Tag Archives: Medieval

Getting Personal in the Margin

At its very heart the medieval book is a vehicle of information. It was an expensive receptacle for text, which was poured onto the page by the scribe, and retrieved by the reader. As strange as this may sound, as a book historian I have limited interest in the actual text found on the medieval page. My job is to look at books, not to read them: knowing author, genre and purpose often suffices for what I do. Very different, however, is my attitude towards words found in the margins, placed there “extra-textually” by scribes and readers. Here we may find information about the production circumstances of a given manuscript and the attitude of scribes or readers towards a text. In most books, there was ample room  to add such details, because on average a stunning fifty percent of the medieval page was left blank. It is in this vast emptiness, so often overlooked in editions of texts, that we may pick up key information about the long life of the book.

Pointing a Finger

Kansas University, Kenneth Spencer Library,  MS C54 (15th century)
Fig. 1 – Kansas University, Kenneth Spencer Library, MS C54 (15th century)

We are taught not to point, but in the margin of the page it is okay. Readers frequently felt the need to mark a certain passage, for example for future reference or to debate its meaning (Fig. 1; more here). To do so, they added manicula (Latin for “little hand”) those highly entertaining pointing fingers. This is good news for us, because they facilitate a look into the mind of a medieval reader. It is not uncommon that a person’s interest shines through the collection of marginal hands in a manuscript. While most individuals simply marked spots with an X, the pointing hand provided a much clearer – and more expressive – signpost. A particularly entertaining pair is found in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. To mark a particularly long passage we encounter a hand where all five fingers have been drafted into service, while in another case the hand is replaced by an octopus with five tentacles (Fig. 2-3).

Berkeley, Bancroft Library,  BANC MS UCB 085 (14th century)
Fig. 2 – Berkeley, Bancroft Library, MS 85 (14th century)
Berkeley, Bancroft Library,  BANC MS UCB 085 (14th century)
Fig. 3 – Berkeley, Bancroft Library, MS 85 (14th century)

From time to time a debatable passage is highlighted by a pointing device that is part of the book’s decoration, like Augustine taking a stance while aiming his spear at a gloss in the text, seen at the top of this post (source).

Critiquing Authorities

Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857 (14th century)
Fig. 4 – Vienna, ÖNB, S.n. 12.857, fol. 95v (14th century)

There is nothing more inviting to a critical mind than the empty space of the margin. Medieval readers frequently felt the need to vent in that location, for different reasons. Like Augustine and his spear, they would express their dismay about something. There is the Carthusian monk from Herne, for example, who could not handle the poor Latin-Dutch Bible translation he was reading. With a pen shaking from frustration he wrote: “Whoever translated these Gospels, did a very poor job!” (Fig. 4) The same person is encountered in the margins of a different manuscript, where he corrected yet another flawed translation (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 2849-51). Providing improved readings in the margins he added the following personal touch: “This is how I would have translated it.” Take that, translator!

While such explicit remarks are exceptional, critiquing the text in the margin was a normal thing to do as a medieval reader. In most cases he or she would jot down a gloss next to the actual text and connect the two with so-called tie marks – the precursor of our footnote (Fig. 5). This practice became particularly popular in the university classroom of the thirteenth century. The De disciplina scholarum, a student guidebook from Paris, stipulated that wax tablets or tiny slips of parchment were taken into the classroom for note-taking. These notes were later added to the margins of students’ textbooks. Aristotle manuscripts, the main textbook for the Arts Faculty, even provided a clever “zoning” system to accommodate criticism: the margins were broken up into vertical columns where the opinions of master and student would settle (visible in Fig. 5).

London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century)
Fig. 5 – London, British Library, Harley MS 3487 (13th century): marginal notes preceded by tiemarks

Scribes Getting Personal
The examples so far show how marginal additions allow us to peek into the world of those who read manuscripts. Similarly, marginalia bring us closer to those who made the books. Well known are the logistical remarks. From time to time we encounter cross references (“For more on this theme, see this and this page”), remarks about a manuscript’s contents (“Something seems missing here”), or indicators expressing that something is missing (“Vacat”, this is empty). While these statements suggest that book makers put their heart into their scribal work, they can hardly be called “personal”.

That label is appropriate for a rarer type of scribal remark. From the same Charterhouse as the nitty-gritty reader who disliked the Gospel translation comes the following marginal notation: “I put this text here because it also contains work by [the author] Jacob van Maerlant” (Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 1374, fol. 129r). Says the same scribe in another manuscript: “I copied this here because it analyses faith” (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 13.708, fol. 218r). With these remarks the scribe appears to deliver a personal message to the reader, sharing his rationale for compiling the collections.

London, British Library, Add. MS 30024, fol. 1v (Mechanical arts)
Fig. 6 – Depiction of the mechanical art “escriture” (writing), showing a commercial scribe, front (London, British Library, Add. 30024, fol. 1v, detail)

Other personal statements come from the world of commercial book production. Here it was all about making a profit out of producing and selling books (Fig. 6). Some artisans wrote their name and location in the margin, like a medieval form of spam (I wrote about it here). Not every paid scribe was equally happy with what he received and from time to time we encounter complaints. On 15 May 1444, at nine o’clock in the evening, the scribe Henry of Damme finished a copy of a chronicle about the city of Brussels, which he had copied for the municipal government. In a corner of a flyleaf he tallies his expenses: “11 golden letters, 8 shilling each; 700 (initial) letters with double shafts, 7 shilling for each hundred; and 35 quires of text, each 16 leaves, at 3 shilling each” (source, in Dutch). Unsatisfied as he was, he wrote the following underneath the last text line: Pro tali precio nunquam plus scriber volo: “For such a (small) amount I won’t write again!” (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 19607, fol. CCLXXVr).

The breakdown of these numbers show that Henry had little reason for complaining: he earned 1.4 shilling a day, which is about the same as his fellow scribes working in the chancery. While the Carthusian scribe who explained the reasons for putting a collection together made a positive and personable connection to the readers of his books, Henry’s remarks, by contrast, expose him as a bit of a greedy whiner.

The Beauty of the Injured Book

While our eyes are naturally drawn to pages filled with color and gold, those without decoration can be equally appealing. Indeed, even damaged goods – mutilated bindings, torn pages, parchment with cuts and holes – can be highly attractive, as I hope to show in this post. The visual power of damage may be generated by close-up photography, with camera and book at just the right angle, catching just the right amount of light. The following images celebrate the beauty of the injured book, the art of devastation.

1. Post-operation

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

This is what I call a Frankenstein page. It is composite in that the top part is from a different sheet, perhaps even from a different animal, than the lower half. The sheet used by the scribe was short on one side, but he still wanted to use it. In came the patch that is now the top half of the page. Where the two pieces of skin meet the scribe-surgeon punched holes through which he pulled a thin cord, joining them together. The operation was successful, the insert was not rejected, and so the page could be filled with text. Miraculously, the low-quality book was never thrown out. Instead, it limped, for centuries, to the finish line of our present day – to the safety of the Leiden University Library.

2. Bad back

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 138 (15th century).
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 138 (15th century). Pic: the author.

This poor-looking manuscript from the fifteenth century looks worn and beaten. It is so happy to be retired that you can almost hear a groan of disappointment when you take it out of its box. The manuscript is filled with school texts and it was heavily used over a long period of time. At some point the binding gave in and began to arch, like an old man with a painful back. It could do so because the book was fitted with a cheap, so-called “limp binding”. This type lacked the wooden boards of regular bindings – as well as the firm support these boards provided. Such bad backs are reflective of how popular the books once were.

3. Sliced

2. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS 1. Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS 1 (c. 1100). Pic: the author.

This page needs a shave. From time to time you encounter a hole in the page, but this one is special. An important stage in the preparation of parchment was removing the hair from the skin. When the parchment-maker pushed too hard with his knife, a cut like this would appear. Not unlike a distracted hairdresser, the individual who prepared the parchment overlooked a few tiny – white – hairs, which still inhabit the hole. It makes for a pretty picture with the light from behind, which also highlights the text on the other side of the page.

4. Scar tissue

3. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 92. Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 92 (c. 1000). Pic: the author.

This parchment sheet came from an animal with skin problems. It appears that the cow had been in a fight and was kicked. As your butcher will tell you, such kicks result in scar tissue, which he will remove. Judging from how infrequent we encounter such patches in medieval books, we may assume that skin with such damage was not processed into parchment. However, this particular book was made from off-cuts: strips of bad parchment that were cut away and thrown out. Remarkably, someone fished them out of the bin and produced a book from it (more details can be found in this YouTube movie I made). Thus this “garbage manuscript” exposes an urge for cheap materials as well as a dispute between two medieval cows.

4. Touched by a human

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

Books are made for reading and thus for being handled by human hands. The margins facilitate an easy grip of the book without your fingers blocking the view on the text. However, if you hold a book with dirty hands, you may leave your mark behind as a reader. While such stains are often subtle, the person that handled this twelfth-century manuscript had inky fingers: he left a fingerprint behind. Judging from the colour – a shiny, deep kind of black – it concerns printing ink, which puts this manuscript in the hands of a printer. He did not bother to wash his hands. It was, after all, one of those old-fashioned handwritten manuscripts, which had been long overtaken by the modern and spiffy printed book.

5. Mouldy skin

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2896 (11th century). Pic: the author.
Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2896 (11th century). Pic: the author.

And so it happened that a certain medieval reader did not pay attention and placed his book in a moist environment. And so it happened that he forgot all about the book. That is the story behind the mould on the pages of this eleventh-century Psalter. The fungi turned purple over time, producing a neat contrast between the high quality white parchment sheets and their damaged corners. It’s the beautiful despair of a book under duress.

All images were taken with a Canon Eos 600D camera and a Sigma DC 18-250 mm lens (at aperture value 6.3).

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

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.