Category Archives: early medieval history

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.

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



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:

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

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