Amicable Annotation, Part 2 (Scholarly Annotation)

[Image: An Aldine Press edition of Lactantius’s Divine Institutes (image source here)]

Part 1 on “amicable annotaiton” is here. Enjoy Part 2.

In the first post in this series (“Friendship by the Book: B by F”), I argued that, among other things, humanism represents a revolution in book culture. Books were the necessary instrument of humanist expression (if not, existence). Humanism was, once again, something that one did with books–preferably those designed to humanist specifications. While the humanists transformed much of the physical nature of the book, they paid particular attention to the margins. Why? Because, as the rare book librarian Jean-Marc Chatelain has observed, “L’humaniste est fondamentalement un annotateur de livres.” Humanism staged its famous revolt against scholasticism along philosophical, pedagogical, and paginal lines. Indeed, these three matters often went hand-in-hand-in-hand. In the humanists’ judgment, scholastic scholarship on ancient texts erred in its history, philology, and, as a result, hermeneutics. Scholastic methods thus had to be dismissed from the schoolroom, replaced by exercises in proper (namely, humanist) annotation. “[M]ethodically observe occurrences of striking words, archaic or novel diction, cleverly contrived or well adapted arguments, brilliant flashes of style, adages, and pithy remarks worth memorizing,” Erasmus counseled in De ratione studii (1511), and mark them with “an appropriate little sign.”

The thick “hedge” (to borrow a phrase from Anthony Grafton) of medieval commentary surrounding classical texts had to be extirpated to allow the ancients to breathe anew. (For notes on and images of the “Gothic” edifice of medieval commentary, see this post at the Chequered Board.) This aggressive gardening opened the margins to humanists’ own interventions. Initially, that meant by the individual hand (and perhaps over the course of book’s life, several individual hands). The margins of humanist editions of the classics are often spare on editorial intrusion, even luxuriously empty, in order to accommodate the reader’s activity–as seen in this Aldine Lactanius pictured above.

In The Reader in the Text, Stephen Orgel notes the related example of Owen Feltham’s 1623 book of essays, Resolves. In the preface, Feltham observes that “he has provided no printed marginalia, but has left the margins of the book blank for the ‘Comments of the man that reades.'” Under the regime of print, however, scholarly glosses first prepared for schoolroom could be later affixed as commentaries to new humanist editions. Or, for a celebrated text like Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium, a commentary created for a special deluxe edition (as we’ll see in Part 4).

Scholars have argued that manuscript annotation (and, to be clear, I refer here to handwritten notes, underlinings, and other symbols, which might appear in manuscript or print books) is of a piece with the practice discussed in the last post. Indeed, annotation would seem (to me, at least) a reasonable next step once you’ve inscribed the book as friends’ common property. Annotation exercised one’s training as a glossator for another’s benefit: it offered a way of, once again, making a virtue of textual scholarship. In his superb essay “The Humanist as Reader” (published in A History of Reading in the West), Grafton observes the following of the elaborate annotation found in humanist books:

If we examine the care that went into such men’s annotation of their books, we may be led to take these formulas [such as “et amicorum”] strictly and seriously. The humanist created in his book a unique record of his own intellectual development and of the literary circles in which he had moved. He often did this, moreover, in a script so elaborately neat and decorative as to suggest that he considered his notes of permanent value. Perhaps whole libraries of such annotations were systematically assembled by men like Harvey, not with publication in view, but as a common reference for members of their circle.

To cite one example, the scholars Iaian Fenlon and Inga Maie Groote have detected such a program at work in the remnant volumes–one hundred or so–of the library of Heinrich Glarean (a.k.a. Henricus Glareanus), the sixteenth-century Swiss poet, music theorist, geographer, scholar of the classics, and annotator extraordinaire. Glarean was one of Erasmus’s close associates, a member of the fabled sodalitas Basiliensis (“Basel fellowship”) of humanists gathered in the Swiss city in the teens of the sixteenth century. (“I certainly have never before had the luck to live in such a gifted company,” Erasmus wrote to his friend Johannes Sapidus in 1516, “And to say nothing of that, how openhearted they are, how gay, how well they get on together! You would say they had only one soul.”) Fenlon and Groote note a number of striking features in the surviving collection, including the fact that no less than a fifth of the books were gifts, but none more so than the varying levels of annotation found in Glarean’s books, some of which can be correlated to copies owned by pupils. The two scholars argue that while some “very neatly annotated” books were aimed at students (containing, in some cases, the most elementary glosses), others were prepared with friends and colleagues in mind. These contain “handwritten prefaces or notices ‘ad lectorem’ which provide his opinion of the text, or give information about its author or structure.” Fenlon and Groote conclude: “while it was not a public library in the modern sense, it was placed at the disposal of a closely knit community of scholars and readers defined by their intellectual interests.”

In that first “Friendship by the Book” post, I argued that one could do worse than to define the humanist meaning of “amicus/philos” as one with whom I share reading. Now we can say that sharing reading could involve more than simply extending the book for another’s consumption: it could also entail marking out the friend’s experience through the text (beginning sometimes with lengthy advisory notices). The reader thus received a book full of signposts–warnings, connections, signs to slow-down, directions through linguistic muddles–that served not only as reading aids but also as reminders of a friendship. As with “et amicorum” inscriptions, the annotated book–both in its creation and its review–was a vehicle for friendly remembrance.


Want to keep reading? Part 3 is here.

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