Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2019

Rare Book Week 2019: Medieval and Early Modern Marginalia

Sue from Whispering Gums and I have faced off many a time over the issue of marginalia: she does, and I don’t — but *chuckle* she would have won hands down today because this morning’s Rare Book Week event about marginalia was fascinating:)

The event was presented by Dr Anna Welch from the State Library of Victoria, and what she showed us was that marginalia is much more than jotting down a few thoughts on the sides of a page.  Some marginalia helps to establish the provenance of a book, while other examples offer commentaries on the text, and not always serious commentary at that…

In the back of a beautiful 17th century book bound in vellum there was some droll doggerel about St George and his dragon, while in a book called Egypt and the Pyramids (1814) by the scholar who decoded the Rosetta stone, someone who was ‘showing off’ added commentary not just in English and Ancient Greek – but also in hieroglyphs.  Then there was the terse comment in a 1599 English translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince, which simply said that ‘Hanbury is Machiavellis – scrape-tongue.’  If only we could know who Hanbury was!

And similarly intriguing is the case of the library’s first edition of Gulliver’s Travels (1726): as many will know the book was published naming (the imaginary) Gulliver as the author, though of course his contemporaries knew that the real author was Jonathan Swift.  Inside the book there is a ‘portrait of Gulliver’ and on the reverse side, it’s annotated ‘Gulliver himself’.  Is the portrait really of Swift? Have a look at the Charles Jervis portrait of Swift (1710) and see what you think.

Then there were examples of marginalia as censorship.  In the library’s 2nd edition copy of Copernicus De Revolutionibus, you can see the Inquisition’s censorship of the bits they didn’t like.  They didn’t ban the whole book, they just redacted parts that they thought were heretical.  They used some kind of ink which has deteriorated so it looks as if they’ve actually cut chunks out of the text, which is a pity because with today’s technology we’d probably be able to read the original.  Petrarch fared better: his prohibited poem mocking the Avignon papacy is simply annotated with a cross and the word ‘prohibiti’ to warn people off.  It was up to the reader to decide whether to risk the flames of hell or not!

Occasionally, marginalia is an accident.  An inky fingerprint in A devoute treatise in Englysshe, published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1531 reminds us of the human element in the making of books, back in the days when each one was hand written, not printed.

Then there are children’s doodles.  The academy of eloquence (1670) was a schoolboy’s textbook, and some time in the 19th century some lads amused themselves in a dull lesson by inscribing their names on the back page.  Terence’s Comedies (1585) is lavishly illustrated by a lad who preferred to draw than learn his Latin.  And a young lady called Ann Mansell decided to practise her penmanship and to draft a letter in her father’s copy of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1627). Imagine what he might have said when he saw it!

Sometimes, marginalia is just a case of re-using paper in an era when it was very costly.  There are drawings throughout a 16th century copy of the Life of Benedict of Nursia: some of them are really impressive. And sometimes it’s just a bit of ribald poetry or a heartfelt reflection, as in the case of a book annotated in Latin, which translated means I sought rest, and found it nowhere, unless I was in a little nook with a book. 

But most impressive is the kind of 15th century medieval marginalia that we associate with illuminated manuscripts.  The library has a good collection of these, many of which were on display some years ago when they held an exhibition called The Medieval Imagination. (The book at left is the catalogue; apparently it’s now out of print so my copy is a bit of a treasure, eh?) Dr Welch showed us a leaf exquisitely preserved in the flyleaf of the Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, (1495) and there were many examples of drolleries, faces, and coats of arms in the borders and decorative elements of a Pontifical from Paris  c 1500-25, and a Book of Hours from the Southern Netherlands c 1490.

Sue, you will be pleased to learn that marginalia is now studied as an artform, and we were referred to a text titled From the Books, State Library of Victoria, Redmond Barry Reading Room 000-999, which is the result of some research done in 2016.

Plants found in New Holland (Dampier)

In the afternoon I went to a session called Rakish Plundering or Scientific Enquiry, but it was a bit of a disappointment.  From the title and the blurb I was expecting an examination of the career of William Dampier, who was an explorer, navigator and naturalist but also a buccaneer.  (Some readers might remember my enthusiastic review of Dampier’s Monkey by Adrian Mitchell).  I had assumed that we would see something of his account of his expedition along the coast of Western Australia, A Voyage to New Holland in 1703, and an evaluation of his contribution to cartography and natural science. That’s not quite how it worked out.  But the rest of the audience seemed happy enough, and it was interesting to see some of the very old maps from the library’s collection.

Tomorrow we investigate the law library in the Supreme Court.  I hate to think what Melbourne’s transport system has in store for us then!

Update, the next day: I had a lovely email today from Anne Welch, and she suggests that I should remind readers that you can always see medieval books on display in the library’s World of the Book exhibition, most of which feature marginalia.  It’s good advice, because tourists — both local and international — often don’t realise that Melbourne’s cultural institutions have remarkable collections equal to the great museums of the world due to there being so much money sloshing around here because of the Gold Rush.  In those days extravagantly wealthy people regarded philanthropy as a public good, and the institutions that they built and the cultural trusts that they set up benefit us still.

Image credits:



  1. Haha Lisa, you’re right, I would have loved this session as I always love reading or hearing about marginalia – except that every time I do I cringe even more at the paucity of mine. If only mine were an art form I could be proud of! Mostly mine is just ridiculous annotations of plot points or highlighting great language/imagery or noting things like satire or irony or trying to guess what’s happening when there’s some mystery afoot. (Oh and noting grammatical errors or typos too!) Boring! And, it slows down the reading BUT it does help when I flick through the book as I’m writing my posts.


    • LOL You might be surprised by the way yours acquires gravitas with the patina of age:)


  2. I recall an article, I think at the BL blog, about marginalia that included animal contributions – like inky paw prints left on a medieval MS by a scribe’s cat!


    • What I like about the monk’s versions, is the way an artistic spirit can’t be restrained. It must have been fearsomely boring to spend years of one’s life transcribing religious texts into new books, and the art work they were supposed to do was always the same old religious themes. But they couldn’t help themselves, they just had to add the elements that fascinate us today, the funny animals, the satirical portraits and the devilish devils:)
      And the personal touches, like the paw and thumb prints, remind us that there were real people behind this work.


  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  4. I didn’t even know this was a thing! I can’t bear to write in a book, I never have been able to. I had a bit of a chuckle at the mention of those 19th century lads amusing themselves in a dull lesson. Puts me in mind of my husband and his sister as children. She inscribed in the back of a hymn book during mass: ‘Paul is stupid.’ Many, many years later, my husband passed me a hymn book in that same church and flipped the back cover open to reveal the inscription! I can see the historical value in it but it still seems almost sacrilegious. Sorry Sue!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that’s more or less my PoV too, though I think if it’s your own book it’s entirely up to you what you do with it. But people desecrating books in the State Library Reading Room? I think that’s a mortal sin!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have checked out library books that have had marginalia. One book that had been poorly edited had someone with a red pen!!! write in the corrections. I couldn’t believe it. I often want to write penciled notes in the margins but just can’t bring myself to do it.


    • LOL Interestingly enough, the RBW event I went today included the chief librarian of the Supreme Court Library acknowledging that the first thing librarians do when they get a book is to ‘mutilate it’ with stamps, and accession numbers &c. More about that in today’s post which I am just about to start writing now.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Mine are always pencil and ONLY in my own books. It started with uni texts – in those days I did use red pen, but now, it’s pencil all the way.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank you for explaining marginalia. I am often as fascinated by these personal notes as I am the text. On a side note related to the translator of the Rosetta Stone, I am currently reading “ The Linguist and the Emperor” about this very topic. The translator’s name is Jean Francois Champollion. As a linguist, I can’t imagine anything close to this feat which opened this lost language to the world. Wow. I look forward to reading the book you recommended next!


    • Hello Robyn, I know exactly what you mean. I stood in front of the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, and was in awe at anybody being able to make sense of it.
      That book sounds interesting. I’ve had a look at it at Goodreads but the comments are not very encouraging. I can’t tell from what’s there if it’s fair comment or not. What do you think of it?


      • It is written more as a narrative than a historiography. However, I think Meyerson does a great job of highlighting the intersection of a great Emperor and a common man ( the linguist) to open the secrets of the Egyptian world!


  7. […] right here in Melbourne! Maybe one day it will get an outing during Rare Books Week? (I reported on Anna’s Rare Book Week presentation about marginalia in 2019. She’s one of our city’s cultural treasures, […]


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