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Filling the Gaps

by Enochadmin

 Seventeenth-century manicule and notes within the margin of translations of Aristotle. Courtesy of the Penn Library.

Writing in a ebook is a divisive motion within the modern-day. The diploma of severity of this potential offence typically depends upon the character of the ebook being marked and the kind of mark being made. For some bibliophiles, marking probably the most significant paragraphs of their favorite novels is the last word act of appreciation; for others, it’s the last word act of defilement.

Within the early fashionable interval, such a dichotomy didn’t exist. Love them or hate them, marginal annotations and different marks of readership will not be a brand new idea. Early fashionable readers had been inspired to have interaction actively with texts by marking and annotating their books. These annotations had been most frequently immediately related to the passages of printed textual content they surrounded, however not all the time. 

Annotations and marks comparable to these are invaluable as proof of readership practices within the sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. Their intrinsic worth is in what they’ll inform us in regards to the pursuits of early fashionable readers. Most studying was undertaken with a objective, with a view to a particular finish – social, political or skilled development, for instance. Contemplating the intense, mental, scholarly and sometimes spiritual nature of most early fashionable texts, the vast majority of text-related annotations in these volumes represent what historians time period ‘aids to reminiscence’. 

These aids got here in many alternative types and in various levels of depth, which counsel the differing ranges of engagement with the textual content itself. Most typical, maybe, had been marks and symbols, comparable to an asterisk or a manicule (a pointing finger), within the margins of a web page subsequent to particular sentences or passages of explicit significance. In some situations, readers summarised the contents of a web page with a sub-heading, of kinds, on the high of a web page. Extra typically, these handwritten reminiscence aids prolonged into verbal summaries or brief commentaries on paragraphs or factors these readers discovered important or pertinent to their purpose for studying. Typically marginalia stuffed up the whole lot of the clean web page surrounding the textual content, leaving little or no white area. Sometimes small drawings may very well be detailed within the margins, illustrating the content material of the textual content. A quantity from the library of Anthony Higgin, Dean of Ripon from 1608 to 1624, incorporates a small illustration of a crocodile within the margin of 1 web page, adopted by a drawing of the solar (full with a smiley face) and the moon adjoining to their textual descriptions. 

Paper was fairly costly within the sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries and was a serious contributor to the price of books. As such, the clean pages at the back and front and the white area surrounding the printed textual content had been typically probably the most available scrap paper. Typically we see situations of random sayings or witticisms being scribbled onto the clean pages of a ebook – the saying ‘God hath woollen toes however iron arms’ written within the entrance of a quantity now within the Gorton Chest library in Chetham’s Library, Manchester, is a very good instance. 

marginalia illustrating a fight in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, 16th century.
Marginalia illustrating a struggle in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, sixteenth century. Mary Evans/Kings School London.

Marginalia and notes in books that don’t immediately relate to the printed textual content typically additionally proof a ebook’s worth as a possession, each to people and to generations of households. Quite a few volumes from Anthony Higgin’s library include his signature in numerous types. A number of volumes within the Francis Trigge Chained Library in Grantham include examples of possession inscriptions as nicely, names like ‘Thomas Scarborough, Parish Clerk’ or ‘Edward Eastland, His Ebook’.

Maybe probably the most important examples of the significance of proudly owning books and the importance of inheritance is a duplicate of Protestant reformer John Calvin’s Sermons upon the Ebook of Job, additionally now within the Trigge Library. This quantity incorporates at least six situations of possession inscriptions all through the ebook by one James Higginbotham. In one of many inscriptions, Higginbotham notes that the quantity was given to him by his father, William, on 5 November 1704. William Higginbotham himself inscribed the ebook together with his signature, dated 1688, suggesting its significance throughout a number of generations. The ebook additionally incorporates the signature of 1 John Bentley from 1693 – maybe William loaned the ebook to his pal. 

Books may additionally function locations to notice down recipes or preserve a document of accounts, notably within the clean sheets at first and finish. The pages at both finish of 1 quantity within the Gorton Chest library, for instance, are lined with what appear to be accounts, written out in such element that there’s little or no white area left on the pages. A quantity from Higgin’s assortment has considered one of its clean pages lined in recipes for numerous cures and medicines, together with ‘a drink for divers deseses’ and ‘a medissine for all type of griefes’. Equally, the ‘medecyne for the ague’ recorded on the clean web page on the entrance of a ebook within the Trigge Library appears to have been thought of vital (or efficient) sufficient to notice down for repeated use.

Surviving marginalia is thus a central piece of proof for the significance of early fashionable books, each as textual gadgets whose messages had been learn, understood, interpreted and utilized, but additionally as materials objects that held private and familial significance as heirlooms and repositories of extra basic data. 


Jessica G. Purdy is Affiliate Lecturer in Early Fashionable Historical past on the College of St Andrews.

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