Asterix and Obelix on a visit to the Middle Ages

Recently, I came across this tweet from Erik Kwakkel about the asteriscus and the obelus that he found in one of the digitized manuscripts of the Universitätsbibliothek in Karlsruhe.

Asteriscus and obelus

Karlsruhe, Universitatsbibliothek, MS Aug. Perg. 52

I am sure many of you will immediately notice the similarity between these two names (asteriscus and obelus) and the names of these two well-known fictional characters:

Asterix and Obelix

Asterix and Obelix

For those who are curious to know whether there is a relationship between the two: yes, the names Asterix and Obelix are derived from the Latin words asteriscus and obelus. It is unclear, why the inventor of the two comic characters, René Goscinny, chose to name the fictional protagonists of his stories after these two Latin signs, the predecessors to our modern asterisk (*) and dagger (†). Perhaps, he realized that the two signs make the perfect pair, just as the two Gaulish heroes.

In medieval times, these two signs had a slightly different form from their present one. The asteriscus, the name of which means ‘starlet’ or ‘in the shape of a star’ looked like this:


Less often, it was depicted not as an X with dots in between its lines, but rather as a cross and in this form, it was known as the stauros, i.e. ‘a cross’. This is also how the asteriscus is depicted in the Karlsruhe manuscript.

The obelus, the name of which can be translated as ‘dagger’ or ‘javelin’, also had several forms, of which the most common was this:lemniscus

Less often, it was drawn as a simple horizontal line, much like a modern em dash, or with just one dot above or below the horizontal shaft. In the Karlsruhe manuscript, you can see it having a slightly wavy horizontal shaft, just as it can be most commonly encountered in the Middle Ages.

So, now that I explained what the names of these signs mean, how they look and how they are related to Asterix and Obelix, you may wonder, what are they actually? Are they a piece of ornament? Or some useful tool, just as the modern asterisk and dagger? Or something different altogether?

The story of these two signs is very ancient and has to do with the peculiarities of writing on papyrus. The oldest format of the papyrus book was that of a book roll as you can see in this picture of the famous orator Demosthenes (who seems to be holding a roll with one of his speeches):



The text on these rolls was written in columns and because of the price of papyrus and general scarcity of books, the makers of these book rolls usually wanted to squeeze as much text in the roll of papyrus as possible. As a result, the margin of these books was very small, particularly on the sides. There was little room for note-making, corrections and the addition of comments or references (all those features to which we might be oblivious, but at the same time we are accustomed to them in our modern books). The Greek readers, however, were practical – they devised a system of symbols that were tiny enough to be inserted into the little space left between the columns of text on the papyrus roll. Some of these symbols were devised by readers for their personal use. Other symbols became popular among wide groups of readers and book users. Only a few survived the decline of Greco-Roman culture and only two made it into our present-day books. Yes, that’s right, these two ancient signs are the asteriscus and the obelus, or if you wish, the asterisk and the dagger.

The meaning of these signs changed in the course of history. In Antiquity, the asteriscus was a positive sign of confirmation, indicating that a particular passage belonged in the text and was certainly genuine. The obelus had the opposite function, indicating that the passage was spurious, of dubious authenticity or contained errors (thus, it was a dagger to be used to cut out what was superfluous or incorrect). In the Early Middle Ages, the asteriscus and the obelus were used for textual criticism, i.e. for the comparison of several texts against each other. You can see an obelus (accompanied by a metobelus, a : sign which serves as a closing parenthesis) in this function in this detail of another manuscript, Schaffhausen Min. 42:


Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, MS Min. 42, fol. 44v

While the margins of books grew from ancient times and were often more spacious in the early Middle Ages than they are today, the ancient technical signs did not fall out of use. The medieval scribe who made the short notice in the Karlsruhe manuscript may have put them there to remind himself of the shape and names of the two signs, so that he would be able to recognize them in the future.

The most common book in which these signs were used was the Bible. It was practically impossible not to notice them if you were an early medieval monk. The asteriscus and the obelus were strewn through the pages of the Psalter, which was used on a daily basis in the Christian liturgy and which was also used as an elementary classroom book for teaching the reading and writing. The special purpose of the signs in the Bible was to mark passages which were found only in the Greek version of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint) or only in Hebrew (that is in the Tanakh used by the Jews). For example, in the Book of Daniel, an entire passage was absent from Hebrew and present only in the Greek text:


Obelized passage in the Book of Daniel (Reims, Bibliotheque Municipale, MS 1, fol. 214v)


Obelized passage in the Book of Daniel (Reims, Bibliotheque Municipale, MS 1, fol. 215r)

A detailed view of the obelized passage in the Book of Daniel (Reims, Bibliotheque Municipale, MS 1, fol. 214v)

A detailed view of the obelized passage in the Book of Daniel (Reims, Bibliotheque Municipale, MS 1, fol. 214v)

The medieval readers of this book of the Bible (and of others) were aware that discrepancies existed in the text if different sources were taken into account. The obeli – tiny daggers pointing to the suspected text – warned them that certain passages were potentially spurious and lacked the authority of the Jewish scriptures. This is the reason why these passages were rejected by the Protestants in the sixteenth century and why they are not included in the modern Protestant Bible.

Today, the remnants of this ancient tradition of using signs in the margin survive in the form of asterisks and daggers and in the names of Asterix and Obelix. Although you might not use the former on a daily basis, I think there is hardly anyone who would not know the latter characters. And for medievals, their asterisci and obeli were just as familiar.

If you wish to learn more about the medieval asterisci and obeli, you can read/listen to my post on the use of these two signs in the Carolingian Psalters here.