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A couple of public close-up sessions recently have prompted these random musings on marginalia – the text and images that occur in the margins of manuscripts and printed books.

Today we don’t encourage students to mark our books in any way, but a whole academic industry has developed around historical marginalia and what they can tell us about how books were used, and how readers have engaged with books (and each other) over generations.

We can analyse and classify marginalia in various ways: text versus imagery; contemporary decoration and annotation as opposed to later additions. However, one of the delightful aspects of marginalia is that they defy easy categorization. While some forms of marginalia were clearly planned, if not executed, by the original scribe or printer, the process of book production in manuscripts and early print cultures did not have a clear cut-off point: it was customary to decorate early printed books, for example, and the transition from production to reception was gradual and ambivalent. Likewise, it is not straightforward to differentiate text and imagery. Text can be embellished and elaborated into beautiful and bizarre forms. Flourished initials extend into the margins, while the top line of text may be decorated with flourishes and contorted into human heads.

Text and imagery combine as micrography in the border of the Rylands Haggadah. Hebrew MS 6, f. 42b (detail).

Text and pattern combine as micrography in the borders of the Rylands Haggadah. The minute dots are individual hair follicles. Hebrew MS 6, f. 42b (detail).

Cadels are decorative flourishes on letters, sometimes turned into human faces or grotesque shapes above the text. In this Wycliffe Old Testament, there many examples of cadels in the books of Kings, some wearing crowns. Could this be a subversive commentary upon monarchs in general, or the English monarchy in particular? We cannot be sure in this case, but it is certainly true that many illuminated medieval manuscripts contain subversive decorations in the margins.

Cadels, English MS 82, f.15r.

Cadels decorate the top margin of this manuscript of the Wycliffe Old Testament English MS 82, f. 15r (detail).

Drolleries are amusing figures or scenes, often depicted in the margins of a manuscript, or within an initial letter. Grotesques are fantastical or comic figures, often combining elements of human and animal forms. They are common in the margins of texts, either incorporated into the illumination, or added by early readers. They are sometimes called Babewyns.

Drolleries and grotesques abound in the margins of the famous Rylands Haggadah. Hebrew MS 6, f. 29v (detail).

Drolleries and grotesques abound in the margins of the Rylands Haggadah. Hebrew MS 6, f. 29b (detail).

Below the text of the opening of the Mort Artu (Death of Arthur), a nun suckles a monkey, while a strange archer shoots at a bird. French MS 1, f. 212r. This manuscript has been heavily cropped, resulting in the mutilation of many images.

Below the text of the opening of the French Romance Mort Artu (Death of Arthur), a nun suckles a monkey, while an archer emerges from a spiky tendril to shoot at a bird. French MS 1, f. 212r. This manuscript has been heavily cropped, resulting in the mutilation of many images.

Historiated initial for the beginning of Deuteronomy in a 13th-century Bible. In the margin a man juggles knives, while at the top an archer shoots an eagle. Latin MS 16, f. 154v (detail).

The beginning of Deuteronomy in a 13th-century Bible. Latin MS 16, f. 154v (detail).

Drolleries often occur in what would appear to be inappropriate contexts, and there are several theories to account for their presence in the margins of religious books, for example. They may have been intended to subvert or question the text, to serve as aids to contemplation and visual cues for memory and recollection, or simply to entertain bored readers. For anyone interested in pursuing these ideas further, there are suggestions for further reading below.

In the margin of this thirteenth-century French Bible (left), a man appears to be juggling knives, while at the top an archer has shot an eagle. Notice also the snake-like monsters coiled around the ascender of the letter ‘h’: a very common trope in manuscript illumination.

As long as writing has existed readers have marked particularly significant passages of text in a variety of ways. Today some of us (I can never bring myself to do this) may affix a post-it note, underline the text or highlight it with a coloured marker, or simply write ‘NB’ or an asterisk in the margin. Earlier generations were far more imaginative in how they identified important points in the text, and one of their favourite methods was the Manicule, or pointing hand. In the early modern period, manicules were very elaborate, with decorative cuffs and slashed sleeves, as in the example below.

An early reader has drawn attention to this this text in the Landino edition of Dante (Florence, 1481), with both underlining and a most elaborate manicule in the Landino. 17280, f. 162v (detail).

An early reader has drawn attention to this text in the Landino edition of Dante (Florence, 1481), with both underlining and an especially fine manicule. 17280, f. 162v (detail).

Tutte l'opere di M. Giulio Camillo Delminino (Venice: Gabriel Giolito de'Ferrari, 1565-67), p. 304. Christie Coll., 4 d 31. Copy owned by the editor, Tommaso Porcacchi.

Tutte l’opere di M. Giulio Camillo Delminino (Venice: Gabriel Giolito de’Ferrari, 1565-67), vol. 1, p. 304. Christie Coll., 4 d 31. Copy owned and annotated by the editor, Tommaso Porcacchi.

Marginal annotations are of course vitally important in providing insights into how readers have engaged with texts, commenting upon them (both positively and negatively), explaining and elaborating upon them, and cross-referencing between works or between passages within the same text. We shall explore these issues in more detail in a future posting. For the moment here is an interesting example of a sixteenth-century edition of the works of Giulio Camillo Delminino, originally owned by the editor, Thomas Porcacchi (1530-85). It bears his inscription on the title page and has been extensively annotated by him.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion Books, 1992).
  • Michael Camille, Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England (London: Reaktion Books, 1998).
  • Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  • Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers, 1240-1570 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
  • H.J. Jackson, Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
  • H.J. Jackson, Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
  • William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

Copies of all these works are held at The John Rylands Library.