The Medieval Ebook, Part II: Writing in the Margins

As I mentioned last time, the odd writings you find in the margins of medieval books (and, for that matter, in between the lines or on loose sheets of paper inserted between the pages) are often of great importance.  Known as marginal or interlinear glosses (or, if on loose paper, extras), these notes, asides, and corrections took on a life of their own, sometimes rivaling the importance of the book they were written in.  Perhaps the most famous collections based largely on these writings would be the Catena Aurea of Thomas Aquinas, one of many such catenae aureae compiled by late antique and medieval authors, and the four books of Peter Lombard’s Sentences—though most any Scholastic writing on philosophical or theological  matters will cite glosses or extras at some point or other.

Royal 10 E IV   f. 59v   Rabbit shooting

We've lost a lot since we decided "*" was good enough.

Which brings me to the point I was making at the end of my previous post.  If you have a copy of the books/papers being cited at your fingertips, in parallel with a paper or essay using them, then, rather than having some artifact of scholarship divorced from its roots, you can see the organic growth and web of relationships between source text and new work.  Though this would be helpful enough if you could click on a citation in a paper and be taken directly to the location cited, the reverse—reading a book or paper and seeing who and what cites it as you’re reading it—could be more interesting and fruitful.  Though major works of cultural importance often have seminal commentaries and glosses included (certain editions of the Bible, Cardinal Cajatan’s commentary on Aquinas’ greater Summa, Takuan Soho’s Rinzai Zen interpretation of the Tao Te Ching) and critical editions will include cross-references to other parts of an author’s opera, the ability to pick up any electronic text and see where it lead, what ideas it spawned, would be a great boon to scholarship.  Someone working on Kant’s third analogy in the first Critique would be able to evaluate the arguments of Guyer, Longuenesse, and Allison next to the original text, as well as seeing, at a glance, how the three commentators interacted with one another, responding to both Kant and new counterarguments developed by their peers.

Always consider the source

For that matter, the personal comments of readers famous, infamous, neglected, and ordinary are often of interest.  I remember hearing in a philosophy of law class about someone who managed to purchase John Rawls’ copy of HLA Hart’s Concept of Law after Rawls’ death; apparently (and significantly), the underlining stops just before the discussion on justice and morality.  Furthermore, students attempting to understand a text might benefit from being able to compare their own marginal and interlinear glosses.  Much as I’d often wind up puzzled by the underlining and highlighting in used school books (though not by the fact that it invariably stopped after chapter 3), glancing at a colleague’s underlining or marginalia while in class would often show me something I’d missed, or some detail that I read in a different way.  Even reading my own books sometimes yields insights from the glosses; my much-used copy of Wittgenstein’s Investigations is as much a relic of my time in school and my own philosophical development as anything else, what with its many multi-colored underlinings, notes, and cross-references to Kripke, Dworkin, and Joseph Almog.  Somewhere in the margins of that book is a thesis on how the publicity of language makes fictional objects, art criticism, and law possible.  A well-networked ebook reader, such as an iPad or Kobo Vox, could make sharing of marginalia and glosses automatic and intuitive, turning the book from the object of purely private use and contemplation it now is back into one that can also be used for interaction, discussion, and collaboration.

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One thought on “The Medieval Ebook, Part II: Writing in the Margins

  1. Pingback: A Thought on Electronic Publishing, Returning to Form (Part 1) « Intentio Lectoris

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