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In the Margins September 20, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

Marginalia: things scribbled in margins. There is a lot to be said for this form of literature that, to date, has been little studied: there are only a handful of books including Robin Alston’s Books with Manuscript: A Short Title Catalogue of Books with Manuscript Notes in the British Library (1994) and Henry Richards Luard’s Catalogue of Adversaria and Printed Books Containing MS. Notes, Preserved in the Library of the University of Cambridge (1864).

Some examples, like Fermat’s Last Theorem, are of the most desperate importance. Others, like an early medieval monk writing ‘My hand is so cold I can hardly hold the quill’, are utterly unimportant but immediate. In some cases, there is art work – Nabokov sketching a beetle in his copy of Metamorphis. In other cases, there is an absence of anything intelligible: Churchill’s poignant red crayon marks on German decrypts detailing their murdering ways on the Eastern Front. There is stupid marginalia: Beachcombing treasures the memory of a student copy of Wilfred Owen’s collected poems where the word ‘futile’ had been written in big block capitals next to that poet’s Futility. There is irrelevant marginalia by important people: Lincoln’s attempts to learn legal Latin in his law books. Then there is important marginalia by irrelevant people. The first evidence of Hamlet being performed in a Chaucer belonging to one Gabriel Harvey: ‘The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, but his Lucrece, and his Hamlet Prince of Denmark have it in them to please the wiser sort’. There is stolen marginalia – the ‘precious’  early Welsh stanzas from the Juvencus manuscript were cut from their place and hoarded away by a scholar whose names escapes Beach. There is posthumous marginalia – medieval glosses copied out as a text in manuscripts where we’ve lost the original margins: for example, the Greek words taught to Anglo-Saxon students in the seventh-century by Theodore of Canterbury.  There is even – in homage to Invisible Libraries – Invisible Marginalia: in Wuthering Heights, for example, there is a reference to Catherine’s pen portrayal of Joseph in a margin of a book.

So viva marginalia! And here are four of Beachcombing’s favourite examples: any additions would be gratefully received – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

a) An aside in an Icelandic manuscript: ‘You treat me badly, Dóri; you never give me enough fish, my kinsman’.

b) Coleridge in a borrowed book of Charles Lamb: ‘I will not be long here, Charles!—& gone, you will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic.’

c) An ‘illegal’ copy of Julius Caesar in which ANC prisoners signed their name next to their favourite passage: Mandela chose ‘cowards die a thousand deaths…’ Where is this today?

d) And, in late colonial times, a backwoodsman, Robert Odell of Petrolia, Ontario, with his warning in his Third Reader: ‘Steal not this book for fear of life for the owner has a big jackknife’.


22 September 2011: Andy the Mad Monk writes in with this: I enjoyed your blog about margins and the last one, about warning people not to steal his book reminded me of a selection of similar warnings from medieval manuscripts. Anathema!:  Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses by Marc Drogin seems to be the “bible” on this matter – make sure you buy or borrow yours, and not steal it because some of the curses seem to be quite potent! Dennis meanwhile writes in: My blog, in impenetrable Irish, is entitled Nótaí Imill, which means Marginalia.  I wander here and there, but keep coming back to the title theme.  I often think of marginalia in Medieval Irish MSS as tweets.  My blog will remain dark to you, but here’s an article for you in English: ‘On the Colophons and Marginalia of Irish Scribes’ by Charles Plummer in the Proceedings of the British Academy.  Lots of lovely examples quoted there. Thanks to Andy and Dennis!