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Conference on Early Medieval Practices of Reading and Writing in June 2015, The Hague



 ‘Namque ego suetus eram hos libros legisse frequenter’:

Early Medieval Practices of Reading and Writing

Place: Den Haag, The Netherlands

Date: 3-4-5 June 2015

 Organized by: Mariken Teeuwen, Irene van Renswoude and Evina Steinova, Huygens ING

Contact address:


This is a conference on the subject of books, practices of writing, reading, copying and studying in the early middle ages. It is organized by the research project ‘Marginal Scholarship: The Practice of Learning in the Early Middle Ages (c. 800 – c. 1000)’, which seeks to map the phenomenon of writing in the blank space of manuscripts (in the margin, in between the lines, on fly-leaves or inserted leaves) in the early middle ages, in order to gain a better understanding of how books and texts were used in that period. In essence, we aim to understand the intellectual practices of the period as reflected by the manuscripts and to re-evaluate both how traditional the period was, and how innovative. Furthermore, we hope to explore how the developments of the culture of writing in this period led to developments in later periods, and also how they compare to those in other cultures, such as the world of Late Antiquity. Guest of honour at the conference is David Ganz, who, with his work on Corbie in the Carolingian renaissance and on manuscripts and book production in that time, set a standard from which we greatly profited.

The following questions and themes will be addressed in the sessions:

1. Practices of annotating

Who were allowed to make annotations in manuscripts? What can we learn about the hierarchical organization of the writing process in monastic or cathedral environments, and are there ways to say something about the status of scribes and/or scholars working in manuscript margins?

Annotating practices reflect many different functionalities of the appropriation of text: they can, for example, reflect a process of text comparison and textual criticism; they can have the aim to gather information in order to facilitate the composition of a new text; they can offer guidance to the reader, either in the sense of offering explanation or interpretation, or in the sense of warning the reader and delivering criticism; they can engage in a discussion with the author of the text, or with another annotator, or create stepping stones from one text to others, in order to broaden the reading of the text by offering new and different opinions. We would like to discuss these and other functionalities, and replace the mono-dimensional ‘annotated book = school book’ with a richer and more accurate model of interpretation.

2. The profile of annotating practices

Can we see patterns in the relationship between textual genres and the kind of marginal activity encountered in the margin? Were certain textual genres treated differently than others? For example, do theological texts invite other types of critical reflection than scientific texts or historical texts? Are there genres with ‘empty’ margins, and what would be the reason for that?

Can we distinguish sets of annotating practices which are specific to certain intellectual centres or groups of scholars?  Can we distinguish individual practices even, which allow us to identify the scholar who worked in the manuscript? It has been argued, for example, that the group around Florus of Lyon had a very particular set of signs to mark patristic texts, in order to prepare florilegia of patristic quotations on certain subjects. Are there other examples of such private practices, and what happened to them after the death of the scholar(s) at their centre?

Some annotating practices are particular to a certain period in history. Tironian notes, for example, seem to have been used in a specific time and space for marginal comments, and are rarely found outside that period. The Nota sign gets company in the shape of a pointing hand at a certain moment in time, is perhaps even replaced by it. Could we mark annotation practices on a chronological scale, just as we can with letter shapes or other physical features of manuscripts?

3. Cultures of writing

Manuscripts, scholars and books travelled, and thus the culture of writing is a dynamic and ever evolving field. Can we map the circles of influence from one scholar, or one school to the next through the eyes of manuscripts? Can we trace specific practices of annotating or writing in general through history, and follow their historical development? And do these practices offer us insight into the intellectual networks of the time? What would be good strategies to map the dynamics of the lives of manuscripts, both in the sense of their actual travels, and in the sense of their changing contents?

A selection of the papers from the conference will be collected in an edited volume, to be published in 2016.

The deadline for sending in proposals for this conference has closed. If you are interested in attending the conference, please send us an email ( before 1 May 2015. Don’t wait until the last minute: the capacity of our conference room is limited, and we will accept those who are interested in the order of their registration. You will hear back from us before 15 May 2015 whether your registration has been accepted. Non-presenting participants will be asked to pay a small fee per day, to cover the costs of their lunches and drinks.


Mariken Teeuwen, Irene van Renswoude and Evina Steinova:

Heineken Young Scientist Prize for Irene van Renswoude

Yesterday, Irene van Renswoude was honoured with the prestigious Heineken Young Scientists Award in the category History. She received the prize for her dissertation on free speech in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. In her book, which she is currently reworking into a proper publication, she explores the history of a concept which changes shape and terminology. In itself, this is a methodological challenge which makes the book a good read for any humanities researcher, not just those interested in the period. Irene continues to work on the theme of criticism, debate and controverse within the framework of our project on marginal annotations in the early Middle Ages: she studies reflections of debate and the rules of debate in marginal comments. A well known example of harsh criticism is the famous case of Paris, BnF, NAL 329, a manuscript from Lyon in which the work of the despised interim bishop Amalarius of Metz was heavily criticized. This example even made it into yesterday’s paper! Continue reading

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

Hunting down annotations in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München


Our little team has reconvened in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, where we sit and look at manuscripts from their wonderful collection, on the hunt for interesting phenomena in their margins. The library has, in fact, a very good system for digital facsimiles, but we are happy that there are still quite some manuscripts left for them to digitize, and that we can ask for them in the reading room of library. The building itself is actually intimidatingly large and stern, but inside we find the staff most helpful and accomodating! Continue reading

Tironian notes in the margin


In the production of text, shorthand was used at least since the time of Cicero: his assistent Tiro developed a writing system which allowed him to keep up with his master at dictation speed. His system of slashes, curves and hooks which represent syllables and sometimes entire words survived, and was used in the context of administration and law by professional scribes in the early Middle Ages. Continue reading

The Manuscript as Mirror of the Medieval Mind

Annotations in modern books are a phenomenon that often causes disapproval: we are not supposed to draw, doodle, underline or (even worse!) highlight in our books. We are (or at least I was) brought up with the idea that books are too valuable to do this; future readers will have to use these books, and they are not helped with our annotations or markings. But if we go back in time to the period of the handwritten book, this is completely different. Continue reading

Voices from the edge

vfte_header_firstWelcome to the WordPress Page of our research project: Marginal Scholarship. The Practice of Learning in the Early Middle Ages (c. 800-c. 1000). In this project, we try to understand the phenomenon of writing in the blank space of early medieval manuscripts — margins, space between the lines, and fly leaves. Continue reading