Category Archives: symbolic annotation

Seminar ‘Medieval Margins’ in Leiden on 17 March

On 17 March, John Contreni, Evina Steinova and Mariken Teeuwen presented three papers on their research in the Vossius Room of Leiden University Library, followed by a small display of manuscripts from the Leiden collection. John Contreni kicked off with a lecture titled “What were they thinking? Decoding technical symbols in four ninth-century manuscripts.” He showed a group of 4 exegetical manuscripts from Laon (Berlin, Phill. 1731, Laon 37, Laon 38 and Laon 80), in which the technical signs that are the subject of Evina’s research, attention signs, require signs, quotation signs, signs signalling structure or interpunction, frequently occur. So far, Contreni had not been able to fully understand them, but with the analysis of the signs by Evina in hand, he started to see how these signs made sense, and how they can be used to reconstruct a working process of the annotators: what were they thinking and what were they achieving to do with their texts?

John Contreni studies the hand of 'Nisifortinus', John Scottus's student, in Leiden, UB, BPL 88. Next to it is a codex with the hand of John Scottus himself, writing Greek passages in a Priscian manuscript: Leiden, UB, BPL 67

John Contreni studies the hand of ‘Nisifortinus’, John Scottus’s student, in Leiden, UB, BPL 88.

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What is Martialis Doing in a Medieval Monastery?

The reverence of Carolingian intellectuals for ancient letters is famous – it gave the Carolingian Renaissance its name, even though other factors were acknowledged as well, such as the general revival of letters, culture and art; a concern with Latin as the language of religion, administration and court; and a great concern for a unified Christian church, with one dogma, one cult and one identity. Still, the study of the Classics in the period of the reigns of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald are an important characteristic of the period: a great number of manuscripts from the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries survive with ancient and late-ancient texts. In fact, we owe the survival of almost all of the authors who are still part of our ‘classical’ curriculum today to these centuries. Moreover, classical texts were part of the intellectual backbone of the average ninth-century scholar, who recognized quotes from Virgil, Terence and Horace just as he would recognize quotes from the Bible.

Still, in some cases the presence of these ancient texts in monastic libraries make us wonder. Why were Carolingian monks interested in reading them? Lucretius’ De rerum naturae, for example, which expresses worldview which is not all together anti-religious, but still very incompatible with a Christian one, survived in several Carolingian copies. The short poems by Martialis are another curious example: the coarse or even outright obscene content of some of his poems could not be further away from the religious world reflected in the Rule of Benedictine, and yet they were copied. In this post, I present you one of these copies, which was not only copied but also annotated: Paris, BnF, Latin 8067 (its microfilm is visible on the Gallica website).

This manuscript has been d ated in the ninth century and was probably written in the monastery of Saint-Pierre in Corbie. It is written in an excellent and uniform script, by an expert scribe. At the time, Corbie was famous for its rich collection of classical texts and could be called a centre of expertise for copying late antique exemplars. Especially under the librarian Hadoard, whose range of reading classical authors was astonishingly broad, the production of manuscripts from the classics flourished.


Require sign in Paris, BnF, Lat 8067, fol. 27r

In this particular manuscript, the text was not only copied, but also annotated, be it with just a few signs: dots, crosses in dry-point and an occasional require-sign (meaning “check this passage”). Small as the scribal activity in the margins is, however, it seems not insignificant. The annotations are exclusively signs, not words, which makes it difficult to be certain about their dating, but the require-sign suggests a contemporary dating. The most Intriguing sign is three dots in the shape of a triangle (tridot). It can be found, for example, on fol. 13v, 18v, 19r, 19v, 20r, 26v, 30v, et cetera. We know the tridot from other annotated texts: it was, at the time, generally used as an attention-seeking sign, just as the NoTa signs that we find elsewhere, or the pointing fingers that we know from later manuscripts. In some cases, it is clear that the sign not only functions as a flag to get the reader’s attention, but also as a sign of approval: “pay attention here, because this is good stuff!”.


Paris, BnF, Lat. 8067, fol. 18v

What makes this case so intriguing, however, is that the tridot is marking those poems of Martialis that are among his most obscene. On fol. 13v, for example, a tridot marks the passage “cur lingat cunnum Siculus Sertorius hoc est” (“the reason why the Sicilian Sertorius licks cunt is this”, Epigr. II.84), on 18v it marks the sentence “uis futui nec uis mecum, Saufeia, lauari” (“you want to be fucked, Saufeia, yet you don’t want to bathe with me”, Epigr. III.72), and on 19r: “arrigis ad uetulas, fastidis, Basse, puellas” (“you get it up for old women, Bassus, you loathe girls”, Epigr. III.76). Markings like these makes one seriously wonder: what was the purpose of them? Were they a private pleasure of a ninth-century reader, who happened to be so high up in the hierarchy of his monastery that he was allowed to read ánd annotate Martialis’ poetry? Since the marked poems are precisely those that are lacking in many modern English translations because of their obscenity, one could suggest that the markings are there to warn the reader for unsuitable material. Are they, perhaps, a neat system to indicate that these poems are not suitable for all ears, and that a copyist may want to consider to leave them out? An argument that goes against this, however, is that the tridot was mostly used for attention and approval, and not for objection. For practices of censorship we found other signs that could be used: critical signs such as the obelus or the theta.

The annotation practices of Corbie in the ninth century have not been studied systematically yet, but a dip into the rich material revealed that the general practice of the scriptorium was to mark with unobtrusive signs rather than with full marginal comments. Among their frequently used signs are quotation signs in different shapes, require-signs, paragraph signs, slashes and dots marking lacunae or places where the text ought to be corrected. In general, they seem to have been mainly interested in establishing complete and correct texts, rather than producing full marginal comments to explain them. In that sense, the dots fit Corbie’s profile. They are unobtrusive, they don’t meddle with the text, but merely flag some kind of interest, be it an internal giggle of a dirty mind, or a worry about the suitability of the content.

The little dots and crosses thus form a rare and intriguing piece of evidence of a reader’s response to a text, from a setting in which it seems completely inappropriate. Let us study more of these to establish how we can interpret them!


Further reading:

On Classical authors in the Carolingian intellectual world, see B. Bischoff, a.o. ‘Benedictine Monasteries and the Survival of Classical Literature’, in: M. Gorman (transl. and ed.), Manuscripts and Libraries in the Age of Charlemagne, Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology 1, Cambridge: CUP 1994, 134-60.

On Lucretius, see D. Ganz, Lucretius in the Carolingian Age, in C.A. Chavannes-Mazel and M.M. Smith (eds.), Medieval Manuscripts of the Latin Classics: Production and Use, Los Altos Hills, London: Anderson-Lovelace, Red Gull Press 1996, 91-102.

On the manuscripts from Corbie and on Hadoard, see D. Ganz, Corbie in the Carolingian Renaissance, Sigmaringen: Thorbecke Verlag 1990.

I thank Birgit ter Horst, intern in the VIDI project Marginal Scholarship from Sept 2014-Jan 2015, for her observations on marginal activity in manuscripts from Corbie.

Snakes and Ladders


Manuscript margins are a place where you can encounter all sorts of weird creatures. Birds, fishes, dogs and cats. But sometimes it happens that these inhabitants of the margin are there not just for decoration nor were there left behind by a pen of an idle scribe. Continue reading