We’ve written before about how museums and other scholarly institutions are looking at marginalia, or the handwritten notes in a document. In fact, some are going through as much effort to digitize the notes and asides in a document as the document itself, due to their value. Some of the material in the marginalia tells us a whole lot more than we knew—and that people haven’t changed much over the centuries.
Some medieval manuscripts feature doodled illustrations in the margins as well, in the same style as the angels and saints higher up on the page. “Usually found in books made for the clergy, these illustrations—known as ‘marginalia’—were full of symbolism,” writes Thomas Page for CNN. “Playful and subversive, they often thumbed the nose at authority figures.” They include images such as rabbits turning the tables and hunting humans, he explains.
It’s because of this revealed humanity that scholars are taking more interest in marginalia, writes S. Brent Plate in the Los Angeles Review of Books, noting that his publication, as well as Salon and the New York Review of Books have been paying more attention to marginalia lately. Oxford University recently formed a marginalia group on Facebook, he notes. It’s devoted specifically to marginalia found in the books at Oxford University, and now has more than 6,000 members.
In the case of the illuminated manuscripts, some of the marginalia notes aren’t all that different from what you might see today if you looked at a Word document with markup mode turned on.
- “Whoever translated these Gospels did a very poor job!”
- “That’s a hard page and a weary work to read it.”
- One Carthusian Monk from Herne thought he could do better than what he was given, writes Matt Reimann in the blog Books Tell You Why, and wrote next to his creation: “This is how I would have translated it.”
Beautifully written, other sentiments such as these are now coming to light, Reimann writes:
- “Oh, my hand.”
- “Thank God, it will soon be dark.”
- “It is very cold.”
And the next time you’re tempted to complain about the software you’re required to use, or your working conditions, count your blessings:
- “This parchment is hairy.”
- “The ink is thin.”
- “While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.”
It also seems that writing, and writers’ feelings about it, haven’t changed much over the years.
- “Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your signs, it twists your stomach and your sides.”
- “As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.”
- And Henry of Damme, who wrote a chronicle of Brussels, complained about his poor compensation, Reimann writes. “11 golden letters, 8 shilling each; 700 (initial) letters with double shafts, 7 shilling for each hundred; and 35 quires of text, each 16 leaves, at 3 shilling each.”He wrote in Dutch. Then, in Latin: Pro tali precio nunquam plus scriber volo: “For such an amount I won’t write again!”
You might wonder what the value is in knowing the private thoughts of manuscript illustrators and scribes. But in the same way that open government advocates want to see email messages from government workers, not just the official documents, it’s instructive to see what the scribes’ true thoughts are about what they’re writing. For example, while we might have believed that monks were pious and reverent, we can now see that for some of them, it was just a job. It also might make us a bit more thoughtful about the notes we leave behind in our documents.
Finally, to quote one anonymous scribe, there’s a sentiment we can all get behind:
“Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.”
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