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Reading quill-in-hand

Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)
Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

Anonymous engraving, published in "Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women with Biographies" in 1873, based on Julius Schrader painting.

(Princeton University Library)

Reading quill-in-hand

Annotated works from the Old Library

Beginning in the 19th century, readers learned to not write in books. With the development of the public library system and new standards among book collectors, and as it became more common to pass on school texts from one student to another, the habit gradually disappeared. However, reading “quill-in-hand” was common practice for readers at the time of the Ancien Régime. The hundred or so annotated works in the Old Library of the Centre Culturel Irlandais are a testament to this widespread custom. The collection spans the entire period between the 15th and 18th centuries, with a large number of books dating back to the 17th century. These works illustrate the practices of the intellectual elite as they wrestled with treatises on law, history, theology, and religious controversy. While some readers were content to add their signature or a few words to the title page, others filled the margins with personal observations called, in the strictest sense of the word, marginalia.

Ovide, Nasonis metamorphoseos
Ovide, Nasonis metamorphoseos

Lyon, 1513

Marginalia

The historian's view on handwritten notes has changed significantly in the past half-century.

Since the 1970s, marginalia written by famous readers such as Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Samuel T. Coleridge, Charles Darwin and Stendhal have been the subject of critical editions; these notes documented their sources of inspiration and their working methodologies. Nowadays, the focus has turned to annotations from less well-known readers. They provide a way to understand the material and intellectual processes within the book through the transmission and appropriation of texts. Used as a bookmark, a memorisation tool, a device for grasping a difficult passage, a means to rebel against dangerous ideas, or a way to answer an esteemed author, handwritten notes reveal some of the strategies the reader used while studying the book.

However, nothing is so straightforward. Beyond real dating and attribution issues surrounding written works, the wide range of individual cases seems to defy any attempt at synthesis. Is it truly feasible to base the history of reading on so few examples? Such an exercise is in fact possible, as note-taking is by no means limited to just the individual. It is above all a social practice integral to the larger culture of the written word, one defined by the rules and uses of writing. Presented through urban writing and typography, this "culture of writing" has been consistently upheld by education systems over time. Family traditions, social classes and religious beliefs shape this culture as well, and the individual gathers a sense of it in his or her own writing. By studying this dialogue between shared cultural models and the personal experience of reading, we can interpret the act of note-taking and its various forms.

John Smybert, Dean Berkely and His Entourage, also known as Bermuda group
John Smybert, Dean Berkely and His Entourage, also known as Bermuda group

Yale Universitiy Art Gallery, around 1729

(Wikimedia commons)

The study of note-taking reveals, first and foremost, the purposes of each section of the book: the cover pages at the beginning and end of each volume, the title page, the margins surrounding the text, and line spacing do not lend themselves to the same styles of writing. As a result, readers can be grouped into various "communities" according to the way they use these spaces. Student readers fill their books with witty and practical notes, scholarly readers turn their texts into working tools, and readers with a particular viewpoint to defend cross swords with authors in the margins. These are just a few of the categories that exist, none of which are set in stone. After all, one can be a "student" reader well after his or her school-going years. Marginalia also provide an opportunity to study how the reader's personality develops and comes across within such a small space. Finally, annotations are also a reflection of the author's imagination, which readers subtly refer to when they take up the quill to tackle and read a text. The history of reading, the history of private life, the history of the author – these are the three areas that the exhibition will explore.

A prophecy of Noastradamus copied at the beginning of a volume
A prophecy of Noastradamus copied at the beginning of a volume

Censures et conclusions de la faculté de Théologie de Paris...
Paris, 1717

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Mundane writings in liminal spaces

In a way, readers write their own “books” through their notes, which they fill with their memories, work and affect.

The blank spaces at the beginning of books are often full of annotations. Notes on the book's ownership, including clues to where it came from and who it belonged to, are found here as well as notes that introduce the text and record the reader’s conclusions. Readers also used these areas as a place to write reminders or notes of a more frivolous nature. Even when the annotations seem unrelated to the text, interactions between two written messages are never neutral. Because handwritten notes are the first thing the reader sees upon opening the book, they in some ways shape the way future readers approach the text.

This prophecy of Nostradamus (1503-1566) is said to have predicted the execution of Charles I of England (1649). Why was it written at the beginning of a volume of Conclusions de la faculté de Paris (1717), which examines the loyalty of subjects to their king, the security of monarchs and peace across the State? In any case, the juxtaposition of these two theses casts serious doubt on the integrity of the regime’s promises.

A father has noted the birth and baptism of his son
A father has noted the birth and baptism of his son

The Marrow of the oracles of God, Nicholas Byfield (Londres, 1640)

Even when they weren’t being read, if indeed they were, books from the Ancien Régime served a variety of purposes. As paper was expensive and the binding ensured the book lasted a relatively long period of time, all kinds of information and ideas – be they family-related, spiritual, economic or scholarly – were often gathered here. Family history is often recorded in Bibles, which are handed down from one generation to the next, but we can find such writings in other types of books as well.

At the beginning of this popular Calvinist prayer book (11th edition), a father from the end of the 17th century has noted the birth and baptism of his son.

« My son Pierre was born on 10 July 1693 at half past six in the morning and was baptised at the home of Mr. The Ambassador of Holland, by his minister, Mr. Valens, on the orders of Mr. de Relmcourt, from whom I have a certificate showing that he baptised him on 13 July, and on 14 July, at three in the afternoon, he was baptised with his godfather Mr Gaudion, my brother-in-law and his godmother, my cousin, from La Borde
P. Soulet »

Summary of Robinson Crusoe's adventures
Summary of Robinson Crusoe's adventures

Suite de l’Histoire universelle, Bossuet (Paris, 1744)

On a more mundane note, the cover page could also be used to record spontaneous notes such as a laundry reminder, a list of books on loan, a draft of a letter or sermon, and excerpts from other writings.

The cover pages are full of summaries of Robinson Crusoe's adventures alongside a rather ponderous French translation.

« […] J[e] supplié oufur [au four] qui me manque enfeasant de casserroles
doute tres large e creuze
cet a dire danvirons dupie [deux pieds] di matre [de diamètre] e de noef puce de profondere Cum
de fair une fournée jal-
-lumez en grand fous sur la pierre de mon foyez jusqu’à ceu quelle fus devenu tout
a fait chose [chaude], alors, balleans le charbons ardents J. posé
me pas de cu [mon pain dessus] – ja le couveré avec ma cassorel de terre
et jenjossez tout au fure
la cendndre et le charbon […]  »

This humble prayer echoes the words of the book
This humble prayer echoes the words of the book

Bloody Babylon discoverd, Christianus Londinatus, (1659)

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Some of these marginal notes are more closely related to the moment the text was being read; they illustrate the readers’ thoughts when they began reading or when they drew their conclusions.

This small book about recent events in England belonged to a Breget Sdke, who clumsily wrote her name on the first cover page. Here, she carefully drew out lines to help guide her quill as she wrote this humble prayer echoing the words of the book

« I think o shee ofher for
thy grachoes protechxyon of me me thies day I becheche thee kepe me allo this nit »

Biblical citations in a New Testament
Biblical citations in a New Testament

The Newe Testament of oure savioure Jesu Christ... [Thomas Gybson ?]
(London, 1538)

Scholarly reading

Though writing in the margins of text is an ancient tradition, it was discussed and studied at the beginning of the modern age.

Treatises on "the art of studying" advise readers to make comments on the text throughout their reading. The purpose of these notes is to allow the reader to focus his or her attention, help remember details, and make subsequent reading of the book easier. The most common markings included underlining, crosses, arrows and pointing hands, also known as manicules. The use of these "ghost notes" is a controversial reading method; although authors from ancient times approved of their usage, some practices such as thumbnail markings or cornered pages were deemed utterly unacceptable of worthy readers. It was thought that readers should limit themselves to adding a few words in the margin to follow the text. On the other hand, some wordy readers would have blank pages inserted between the printed ones to increase their note-taking space.

On a page inserted in a New Testament from 1538, the reader laid out five columns of various biblical citations about children, milk, seeds and choices. This table illustrates the scholarly practice of creating collections of "common places". It also demonstrates an essential principle of biblical study, the self-explanation of Holy Scripture. Through cross-referencing, each text made the other easier to understand.

The reader has added precise notes to this copy of The Twelve Caesars
The reader has added precise notes to this copy of The Twelve Caesars

De XII Caesaribus libri VIII, Suétone (Paris, 1595)

In addition to techniques common to all learned readers, some scholars used a very personal annotation system that reflected multiple readings of the same text. They transformed the margins of their books into a genuine workspace in which the printed text was amended and enhanced.

The reader used the margins to highlight the major parts of Caesar's ascension, to suggest other versions of the text and to clarify the timeline.
To do his calculations, he used a cross-referencing table that includes the year of election to the consulate, the year in power on the Roman calendar, and the equivalent in the Christian calendar.
After this, references are made to other ancient historians, such as Pliny and Caesar, helping him to complete or correct certain points of Suetonius' work.

Correcting and annotating classical texts was a common practice among Renaissance scholars. This copy of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was a working tool for someone called Simon, who added a few marginalia such as those in the middle of page 5.

Comments on the Gospel of Matthew
Comments on the Gospel of Matthew

The Newe Testament of oure savioure Jesu Christ… [Thomas Gybson ?]
(London, 1538)

Some notes are merely paraphrased (1, 2), while others shed light on biblical symbolism (4). There are religious (5) and political (6) thoughts, as well as references to contemporary events (3). In the same Bible from 1538, the reader added chapter numbers above the columns to make the book easier to navigate. He or she highlighted forms of speech in the Gospel of Matthew by using a symbol system for which the "user instructions" were added at the beginning of the book. Semi-circular markings (C) refer to words spoken by the evangelist while circular markings (O) refer to indirect speech. The first words of dialogue are underlined, visually highlighting the changes in forms of speech. Numbers written in the margins refer back to the comments made about the text.

Transcription :

1 The gentiles do confess christ to be god ; king of the Jewes & theyre lorde
2 yerthly princis are grevid when the heare of christis birth
3 prenely so do the kynges yt are callyd defendors of ye fayth at this rom
4 Golde for a kyng, franckynsene for a prest, mirre for a man
5 let prinsis devise what they wyll, agaynst goddis elect, yet / wyll the lorde saves his chosen […]
10 in the chang of prinsis, seldome denith a better.

The reading habits of young people

Readers learned to annotate books and excerpt text early in life through school.

In his works on education (1511), Erasmus qualified annotations as a pedagogical tool. They continued to serve as such throughout the modern age. Some Latin classics were printed with wide margins and spaces between lines to let pupils add sentence structures, translations and key remarks from teachers.

Pupils have filled the cover pages with drawings, signatures, word games and secret codes
Pupils have filled the cover pages with drawings, signatures, word games and secret codes

Theophili Antecessoris institutionum libri IV (Paris, 1657)

The key to the secret code, on another page of the book, reads: Monsieur Le Sueur
The key to the secret code, on another page of the book, reads: Monsieur Le Sueur

Theophili Antecessoris institutionum libri IV (Paris, 1657)

The first and last lines are discussed in a comedy by Hauteroche, Le Deuil, shown for the first time in 1672: "By my faith here we are finely clad", "I forgive my son, forgive Babet". They are annotated with:
"Come and see him in the crowd, it is well worthwhile".
On the side there is a list of plays by Terence, from Eunuque to Hécyre, to Adelphes, Phormion and Héautontimorouménos, difficultly spelled.
On the bottom of the reverse side, a template sentence in Latin: Muscas imperatoriae trucidantem Domitianum videte (Watch Domitien massacre the unfortunate).

It is clear from the first few pages how familiar young readers were with books. While the pages are full of haphazard musings, they also provide a space for socialising and personal affirmation. In this example of Institutions by Theophilus Antecessor, pupils have filled the cover pages with drawings, signatures, word games and secret codes reflecting a culture deeply immersed in classical references.

The pupils disguised famous titles. Hidden under "les cadets de Tirelire" lies the Decades by Livy. The same treatment has been given to The Aeneid by Virgil and Amadis de Gaula. The key to the secret code is on another page of the book. The code reads, under the numbers, "Monsieur Le Sueur".

Notes in the margin that do not relate to the text
Notes in the margin that do not relate to the text

Gradus ad Parnassum

Sometimes, these writing games would also appear in the body of the book.

Notes in the margin that do not relate to the text were editions of prior drafts. The subject, Virtus est vitium fugere (Fleeing vice is a virtue in itself), is taken from Epistles by Horace.
"Someone who neglects their body while being paralysed from gout in their feet is rightly considered as stupid and foolish; similarly, those who delay taking the path of virtue are also stupid".
(Si quis negligeret corpus nodosa podagra / cum vexat stultus merito fatuusque putatur / Haud secus / ac stulti / virtutis / qui remo/rantur / Principi/um).

In the middle of the 18th century, sons and nephews of bishop and philosopher George Berkeley annotated the margins of Gradus ad Parnassum, a famous poetic dictionary. They added around a hundred expressions in Latin, either taken from classical authors or written by themselves to varying degrees of success. The book is not just a window into Ancien Régime educational methods. The young readers also turned it into a social space, letting their friends write in the margins.

Many of the adolescents' friends wrote their signatures in the margins of the Gradus. The book contains evidence of friendship and rivalry, attraction and tension. Here is written, "To hell with you, Miss De Voirez"!

Friendship and rivalry between the owner's friends
Friendship and rivalry between the owner's friends

Gradus ad Parnassum

The reader highlights arguments in favour of Catholics
The reader highlights arguments in favour of Catholics

A reply to the Answer of the catholique apology, Roger Palmer (1668)

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Biased reading

While marginalia perpetuated pedagogical and intellectual traditions, they also allowed readers to express their feelings and record literary critiques.

Such criticism was not expressed in the same way throughout the period. It conformed to the stylistic norms of the time in which it was written, even if only to toy with them. In the mid-17th century, the development of the periodical press and the role of pamphlets in political and religious conflicts gave readers new ways of expression. Many annotations were made on books about French Jesuit and Jansenite issues, as well as on English political and religious booklets. They highlight how readers used and subverted familiar typographical forms such as titles, mottoes and indexes to critique the work.

This work is part of a violent conflict between Protestants and Catholics waged via booklet. In this index, the reader highlights a number of arguments developed by the author in favour of Catholics. 

Josua 6.22. Rahabs assistance. [page] 18 : The author compares Catholics who have joined the Royal English troops to the prostitute Rahab who hides Joshua's spies during the seige of Jericho.

Mr White : sonne of Da. [page] 62 : Thomas Albius, named the “son of Darkness” in the text, is a Catholic author condemned by Rome and yet used by the Protestants against the Catholics, which Palmer considers as proof of their bad faith.

ye blowing up ye Thames. [page] 64 : The author denies the rumour accusing the Catholics of plotting to flood London using the Thames.

[page] 69. 14 at one time Papists executed. in Q E R vid. Stow : A quote from the ancient chronicler John Stow describing the violent death of fourteen Catholics who were condemned because of their faith.

The index is followed by a memento on the canonical impediments of marriage.

This famous work on moral theology features a false title that sums up a reader’s final conclusion: "Admirable inventory of misguided casuists"
This famous work on moral theology features a false title that sums up a reader’s final conclusion: "Admirable inventory of misguided casuists"

Liber theologia moralis viginti quatuor societatis Jesu doctoribus reseratus quem R. P. Antonius de Escobar... (Lyon, 1656)

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Readers highlight the author's contradictions with references in the margins imitating the printed marginalia
Readers highlight the author's contradictions with references in the margins imitating the printed marginalia

Liber theologia moralis viginti quatuor societatis Jesu doctoribus reseratus quem R. P. Antonius de Escobar... (Lyon, 1656)

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Readers used these typographical forms to condemn the loose morals of Jesuit confessors. This famous work on moral theology by the Jesuit Escobar y Mendoza (1656) features a false title that sums up a reader’s final conclusion: "mirabilis errantium casuistarum synopsis" (Admirable inventory of misguided casuists).

In the same book, other readers highlight the Jesuit's contradictions with references in the margins imitating the printed marginalia. When the author replied “yes” at one point and “no” later on to the question "Is it a sin to rent one's house to an adulterous couple?", readers pointed out the dissonance in the margin. The note: "vedi contrarium Pag. 361 no. 58" (See opposite on p. 361, no. 58) has a similar note on page 361

A reader added scathing comments against the author
A reader added scathing comments against the author

De Antiquitate Britannicae Ecclesiae, [Matthew Parker] (Hanovre, 1605)

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From the 18th century onwards, annotations took on a different tone, one that was more personal and freely critical of the text. An end-of-century reader added scathing comments to De Antiquitate Britannicae ecclesiae by Matthew Parker. Addressing the reader of his own writing ("optime lector"), the writer links his notes to the reading of the book. The reader becomes the author’s rival.

In the second half of the 16th century, religious reform under Elizabeth I and the rupture with Rome was based on a rewriting of history. The author of this history of the British Church minimises the importance of St. Augustine, sent from Rome, and his evangelist mission, writing instead of an "indigenous" conversion. The reader is offended by this characterisation. The energetic punctuation and precise citations demonstrate the intensity of this historiographic debate, which occurred almost two centuries after the book was written.

Transcription :

[…] Lib. 7 Epistola 30 ad / Eulogium Patriar. Alexand. Gens Anglorum in cultu lignorum ac lapidum nunc usque / remaneret &c. &c. Leg. Epist. ad Augustinum quam secitat Beda L. 1 C. 29.
Fidem non est ad/hibendam his omnibus / conjecturis, sed potui / hos legendum est nobis / testimonia tum protestantum tum monachorum / pene coetanorum - tunc / dejudicari fas est.

Non sic concludere debemus, optime lector, sed atendendum est / ad litteras ipsius Gregorii Papas ad / Reginam -
x A vicinis sacerdotibus adjuvari eos (Anglos) non potuisse !! Ait auctor iste. […]

Translation :

[…] Book 7, Letter 30 to Eulogos, the patriarch of Alexandria: "the English have lived until today among the woods and the rocks, etc., etc." Read the letter to Augustine cited by Bede, book I chap. 29.
One mustn't believe in such speculation, but rather read the testimonies of the Protestants and the monks who were living at the time, who possess the right to pass judgement.

Therefore, we should not conclude, excellent reader, that one must pay heed to the letter from Pope Gregory himself to the queen [Brunigilda].
*They (the English) weren't able to receive help from neighbouring priests!! says this author [...]

The reader added thirty-seven new sections to this repertoire written for preachers
The reader added thirty-seven new sections to this repertoire written for preachers

Thesaurus locorum communium de quo nova et vetera proferuntur..., Henri Cullens (Anvers, 1622)

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From one book comes another

Annotations are what turn a book into a unique object, one that is subject to the intellectual interests and working demands of its user and that demonstrates ‘the power of the reader over the writing of another.' (Christian Jacob).

Annotations incorporate it, first and foremost, in a physical and mental library that leaves its mark on the book, whether in the form of references in the margins, bibliographical references or notes from other readings written on the cover pages.

In the Thesaurus locorum communium, a repertoire written for preachers, the reader has supplemented the text with thirty-seven new sections such as those shown here: ira (anger), intercessio, indivia (desire). Their annotations shed light on the contents of the reader’s work library, consisting of the Bible, works by the Early Church Fathers and writings from classical authors. The most used work, appearing a remarkable 146 times, is De pastorali cur by St. Gregory, which was conscientiously read and commented on throughout the sections.

A huge index is spread across twenty-odd bound pages from the beginning to the end of the text
A huge index is spread across twenty-odd bound pages from the beginning to the end of the text

The Generall historie of Spaine, Louis Turquet de Mayerne (London, 1612)

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Reading also forces the text to conform to the reader’s own specific sense of time and logic. Indexes made by readers for their own personal use make it easier to understand this process. These annotations provide a map of the book based on the reader’s experience, revealing which passages were quickly skimmed over and which parts were deemed more important. They shed light on what the reader was looking for in the book – or more precisely, what was found.

A huge index is spread across twenty-odd bound pages from the beginning to the end of the text. The Generall historie of Spaine is divided by theme, and page numbers are clearly indicated at the end of each entry. The organisation of the entries and the changes in quills and ink suggest that the reading was not perfectly linear. The reader no doubt went backwards or finished the index after rereading the text.

"I red to 278 at Scotts Hall to 481", writes Philipp Stretehay ; then, at the top of the following page :
"I made an end of reading this booke all over on the 30 of June 1664".

Comments for the preparation of a new translation
Comments for the preparation of a new translation

An Introduction to a devote life, François de Sales (Saint-Omer, 1622)

Some annotated copies were specifically used to produce a new book, like the classic editions of humanist philosophers and volumes corrected by their authors in preparation of an updated edition. This copy of the Introduction to the Devout Life by François de Sales was used as a working tool for the new translation published in Paris in 1648 by the "English priests of the college of Tournai". The book illustrates how English Catholics exiled to France played a role in the diffusion of numerous devotional texts. In this way, François de Sales' work had a significant impact on English religious literature in the first half of the 17th century. His influence extended far beyond the confines of Catholic communities.

The copy is covered in notes from at least four different people, one of whom clearly wrote more than the other three. The discrepancies between the French edition from 1610, the first translation by John Yaxley (here), the handwritten corrections on this copy and the new English translation from 1648, show all the thought processes of the translators.

The translators' work is not only about François de Sales' spiritual metaphors, but also the social realities described by the author. For the translation of "domestiques", which Yaxley translated as "our domesticall frindes", the writer suggests "those of our family”.

A page with Georges Berkeley's initials
A page with Georges Berkeley's initials

Gradus ad Parnassum

"Et fit bien" is the only annotation in the book
"Et fit bien" is the only annotation in the book

Suite de l’Histoire universelle, Bossuet, (Paris, 1744)

Conclusion

Historians have long emphasized the importance of reading and writing practises in building individual and collective identities. The first signs of self expression are found in notes regarding ownership. Taking up a quill, even clumsily, to state who the book belongs to already marks the creation of a "self".

Beyond appropriating a book, repeated "signs of self", such as signatures and dates, further affirmed the subject’s identity, even if repeated signatures may also have been a writing exercise, a way of entertaining oneself or a bookmark.

Georges Berkeley added no less than sixty signatures in ink or pencil to his Gradus ad Parnassum. They were written either completely or partially (GBerkeley, Geo Berkeley), in the form of initials (GB, GB), and as a writing game (in Greek, with his left hand or in a column).

Notes in margins do not immediately provide unfiltered insight into the personal life of the reader. While interacting with a text can help readers better understand themselves, any notes are written with an awareness of the unspoken audience, the future reader. This triad of the author/reader-writer/future reader is ever more present in scholarly works, in which the reader can clearly present themselves as a rival to the author, directing their arguments to the future reader whom they are trying to convince.

More so than books that are full of notes, texts that have only a rare note or two are the ones that really give food for thought. "And well done", notes the reader of Bousset's Discourse on Universal History, about the life of the Portuguese king Don Pedro, who banned lawyers from his kingdom. This is the only note in the book and seems to be the reader's gut reaction when the text discusses a sensitive point. It is clear that in this case, the act of reading the text combined with personal experiences had enough of an effect to make the reader take up the quill, thus demonstrating "the power of writing" on the life of readers.

"And well done", notes the reader of Bousset's Suite de l’histoire universelleopposite the passage about Don Pedro of Portugal's life, who banned lawyers from his kingdom. It is the only annotation written in the book.

 

Scientific responsibility: Emmanuelle Chapron
Lecturer in modern history at Université de Provence
Fellow, Centre Culturel Irlandais, 2009-2010


To go further

  • H. J. Jackson, Marginalia : Readers writing in Books, New Haven, 2001.
  • D. Jacquart, C. Burnett (éd.), Scientia in margine : études sur les Marginalia dans les manuscrits scientifiques du Moyen Age à la Renaissance, Genève, 2005.
  • Le livre annoté, Revue de la Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2, juin 1999.
  • W. H. Sherman, Used Books. Marking Readers in Renaissance England, Philadelphie, 2008.
  • J. Andersen, E. Sauer (éd.), Books and Readers in Early Modern England. Material Studies, Philadelphia, 2002, p. 42-79.
  • R. E. Stoddard, Marks in Books, illustrated and explained, Cambridge, 1985.
Lire Plume À La Main - Talk by Emmanuelle Chapron in CCI