The Most Common Annotation Symbols in Early Medieval Western Manuscripts (a cheat sheet)

This cheat sheet originally came into being on a request of colleagues and students who wanted to have a quick reference guide to the early medieval annotation symbols found in Latin manuscripts. The first version, which can still be found on, was produced and circulated in 2016. This is a second version (in fact a 2.1 version) which is updated and which contains a clearer identification of special classes of signs. Apart from the all-important critical signs, I now set apart the characteristic insular and Greek signs as well as identifying several signs that seem to me clearly post-Carolingian, in fact almost certainly not appearing in the evidence before the late Middle Ages and the early modern period. The main purpose of this cheat sheet is to provide scholars with the names of specific graphic symbols that can be encountered in early medieval Latin manuscripts, so that it will be easier for all of us to identify particular annotation symbols and talk about them. The names assigned to specific graphic symbols are, for the most part, taken from ancient and medieval written sources. In some cases, these sources do not reveal what were the names of particular signs and I have, thus, taken the liberty to assign them a conventional name.

The cheat sheet also assigns annotation symbols to several functional categories based on how particular signs were often used. Most of the signs served to mark citations or the beginnings and ends of units of text, or indicated lines in need of checking or deletion, omissions that required filling, passages of interest, and segments that were to be excerpted. In rare cases, they reveal traces of critical engagement with the manuscript text. Yet, the basic rule when using this cheat sheet is not to treat it as an authoritative source – such sources do not exist when it comes to a praxis-based phenomenon such as the use of annotation symbols. The users of the cheat sheet should remember that early medieval annotation symbols do not have a fixed meaning, but rather their function is determined by a convention and that convention is almost always generated by a community of users. The community of users, thus, determines what a particular symbol means and they must be treated as context-sensitive. This is something that should be clear to anyone who scans the cheat sheet. Not only is it the case that multiple distinct symbols were used for the same purpose, such as marking of citations from the Bible, indicating passages of interest or highlighting passages in need of checking or deletion, but the same graphic shape may appear in multiple categories, for different communities of users may have endowed the same symbols with different functions. An asteriscus, to give one example, was variously used as a symbol to mark the beginnings and ends of ancient poetry, as a critical sign that indicated differences between various text versions of the Old Testament in Origenian textual criticism, as a symbol for topics dealing with astronomy in late Antiquity, and as an omission sign in some Carolingian manuscripts.

This cheat sheet is not meant as a substitute but rather as a supplement to my book Notam superponere studui: The Use of Annotation symbols n the Early Middle Ages (Brepols, 2019). It is recommended that whoever wishes to know more about the early medieval Western annotation symbols reads it to understand the subtlety of the different functions and uses of individual signs as well as the general tendencies in how the signs were deployed in different periods and regions.

Two versions of the cheat sheet are attached to this blog post: one is a coloured version, the other is a black-and-white version intended for those who prefer to use their own crayons.



version history

Empfohlene Zitierweise/Suggested Citation: Evina Steinova, The Most Common Annotation Symbols in Early Medieval Western Manuscripts (a cheat sheet), in: Mittelalter. Interdisziplinäre Forschung und Rezeptionsgeschichte, 19. Juli 2019,

Evina Steinova

I am currently a VENI postdoc at Huygens ING, an institute of the Dutch Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam. My postdoctoral project deals with the diffusion of innovations in Carolingian period and the role of intellectual networks in their successful spreading (or on the contrary the lack thereof). I have been active on Mittelalter since 2015 while still a PhD working on annotation practices in the early medieval Latin West. If you are seeking someone to explain you strange symbols appearing in the margins of early medieval codices, I may be the right person to consult. I have originally trained as a Latinist. My interests include Digital Humanities, medieval Jewish history and Judeo-Christian relations, history of science, and the study of early medieval manuscripts.

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Eine Antwort

  1. Coraline Rey sagt:

    Great job ! Thanks a lot to share it.
    With kind regards,
    Coraline REY

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