bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The centrality of the margin

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 6 June, 2015

Erik Kwakkel, one of our leading palaeographers (and by ‘our’, I mean us Europeans), has just posted on his blog a stimulating article on the size of margins in medieval manuscripts. As he rightly points out, they tend to dominate the page – that is to say, the text block forms the minority of the space. He remarks that this is astonishing, by which he means in a culture where parchment was rare and thus, we might add, there existed a culture of the palimpsest. The focus of his article is pre-Gothic; for me, working mainly with humanist manuscripts, such proportions are an expected part of what I describe as the ‘eloquent page’ which is, simultaneously, a work of conspicuous consumption: the text is isolated in a cream-white sea of margins. With scribes working after the invention of print, this could be taken to extremes: I spent a little time working out the proportions of text to margin in the manuscripts of the prolific Netherlandish scribe of the early sixteenth century, Pieter Meghen: the text could form under a third of the page. Here, the intention seemed to be to mark out the superiority of manuscript over printed text by the ostentatious waste of space on fine parchment, rather than the packed page on cheap paper that made print a commercial, if not often an aesthetic, success.

I have also been reminded of the importance of blank sections of manuscript by one of my present projects, creating an on-line database of fragments in the bindings of the books of Samuel Harsnett, archbishop of York (d. 1631), now held in the University of Essex. Many of these sixteenth-century bindings include pastedowns, flyleaves binding strips, reinforcing pieces or tabs taken from manuscripts. Here was a culture in which creating the finished product of the bound book involved destroying older books. You might baulk at that phrasing: a manuscript might have entered the bookseller’s already too damaged to be valuable as anything other than scrap, but the practice still suggests at the least a connivance with dismantling. What is more, what has struck me is that for some sorts of uses in bindings – particularly trapezoidal binding strips – some binders clearly had a distinct preference for blank parchment. They would not, we can assume, have had it made to order and instead they reserved for use margins from codices: we can know for certain that this is happening when a flick of pen-flourishing or a rubbed plummet note is still partially visible on the cutting (as in the examples I posted on Twitter). That is to say, those parts without text may have had a better chance of surviving through being recycled than those which the scribe had short-sightedly blemished by inflicting ink and letter-forms upon it.

All this discussion, though, misses a larger, very obvious point: the margins form only part of the blank space of a page. The textblock itself works by having space between the words and between the lines. Even at the most compressed, the height of minims may only be half the distance between lines and, while we must take into account ascenders and descenders, we are likely to have to conclude that at most about half of what we call the textblock is occupied with letters. That is to say, in the less-than-50% reserved for words, little more than 50% might be taken up with them. That is because (as I have put this in a lecture I gave last year), script needs space like the candle needs shadow – except that the script is the shadow casting darkness on the light of the page.

We could say that this makes the words all the more precious; they are in dialogue with their own absence, and that dialogue is surrounded by what might look like silence. I like to think of this as a metaphor for the social context in which these manuscripts were produced: the words being the minority, just as the literate who could engage with the words through reading were the few. I am not saying that scribes actually thought of the mise-en-page in these terms, though, as I will suggest in print soon, I do think we can see some being very conscious of themselves working within a majority-illiterate society and conscious of the limits to literacy, including their own. More obviously, though, the inhabting of the margins of gothic manuscripts by grotesques often so at odds with the text, at some level speaks to this paradox. Decoration and text are not in conversation; they are speaking different languages.

The presence of that decoration (another blemish on the virgin parchment) reminds us also that, just as oral culture was by no means uncreative, so these margins are not mute. An implication of what I have just said is that, if we look to all space on the page, we can recognise that it is not all blank in the same way. These spaces, too, are places, with their own articulation. How well can we hear their voices?

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  1. […] to view. Some of these are discussed on the Highlights page of the site. They include an example I have mentioned before of how some binders chose to save not the text from a manuscript but precisely those parts which […]


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