Conference report: Expert Meeting Voices from the Edge

Expert Meeting Voices from the Edge

Huygens ING, Den Haag – Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden

13th-14th November, 2014

Some weeks ago, our project Marginal Scholarship has hosted a small conference on the subject of marginal annotations in early medieval Latin manuscripts. This phenomenon is increasingly seen as important for our understanding of early medieval intellectual culture and our meeting tried to bring together some of the recurring themes in the research of early medieval practices of annotating.

Our opening speaker was David Ganz who charted the late antique annotations to Patristic texts. He showed that both pre-800 manuscripts and some of the Carolingian copies of ancient codices contain layers of important annotations. Some of these express approval, some warn the reader against heresy, they give structure or flag important themes and yet other tie together study of Patristic and Classical texts. They provide important evidence for the interaction between texts and their readers, particularly for works of Hilary, Augustine and Jerome. Many of these annotations still lack good studies, let alone editions.

Pierre Chambert-Protat discussed the annotated codices of the ninth-century scholar Florus of Lyon, the topic of his dissertation. He has demonstrated some of the techniques Florus used to instruct his scribes-assistants how to excerpt particular passages from commentaries on the books of Bible, in order to create new florilegia and other thematic collections. Florus’ system of excerption marks and techniques developed across time from a simple to a more complex one, which allowed for making of breaks in the text, parallel excerption for several different works and also subtle changes in the wording of the excerpted text. In some cases, his assistants did not comprehend the system, which seems also not to have survived after Florus’ death. Chambert-Protat compared the Florus evidence with some of the other annotators active in Lyon, whose hands are not identical with the hand of Florus of Lyon and who cannot be easily identified with known personages from this intellectual centre.

Franck Cinato focused on the annotating practices of Heiric of Auxerre, another ninth-century scholar and a tireless annotator. Heiric’s hand had added numerous glosses and additions to a manuscript of the Liber Glossarum now kept in the British Library (MS Harley 2735). Some of these additions can be traced back to Heiric’s personal copy of Priscian’s Ars grammatica, which also survives. It is clear that Heiric used this Priscian as a source for his additions to the Liber Glossarum and used personal notes as an intermediary between the two manuscripts. As Cinato showed, Heiric’s additions to the Liber Glossarum were not merely ‘spontaneous notes’, but rather represent the result of a thoughtful lexicographical work.

Susan Rankin discussed the ‘art of a squiggle’: the use of curves, notes, dots and an endless plethora of other simple graphic signs to create tie-marks, punctuation signs such as the question mark, or musical notation such as the quilisma – a musical sign of which the interpretation is still a matter of debate amongst musicologists. She demonstrated that the ‘squiggles’ used in the earliest known forms of musical notation are part of a graphic set of signs already used in the field of grammar. Moreover, these shapes were meant to display the movement of a melody, rather than discrete pitches in it, which makes the concept of musical melody fundamentally different from both that of the ancient learned tradition and later pitch notation systems. Regional differences which can be observed in the shapes of music notation signs reflect regional differences in the use of ‘squiggles’ for various functions, be it grammatical signs or questions marks.

Ad van Els talked about the notebooks of Ademar of Chabannes (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Voss. Lat. O 15), a subject on which he recently completed a dissertation. Ademar was a master from Limoges and Angoulême who, throughout his life, collected texts into his set of personal notebooks in order to use them for his own study, but mostly for his teaching. Some of these texts seemingly contain annotations or glosses, but on closer observation it is clear that none of them are annotations in the narrow sense of explanations of the text. Van Els demonstrated this on Ademar’s version of the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville. Capsules of text that feature around the main text in Ademar’s notebooks are not new material, but bits and pieces from Isidore himself. Ademar deconstructed the text into smaller units, some of which he recast as glosses and annotations. As a result, the main text was sized down and side issues were side-tracked into the margin. The layout itself reflects Ademar’s desire to deal with the vast amount of knowledge passed on by Isidore, its categorization into smaller units and hierarchical reordering. This step can be understood as an adaptation of the material for teaching: Ademar made the text understandable and manageable for his students.

One presentation during the conference

One presentation during the conference. Photo: Alfred van Weperen

Evina Steinova treated the subject of technical signs used in the early Middle Ages by the example of manuscripts from Bavaria. She showed how the patterns of distribution of these signs in a large set of manuscripts can help us to track the middle and the lower ranks in the hierarchy of the scribes and tell us something about their activities, capabilities and interests. Even in a region such as Bavaria, in which annotations of the kind seen elsewhere are rare, scribes and annotators use technical signs frequently and it is possible to discern several modes of their use. These different modes of use, in turn, may reflect activities of different segments of the local scribal class.

Sinead O’Sullivan has been working on the commentary traditions pertaining to Virgil for quite some time. At our conference, she paid attention to two works that have been used to explain and comment upon Virgil in the course of the ninth and the tenth centuries – Servius’ commentaries and Isidore’s Etymologiae. O’Sullivan exemplified the use of the former with manuscript London, British Library, Harley 2782, a late ninth century copy possibly from Tours with a self-standing commentary of Servius. Harley 2782 is equipped with marginal indices, nota signs, query cues which indicate where one can look for mythological matter and with many fill-ins for lacunae, telling us what topics were interesting for its early medieval users. In Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Reg. Lat. 1669, a manuscript dated to the ninth century, Virgil is annotated heavily both by Servius and a score of other authors, including Bede, Macrobius, Isidore and Augustine. This phenomenon of collecting knowledge in Virgil manuscript to form a patchwork of authorities seems common and should, perhaps, guide our analysis of such texts more than the search for reconstructed single author commentaries.

Mary Garrison discussed the annotations in a collection of letters of Alcuin from ninth-century Reims (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Reg. Lat. 272). She showed how many of the annotations in this manuscript repeatedly talk about the utility of particular advice in Alcuin’s correspondence, and how notions of admonition (admonitio) and advice are frequently picked up in the margin. Annotations which explicitly refer to utilitas are rare, especially in letter collections and Alcuin’s collected letters are an extraordinary case in this respect. Another remarkable trait in this letter collection is the fact that noteworthy sayings of Alcuin are flagged, and sometimes set apart in the bottom margin of the page. This gives us a clear insight into the way readers engaged with Alcuin’s letters.

Warren Pezé, who has just finished his dissertation on the predestination controversy in the Carolingian period, presented one of the themes of his dissertation – the different ways in which different segments of the clerical class handled the problem of double predestination. Pezé showed that while some resorted to erasure and correction of the incriminated passages in Patristic authorities, other engaged in annotation and in intellectual engagement with the passages in question. According to Pezé, these different manners in which readers reacted to problematic loci reflects the different kinds of involvement of lower and higher ranks of clerical hierarchies in the controversy and in the question of double predestination.

The presentation of Irene van Renswoude was concerned with a compendium of texts on dialectica from the late ninth- and early tenth-century, manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Lat. 12949. This codex is heavily annotated, even enlarged with inserted scraps and small leaves to add material to it. In its margins we find ‘ad hoc’ annotations, added by several ninth- and tenth-century hands, but also notes that belong to a specific tradition of annotations, one of which goes back to Heiric of Auxerre, and another to John the Scot. Since the codex is a rather unique collection of dialectica, the art of logic reasoning, especially in terms of its heavy annotation, Renswoude asked the question how we would be able to use this manuscript to reveal a relation between theory and practice: the theory of reasoning and the practice of settling debates such as the ones presented in Pezé’s paper, on predestination, adoptionism or any other of the heatedly debated topics in the ninth and tenth centuries.

Mariken Teeuwen, finally, discussed the concept of ‘circle of’, such as it is applied to Lupus of Ferrières or Heiric of Auxerre. She pointed out that some features that are particularly associated with a known scholar, such as Lupus, can be also found as the features associated with another scholar, in this case Heiric, who was Lupus’ student. In some cases, these features can be so ambiguous, that it is difficult to say whether the person seen writing in a manuscript margin is Lupus or Heiric or somebody else, who adopted the same manner of writing and annotation. Teeuwen cautioned against attributing manuscripts too readily to known circles or centres. Even if we can associate particular features of script and annotation with a particular scholar or centre, these features can hardly ever be used as stand-alone arguments to date manuscripts or assign them a place of origin. This can always only be the result of a careful analysis of multiple aspects of the manuscript, its contents and its form.

Participants looking at a manuscript at Leiden University Library. Photo: Evina Steinova

During the afternoon of the second day of our small conference, we consulted a list of 23 manuscripts from the collection of Leiden University Library, which has a very rich set of manuscripts from the Carolingian period. It was a welcomed opportunity not only to present, but also to engage with the manuscripts that were discussed during the presentations. Each of the speakers could demonstrate the points he or she made and, moreover, we could make new points which came up as a result of the contact with the manuscripts themselves. We believe this was an important addition to the string of presentations we hosted on the first one and half day of our conference. It allowed us to speak about manuscripts not only as presenters of our particular projects, but also to engage with each other as a group in a less formal manner, which, too, fostered thinking and sharing of ideas, albeit in different setting.


Evina Steinova

I am currently a PhD at Huygens ING/Utrecht University in the Netherlands. My PhD project is concerned with information management strategies in the Carolingian period, or else what techniques the Carolignians developed, had available or improved on when it came to processing texts. My research is part of a project focusing on marginalia in the Carolingian manuscripts. In addition, I am working (as my time allows) on medieval Jewish history and Judeo-Christian dialogue (or conflict), and from time to time on early medieval Christian apocrypha.

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