Fascinating Margins. Towards a Cultural History of Annotation

Stadtbibliothek Trier, Stadtbibliothek Trier Hs. 1093/1694 [früher 1464] (Prudentius) fol1v

In the past twenty-five years, hundreds of Medieval manuscripts have lain in front of me in many libraries of the world, and my fascination (and love) for them has not diminished, on the contrary. My primary research topic, vernacular, medieval glosses, brought me to study intensively the life of the margins, interlinea and flyleaves of manuscripts and books– one could say to investigate their other, secondary and partially hidden life. In fact, during my research time at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I had a nickname, “The Lady with the Lamp”, because of my sitting hours for hours, bending over manuscripts with a torch and a magnifying glass – preferably next to a window with natural light. Up to now, this is the best method for deciphering difficult marginal inscriptions, especially when they are not written with ink, but scratched with a dry point stylus in the parchment pages. Of course, one needs a lot of patience (and passion) for this sort of exercise, and it does have something of a Zen practice, bringing calm and a sense of timeless infinity in you.

Marginalia in books became a genuine research topic for me, not only from the point of view of their importance for medieval philology – but as an essential cultural writing practice that we all know of and practice in our everyday life. In dealing with writing habits, apparently an almost natural compulsion or an urge to annotate can be noticed: C’est plus fort que soi, we just can’t help it. The French library scholar Daniel Ferrer characterizes this internal compulsion as a libido marginalium,[i] author Charles Simic points out „with which demonic obsession we cover the immaculate pages of our books with underlinings and scribblings“, [ii] and continues „Wheresoever I read, I of course need a pencil“.[iii]

A French speaking reader annotating Nietzsche (in French and German)

All in all, a larger book project emerged out of my interest in this topic, dealing with this special aspect of written culture through time, namely the writing and drawing of marginalia in texts and books. These annotations and other reading traces play a special role from the point of view of cultural and linguistic history, yet, up to now, they have not been analyzed in a greater context regarding their functional means as well as their textual and material tradition. On the one hand, these “paratexts” (Gérard Genette) belong to the rare witnesses of the historic and factual use and reception of books. Mark-ups in books help to answer the question by whom, when and why texts were read. Moreover, they uncover the process of knowledge acquisition and knowledge transmission throughout the ages. On the other hand, annotations are also closely linked to the materiality of the text, and a wide variety of layout strategies and inscription types can be identified. These will undergo further transformations following the medial change of letterpress printing and the digital world which will also result in the creation of new paratextual practices. My book project aims to study the cultural and historic dimension of annotating texts taking into account wide ranging interdisciplinary aspects. The typology of the wide variety of annotations which are in evidence since the Early Middle Ages will be analyzed. Furthermore, the annotations’ changes, transformations and tradition lines up to the modern digital age will be identified. The main focus of the research project lies on the diachronic analysis of the European tradition of annotations. However, the project will also draw a comparison between the European tradition and that of other written cultures, especially in Arabic and Asian areas.

A substantial corpus documenting annotation practices has already come together, and I hope to work on the project intensively in the next two years. Of course, I would be very grateful for further hints and thrilled about curious or unusual annotation practices my readers here have come across when reading or looking at manuscripts and books.

PS. After posting this blog I opened Twitter, and saw a cat walking through a manuscript (via @ttasovac, merci!)

Further reading:
Gérard Genette, Seuils, Paris 1987

Falko Klaes – Claudine Moulin, Wissensraum Glossen: Zur Erschließung der althochdeutschen Glossen zu Hrabanus Maurus, Archa Verbi 4 (2007) p. 68-89

Claudine Moulin, Zwischenzeichen. Die sprach- und kulturhistorische Bedeutung der Glossen, in: Rolf Bergmann und Stefanie Stricker (Hrsg.), Die althochdeutsche und altsächsische Glossographie. Ein Handbuch, Bd. 2, Berlin und  New York: Walter de Gruyter  2009, p. 1658-1676

Claudine Moulin, Am Rande der Blätter. Gebrauchsspuren, Glossen und Annotationen in Handschriften und Büchern aus kulturhistorischer Perspektive, in: Autorenbibliotheken, Bibliothèques d’auteurs, Biblioteche d’autore, Bibliotecas d’autur, Quarto. Zeitschrift des Schweizerischen Literaturarchivs 30/31 (2010) p. 19-26

See also the Project “Kulturgeschichtliche Erschließung der volkssprachigen Glossenüberlieferung des Mittelalters“, Historisch-Kulturwissenschaftliches Forschungszentrum (HKFZ), University of Trier
and the Portal “Althochdeutsche und Altsächsische Glossen“, University of Bamberg.


[i] Introduction. «Un imperceptible trait de gomme de tragacanthe …», in: Paolo D’Iorio – Daniel Ferrer (Ed.), Bibliothèques d’écrivains, Paris: CNRS Éditions 2001, p. 13.

[ii] «mit welcher Besessenheit wir die makellosen Seiten unserer Bücher mit Unterstreichungen und Kritzeleien bedecken», in: «Was ich mit meinen Büchern tue», Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,  213 (15. Oktober 2008), p. 33.

[iii] „Wo auch immer ich lese, brauche ich natürlich einen Bleistift.“, in: «Was ich mit meinen Büchern tue», Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,  213 (15. Oktober 2008), p. 33.


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