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.

In the second lecture, Evina sketched a quick survey of her entire dissertation: the history, theory and practice of signs and symbols, used in the margins of texts to engage with them in analytical, comparative or critical ways. She started us off in ancient Alexandria, where Homer scholars marked textual variants, suspected errors and lacunae. She then took us to the Church Fathers in Late Antiquity, where the signs were used for biblical scholarship and acquired the function of marking orthodox versus heterodox passages. And she ended in the Carolingian period, in which the signs were revived and actively reinvented in order to support the ideals of the Carolingian renaissance: the correct transmission of texts and the aim to establish a unified Christian orthodoxy by means of actively engaging scholars in debates. The textual scholarship and modes of learning that these processes activated and stimulated were just the right fertile ground for the signs, which facilitated textual criticism, the extraction of passages from a whole, the collecting of multiple authorities, the marking of contradictions and of dubious passages. Her overview was vast and fast, which left some of us in the audience a bit baffled, but her prezi which she used to present her narrative to us can be seen online here: “Pay attention and mark your references!“.

In the third lecture, I tried to explain what our initial goals were for the project as a whole, and how we went about to get there. The practice of annotating books, I explained, were for us a way to explore intellectual history, processes of thinking and methods of scholarship. But in order to chart marginal activity in books from the early middle ages in this general sense, we needed first to create the technical vocabulary  to talk about it, methods to analyse and measure it and ideas of what was out there to be observed, measured and discussed. To achieve this, we created an online database for our observations on the marginal activity in manuscripts, with data concerning the codex, the content(s) and the (layers of) marginal activity in it. I discussed the outline of the database, some terminology and some of the patterns of annotating practices that we found. I also discussed the shortcomings of the database: it is extremely important to realize the the data that are stored in the database are not a  well balanced reflection of Carolingian manuscripts in general, but rather a collection of case studies: the 8th century manuscripts of Lorsch, a good selection of the 9th century manuscripts of Corbie, a large number of manuscripts that were produced and kept in Bavaria, a fair number of manuscripts from Auxerre (probably), and a number of manuscripts that are now kept in Leiden. Each of these case studies offers a narrow insight, and all of them together does not give the whole big picture. Still, better questions can now be asked. Patterns that seem to emerge from our material can now be put to the test against other data sets.

The hand of John Scottus in Leiden, UB, BPL 67, writing and translating a few lines of Homer.

The hand of John Scottus in Leiden, UB, BPL 67, writing and translating a few lines of Homer.

The database is available in two lay-outs at: the original one at and an improved-but-not-fully-working-yet one As soon as the last bugs and errors will be filtered out, it can be officially released online. I hope it will inspire researchers to share their data with us on this platform.