Succesfull Conference on Early Medieval Practices of Reading and Writing


St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 731, p. 217,

On 3-5 June, a colourful group of researchers from all over the world gathered in The Hague for our conference Practices of Reading and Writing, a conference organized by the research team of the NWO-VIDI project Marginal Scholarship.

The central theme of the conference conference was practices of reading and writing in the marginal and interlinear spaces of early medieval books, on fly leaves and inserted slips; in other words, the space around ‘main’ texts in which we can observe the response of readers. Although the theme itself may seem ‘marginal’ at first sight, the enthusiastic response of many colleagues, both young and old, showed a certain momentum for the topic, which is certainly due to a massive movement of digitizing manuscript collections. For the first time, a broad audience of researchers can, in fact, observe and analyse marginal activity in a wide set of manuscripts from all over Europe.

Moreover, the margin, as Erik Kwakkel emphasized in his lecture, is half the book: the average space around a writing block is about 50%. And in this ‘white’ space, readers and writers left many traces, witnessing techniques of structuring text, excerpting text, making text memorable, etceteral. We can find references to other authorities, explanations about the meaning of a text and its interpretation. We can find techniques to correct text, to fill in missing bits, to add variant readings and to compare different versions, to criticize and even denounce or censure text.

Margins are thus a mirror in which we can observe how books and texts functioned in the lives of people. They show us humanity and humor. Some marginal annotations show an astonishingly high level of interaction with text, an unexpected familiarity with ancient learning and an interest in the most abstract subjects. Others, on the other hand, are incomprehensibly slow, dumb-witted and contradictory.

In three days, a rich array of papers was delivered out of all corners of European book-culture: from late-antique Roman law (Simon Corcoran) to 13th-century Franciscan practices of organizing a text into theological categories (Alberto Cevolini).

To mention just a few examples of the many interesting papers: David Ganz opened the conference with an analysis of annotating practices in Amiens, and confronted them with those found in Corbie (described in his famous book Corbie in the Carolingian Renaissance). Anna Bellettini showed us how Spanish fugitives were active in Italy, with their own characteristic practices of writing and annotating. Some papers showed us books that were made and used by individual scholars, who tailored them just for their own specific purposes and who traveled with their personal books through Europe (Giorgia Vocino, Ad van Els). The practice of editing and correcting texts was illustrated in a number of papers (Erik Kwakkel, Justin Stover), as well as the ways in which text-critical voices were matched with content-critical ones, who used critical signs, prefaces and even illustrations (Warren Pezé, Irene van Renswoude, Patrizia Carmassi).

Pádraic Moran ended with a lecture in which we left Europe, and traveled to Asia, where medieval Japanese readers struggled to make sense of their Chinese Buddhist texts.

The traces left by readers and writers in margins and on flyleaves, turned out to be an exceptionally rich source for the understanding and interpretation of our own literary cultures. They offer stepping stones for new and innovating research.

Mariken Teeuwen

For a different impression of the same conference, see Femke Eerdmans’ post here.



David Ganz, Keynote Speaker and honorary guest, whose research was an inspiration for the Marginal Scholarhsip Project



Giorgia Vocino speaking about the intriguing manuscript Bern, Burgerbibliothek, 363



Pádraic Moran, with a comparative perspective on cultures of annotating in the medieval West and East