Category Archives: history of science and scholarship

New Project: The Art of Reasoning

Since June 2016, we started a new project, following up our previous one (Marginal Scholarship) but with a new main focus, with a new addition to our team and stretching out over a longer period. The title of the project is The Art of Reasoning: Techniques of Scientific Argumentation in the Medieval Latin West. It is financed by the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO) as a project in the Free Competition, for the period June 2016-June 2020. The main goal of the project is to analyze how scholars dealt with their authoritative texts on rhetoric and dialectic, both before and in the period of the medieval universities. The techniques of dialectical argumentation, we argue, did not develop in the period of the universities, but were already used before that, be it not necessarily in the shape of new texts, but rather in the shape of marginal annotations added to texts. A view on those marginal practices and texts, so we argue, will allow us to understand the historical roots of the dialectical method better.

For a full description of the project, click here.

The Art of Reasoning will soon be organizing events and lectures, of which we intend to keep you up to date via this blog. Meanwhile, allow me to introduce to to our small team of investigators:

Irene van Renswoude is the first Postdoc in the project. She will focus on manuscripts of dialectica and rhetorica from the period before the universities (c. 400-c. 1150), to chart the earlier responses to the main texts for the discipline: Latin translations of Aristotle’s Categories and On interpretation, Porphyry’s Isagoge, Cicero’s Topica and De inventione, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, Boethius’ translations and commentaries (e.g. his De topicis differentiis), the Categoriae decem and (Pseudo-)Augustine’s De dialectica.

Irene O’Daly is the second Postdoc in the project. She focuses on the later period, in which the active hub of education shifted from the monastery to urban schools and the first universities. She will analyze how the scientific instrument of the disputatio was shaped by earlier strategies of reasoning, and how it, in turn, changed older methods. She will focus on the medieval reflections to the same core texts as used by Irene van Renswoude, but will also include the new texts that came to play a major role in the Western art of reasoning: Aristotle’s TopicaFirst and Second Analytics and Sophistical Refutations.

Mariken Teeuwen is the principal investigator. She will bring the observations of the two projects together in a synthetic study. Whereas Irene and Irene will focus on leading scholars and the imprint they left in their manuscripts, Mariken will rather use the anonymous physical traces of studying, questioning and arguing left in the margins of medieval manuscripts, to see how the leading thinkers may have influenced (or failed to influence) the practices of scholarship of their time.

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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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:

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