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.

Take, for example, the snake. Snakes have a long-standing, and undeserved, reputation as sinister creatures. Thus, when you spot them crawling through the manuscript margins, you know that something vile is going on. This is the case in Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 5169, in which snakes feature among other marginal symbols. This manuscript contains the Chronicon of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390 – c. 455), a continuation of the world chronicle begun by St. Jerome. In it, Prosper recorded events pertaining both to the political and Church history, particularly of the Pelagian controversy, in which Prosper himself took part on the orthodox side. If you wonder what the snakes are doing in this manuscript, it is quite easy to guess, if you look closer at passages which they mark by their presence.

For example:

Novatus, presbiter Cipriani, Romam veniens, Novatianum et ceteros confessores sibi sociat, eo quod Cornelius penitentes apostatas recepisset. Ab hoc haeresis Novatianorum sumpsit exordium

“Novatus, the priest of St. Cyprian, came to Rome and associated himself with Novatian and other righteous men, because the pope Cornelius had re-admitted the lapsed, once they did penance, back to Church. This is how the heresy of Novatians began…”

They key word here is heresy. Now, can you think of a more suitable symbol for a heretic than a snake?

The symbolic snake was attached not only to Novatian, but also to Paul of Samosata, Mani, Arius and Audius – all of them infamous heresiarchs. Only Pelagius seems to be missing in this lot.

Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 5169, fol. 42r: an asteriscus and a snake (attached to the name of Arius)

Brussels, KB 5169, fol. 42r: an asteriscus and a snake (copyright Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Special Collections)

The same manuscript contains also other types of marginal signs, but none of them is as expressive and clear in meaning as the snakes. Names of other protagonists in the Chronicon are, for example, marked with the sign of asteriscus (Gr. ‘in the shape of a star’), which was recognized for its illuminating properties and positive value. The asteriscus, thus, seems to play the opposite role as the snakes, marking the orthodox popes and patriarchs.

While, however, the asteriscus is one of the most ubiquitous symbols that can be encountered in the manuscript margins (and elsewhere), the Brussels manuscript is the only codex that I know to contain snakes. It is a fascinating example of how imaginative medieval annotators could get when they wanted to express their opinions about the manuscript they copied, inform their readers about what to expect from a certain entry, or even to help them to look up passages with delicate content (the snakes are difficult to miss!).

So, if you see some snakes crawling through the margins of a manuscript you handle, don’t forget to report them. There might be some heresy lurking ahead!

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