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.

In many medieval manuscripts, the page is completely filled with annotations around the text and in between the lines. In some cases, the “white area” around the text is even laid out to contain extra text, pricked and ruled for the purpose. Just as footnotes are an approved and standard part of the modern academic book, so are the flyleaves, margins and interlinear spaces of many medieval manuscripts supposed to contain extra text.

In our research, we analyze this phenomenon for the early medieval period. We treat the manuscripts as mirrors of the medieval minds who created them, reflecting their interests, their choices, their practices. We ask ourselves whether the phenomenon of annotating manuscripts adheres to certain rules and patterns. For example, are there certain genres in which the making of annotations seems to be more appropriate or common than in others? Are there genres in which annotating is “not done”? Are there certain monastic centres in which annotating practices flourish, and from which they spread? Do the annotators use specific techniques, perhaps specific to their scribal communities or schools? What do they seek to accomplish with their annotations? How do these techniques develop over time, and what are regional differences?

In order to map the territory, we built a database, helped by the IT-team of Huygens ING. We set up a database in which we collect metadata about manuscripts from the ninth, tenth and eleventh century. The database (which is a so-called faceted-search-database) consists of a large number of fields, each of which can be used as a filter for searches. The fields can be combined to generate relevant results: for example, we can combine the field “origin” with “date” to create a list of manuscripts produced in Corbie in the ninth century, and we could then see the characteristics of their marginal annotations. We could also set the filters to match more specific research topics, for example: “give us all the Priscian-manuscripts from Northern France that contain Tironian notes”. The fields are categorized into three basic units: “codex unit” (data concerning the codicilogical unit, such as dating, origin, provenance, measurements, lay-out), “text unit” (data concerning the texts in the unit, to wit author, title, date, genre) and “margin unit”. The last category of observations was especially developed by us for the purpose. It contains information about the quantity of annotations, the number of its layers, a dating of these and possibly a remark on the origin or authorship, language, script, specific characteristics. We have a list of phenomena that we can tick and comment upon, such as the presence of drawings or diagrams, the use of Tironian notes, the use of specific sets of signs, musical notation, etcetera. In a free text field, we describe the observations in a more coherent way.

The database forms the collective research instrument for the whole research team. We included, so far, about one hundred manuscripts from ninth-century Freising, all the eighth-century manuscripts from Lorsch, a number of manuscripts from ninth-century Corbie, and a number of random ninth- and tenth-century manuscripts from the modern manuscript collection assembled at Leiden University Library. We hope to add more manuscripts from Corbie, manuscripts from Laon, Auxerre and Fleury, and possibly also the ninth-century manuscripts from Regensburg. We realize that a complete data-collection cannot be realized, at least not within the time schedule of the research project, but we hope to create a data collection which is large and varied enough to be representative for the period, in order to point out patterns and describe them.

In time, furthermore, we hope to add functionalities to the database which will support its strength as a research tool: we would like to visualize the data about origin and provenance on a map of medieval Europe, we would like to create charts and diagrams for the relations between, for example, quantities of marginalia and chronological spread of manuscripts, or textual genres, or number of methods used to enrich the text.

Time will tell where this experiment leads us!

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