World History & Research Reports

HISTORY TODAY: Filling the Gaps: By writing in margins please’s some but not everyone

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#AceHistoryDesk – Writing in a book is a divisive action in the modern day with some writing in the Margins

 17th-century manicule and notes in the margin of translations of Aristotle. Courtesy of the Penn Library.
17th-century manicule and notes in the margin of translations of Aristotle. Courtesy of the Penn Library.

Filling the Gaps: The degree of severity of this potential offense often depends on the nature of the book being marked and the type of mark being made.

In the early modern period, such a dichotomy did not exist. Love them or hate them, marginal annotations and other marks of readership are not a new concept. Early modern readers were encouraged to engage actively with texts by marking and annotating their books. These annotations were most often directly relevant to the passages of printed text they surrounded, but not always. 

For some bibliophiles, marking the most meaningful paragraphs of their favorite novels is the ultimate act of appreciation; for others, it’s the ultimate act of defilement.

Annotations and marks such as these are invaluable as evidence of readership practices in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their intrinsic value is in what they can tell us about the interests of early modern readers. Most reading was undertaken with a purpose, with a view to a specific end – social, political or professional advancement, for example. Considering the serious, intellectual, scholarly and often religious nature of most early modern texts, the majority of text-related annotations in these volumes constitute what historians term ‘aids to memory’. 

These aids came in many different forms and in varying degrees of intensity, which suggest the differing levels of engagement with the text itself. Most common, perhaps, were marks and symbols, such as an asterisk or a manicule (a pointing finger), in the margins of a page next to specific sentences or passages of particular importance.

In some instances, readers summarised the contents of a page with a sub-heading, of sorts, at the top of a page. More often, these handwritten memory aids extended into verbal summaries or short commentaries on paragraphs or points those readers found significant or pertinent to their reason for reading. Sometimes marginalia filled up the entirety of the blank page surrounding the text, leaving very little white space. Occasionally small drawings could be detailed in the margins, illustrating the content of the text. A volume from the library of Anthony Higgin, Dean of Ripon from 1608 to 1624, contains a small illustration of a crocodile in the margin of one page, followed by a drawing of the sun (complete with a smiley face) and the moon adjacent to their textual descriptions.

Paper was reasonably expensive in the 16th and 17th centuries and was a major contributor to the cost of books.

As such, the blank pages at the front and back and the white space surrounding the printed text were often the most readily available scrap paper. Sometimes we see instances of random sayings or witticisms being scribbled onto the blank pages of a book – the saying ‘God hath woollen feet but iron hands’ written in the front of a volume now in the Gorton Chest library in Chetham’s Library, Manchester, is a particularly good example. Marginalia illustrating a fight in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, 16th century. Mary Evans/Kings College London.

marginalia illustrating a fight in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, 16th century.

Marginalia and notes in books that do not directly relate to the printed text often also evidence a book’s value as a possession, both to individuals and to generations of families. Numerous volumes from Anthony Higgin’s library contain his signature in various forms. Several volumes in the Francis Trigge Chained Library in Grantham contain examples of ownership inscriptions as well, names like ‘Thomas Scarborough, Parish Clerk’ or ‘Edward Eastland, His Book’.

Perhaps one of the most significant examples of the importance of owning books and the significance of inheritance is a copy of Protestant reformer John Calvin’s Sermons upon the Book of Job, also now in the Trigge Library. This volume contains no less than six instances of ownership inscriptions throughout the book by one James Higginbotham. In one of the inscriptions, Higginbotham notes that the volume was given to him by his father, William, on 5 November 1704. William Higginbotham himself inscribed the book with his signature, dated 1688, suggesting its importance across several generations. The book also contains the signature of one John Bentley from 1693 – perhaps William loaned the book to his friend. 

Books could also serve as places to note down recipes or keep a record of accounts, particularly in the blank sheets at the beginning and end.

The pages at either end of one volume in the Gorton Chest library, for example, are covered with what seem to be accounts, written out in such detail that there is very little white space left on the pages. A volume from Higgin’s collection has one of its blank pages covered in recipes for various remedies and medicines, including ‘a drink for divers deseses’ and ‘a medissine for all kind of griefes’. Similarly, the ‘medecyne for the ague’ recorded on the blank page at the front of a book in the Trigge Library seems to have been considered important (or effective) enough to note down for repeated use.

Surviving marginalia is thus a central piece of evidence for the importance of early modern books, both as textual items whose messages were read, understood, interpreted, and applied, but also as material objects that held personal and familial significance as heirlooms and repositories of more general information.

Jessica G. Purdy is Associate Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of St Andrews.

#AceNewsDesk report ………..Published: Sept.24: 2022:

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