Dots and lines
Connecting a marginal remark to the relevant passage in the text was usually done with a duplicated symbol, called a signe de renvoi: one was placed in front of the marginal note, the other near the word or passage that the remark commented upon. While it is hard to deduce a clear pattern of development, it appears that in the early stages of using such footnotes scribes and readers resorted to plain symbols rather than letters or numbers. These symbols varied considerably in shape and sophistication. At the high end of the spectrum we encounter complex symbols, such as the reversed letter E seen in Fig. 4 (magnified).

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 4, fol. 170r (10th century)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 4, p. 170 (820-840) – Source

More popular, however, were less complex symbols, which could be added to the page much quicker. Dots and lines are particularly common ingredients of such footnote symbols. Interestingly, their first appearance (it seems to me) is not as a connector of comment and text, but as an insertion mark that added an omitted line into the text. In Fig. 5 such an omitted line is placed in the margin accompanied by a symbol made up of a line and a dot. It is repeated in the text itself, near the location where the line belonged. This omission mark may well be the origins of the footnote system that would emerge over the course of the Middle Ages – and that we still use today, almost unchanged.

Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 172, p. 20 (9th century)
Fig. 5 – Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 172, p. 20 (9th century) – Source

Scribes used different versions of the line-and-dot symbol. In fact, they had to if they were to produce unique ties between comment and text. When dots were used, their number would increase as more notes were added. Alternatively, the position of the dots could be varied, so that they formed different – unique! – patterns.

Leiden, University Library, VLF MS 69, flyleaf (12th century) - Photo EK
Fig. 6 – Leiden, University Library, VLF MS 69, flyleaf (12th century) – Photo EK

Customising the line-type footnote, scribes usually distinguished one from the other by added circles, which were attached at different locations and in varying numbers. In what is a most unusual find, in a Leiden manuscript we see a scribe practicing his dot and line footnote symbols (Fig. 6). It shows variations in the number and pattern of dots, as well as in the treatments of lines.

Closest to our modern system of footnotes, finally, is the use of letters to tie a marginal remark to its proper location in the text. In some manuscripts we see the entire alphabet running down the margin. Fig. 7 shows a page from a manuscript with works by Horace (left column) to which a high volume of notes were added (right column), all of which are connected to specific passages with the letters A to Z.

Leeuwarden, Tresoar, 45HS, fol. 45r
Fig. 7 – Leeuwarden, Tresoar, 45HS, fol. 45r (c. 1100) – Photo EK

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries such classical texts were most commonly used in a classroom setting. The instructors who used the books, typically in a monastic school, had many things to explain to their students, as the notes show. It made sense to organise such added information in a clear manner, and the alphabet came in handy in this respect. Some pages in this particular book contain more footnotes than there are letters in the alphabet, which challenged the system. In such cases the user added into the mix symbols made from lines and dots.

The last word: numerals
So where are the medieval footnotes that make use of numbers, like we do today? Curiously, I have not been able to find them, which kind of makes sense. Roman numerals would not be suitable for the task. Placed out of context, as a symbol initiating a segment of text (i.e. the marginal comment) they would easily be mistaken for a letter – which they are, graphically speaking. Moreover, a high Roman numeral would quickly take in a lot of space – not what you want in a note symbol. Arabic numerals were far were less popular than Roman numerals, even in the later Middle Ages. Readers may not have felt comfortable enough with these new numbers to use them in the margin. In fact, some scribes in the later Middle Ages are still confused by the zero. The leap from alphabet to numerals – from the medieval to our modern system – appears to have been taken in the age of print.