O rare!

I’ve been looking at another book that a student was working on. It’s unprepossessing on the outside, just a small, worn brown leather binding, with the remains of ties that have long since disappeared. But the book is much more interesting on the inside. Take a gander at some of the photos I snapped (I did these with my cell phone, so they’re not super high quality, but they’re not too bad either):

The whole book is like this, covered with marginalia. There are manicules, trefoils, asterisks, notes more and less extensive. It’s a seriously used book.

And do you know who used this book so seriously? He inscribed his name right there on the title page:

O rare Ben Jonson! And while Jonson’s book when he used it might seem unprepossessing, later owners certainly valued it for its association and house it accordingly, in its own locked box.
There’s much more to be said about Jonson and his books but I wanted to get these pictures up before they burned a hole in my pocket. You can find the catalog record for this book here and I’ll try to follow this up with a bit more Jonsonia.
(Oh, I suppose many of you got the title of the blog post, but just for clarification’s sake: Jonson is buried in Westminster Abbey under a plaque that reads, “O rare Ben Johnson”–and yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the plaque, even though Jonson didn’t spell his name that way.)

pointing to Carnivalesque submissions

A quick but important announcement first: I am hosting the next early modern edition of Carnivalesque. Please nominate your favorite early modern blog posts by using the Carnivalesque nomination form, commenting here, or by emailing me directly (you can find my email address through my profile). The no-holds-barred Carnival fun and wisdom is scheduled for publication on March 21st, so get me pointed in the right direction now!


And that last bit is my not very subtle transition to the lovely pictures below. I promised my last commenter that I would follow up that great pointing forefinger (or Fonz’s thumb, depending on your tastes) with some more examples. So here’s another great set of pointing fingers, this time complete with fancy ruffles. This is from a 1475 commentary on Aristotle–again, more commentary on commentary, as we saw with the Boethius. Some genres of writing would seem to invite more pointing notes than others. Here we’ve got not only the fists, but annotations and brackets. In fact, nearly the entire text on this page is marked off with brackets. (Zoomable image; catalogue entry)



Can I just say again how much I love these elaborate drawings? The best place to learn more about what these pictures are doing is William H. Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (U Pennsylvania P, 2008). He’s got a whole chapter on the subject, “Toward a History of the Manicule,” that is fascinating reading and very fun to look at. (I’ve mentioned before that my source for all my blog images is the Folger’s Digital Image Collection, a collection that is assembled in part deliberately and in part piecemeal through staff and reader requests. The pictures of fists that I’ve pulled out of the collection are there thanks to Bill Sherman, who requested them for his book. So we should all pause for a shout-out to him for that, even before we get to reading his book.) 

I’ve been calling these images fists, which is how they tend to be identified in the Folger’s catalogue. But as Sherman discusses, there is no standardized language for this image, even as we tend to instinctively understand what it is that the pointing finger is doing:

I have now found no fewer than fifteen English names for what I prefer to follow the manuscript specialists in calling the manicule: hand, hand director, pointing hand, pointing finger, pointer, digit, fist, mutton fist, bishop’s fist, index, indicator, indicule, maniple, and pilcrow. 

I can’t do justice to his insights here, but it’s worth reading Sherman’s piece to think about the ways in which the very word that we use to describe this mark makes distinctions between origins in manuscript and print and suggests the various ways in which the mark is used to organize the text, the hierarchy of authorities governing it, and readers’ responses to it. Go forth and read!

In the meantime, I leave you with a less fanciful manicule, one that doesn’t provide a commentary on commentary, but that marks out a somber and beautiful passage from Spenser’s Faerie Queene (image; catalogue):


I look forward to seeing your blog post nominations, fanciful, somber, or otherwise.


looking at Boethius

I failed to include any pretty pictures in my last post, so now I give you this:

It’s a page opening from Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae, printed in 1498 in Venice. Actually, that’s a completely inadequate description of what we’re looking at. And that’s one of the reasons I like this image–there is a lot to see when you look at this book. For starters, there is the text in the large font, printed in several blocks over the two pages. That text is Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written around AD 524 while Boethius is imprisoned and awaiting trial for treason, for which he was to be executed. It was a highly influential piece in the medieval and early modern worlds, one that was studied and passed on in manuscripts and, eventually, printed texts. (You can find an online edition and an English translation at the University of Virginia Library’s Electronic Text Center.)

Evidence of the traditions of commentary on Boethius’s text can be seen in how it is presented on the page. Surrounding the blocks of text from De consolatione philosophiae is commentary by an early fourteenth-century Welsh priest, Thomas Wallensis. The commentary is in the same style of type, but a smaller size, and not laid out with as much open space. To my eye, when I look at the page, the commentary is clearly commentary, a subsidiary text to the primary Boethius. You don’t even need to know what you’re looking at to get that dynamic.

Surrounding and interlined with the printed text is an extensive manuscript commentary by an early user of the book. There are notes written in the leading between the lines of Boethius’s text, as well as in the inner, outer, top, and bottom margins of the pages. It’s evidence of someone who not only looked at this book, but who read it closely and really used it. There’s commentary on commentary here. Describing this as Boethius’s Consolation does not do justice to what is happening on these pages, even if that is how it is catalogued.

Finally, one last great image. The same reader who provided the manuscript commentary above has left annotations throughout the book, including this wonderful picture of a hand pointing to exactly where we should be looking.

For your further looking pleasure, you can find zoomable images of both Boethius pages here (don’t forget to set your browser to allow pop-ups), and the catalogue entry in Hamnet for the book here.