‘The Margins’ as a Humanities Construct

Reading to Learn, Remember, Play, Resist

Vim, Ph.D.
34 min readAug 28, 2021

This is a lecture to contexualize the concept of “the margins,” delivered for a first-year honors course in February of 2019. The assigned reading for this lecture included bell hooks’ preface to Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre, her essay “Choosing the margins as a space of radical openess,” and two poems: Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798+) and Tiana Clark’s “The Rime of Nina Simone” (2018).

‘The Margins’ as a Humanities Construct

My job today is to introduce our theme from the perspective of Humanities disciplines: Writing Studies and Rhetoric, Romance Languages and Literature, Art History, Music, and my specific field, English Literature. As a scholar of 16th & 17th Century literature and culture, the first thing I think of is the literal margins of a page, and pages in books, so much of what I’ll say in the next 55 minutes will focus on them.

Those of you who took C&E last semester will remember (I hope) this image from the final lecture of last semester, which included several images of this book, commentary on a poetic medical treatise by the Persian polymath Ibn-Sina (Avicenna).

Medical Treatise with maginalia in different languages

The book is now held by the rare book library at Princeton university, but was formerly in the possession of owners in Saudia Arabia, and before that, in various hands in Islamic Iberia and Catholic Spain. As I noted back in November, this book bears the traces of different readers throughout the Reconquista, a long period of war in which the once vast Islamic Umayyad dynasty lost much of Spain to the armies of Christian monarchs like Ferdinand and Isabella.

The text itself is written in Arabic, and those who read it left commentary in Latin, Arabic, and Spanish. Among other things we might glean from this writing, we can see Ibn Sina’s influence on medicine in both the ‘so-called’ east and west; we can also see which passages were assessed to be significant or worthy of quick recall. More broadly, the book tells us something about language, literacy, and relative tolerance across religious traditions in the region of Valencia where the book originally was held.

examples of marginalia in the text

But you probably know to expect the Spanish Inquisition, of course, and thereby know this degree of tolerance did not last. The inquisition’s various published lists of prohibited books repeatedly banned the Qu’ran as well as the reading or ownership of any other text written in Arabic. And so it is not surprising that addition to the different readers’ notes, the book also bears direct evidence of the Inquisition,with a page at the end indicating its examination by one of its officers.

Note from an Inquisitor about a review of the text for possible censorship

Despite the ban on texts of its kind, this book survives, suggesting that it was taken out of the country by one of the many Spanish Moriscos or Muslims who were exiled to Algeria or Morrocco for heresy before it could be destroyed.

We can learn a lot from what writers marked in the margins of their books. When we study the literal margins in literary studies, it’s often to learn about the way specific works or authors were received and resisted by contemporary readers. For example, Jane Austen’s Emma was published in London in 1816 to great acclaim; just one year later, it arrived in America, where at least one reader was less enamored with it than the critics were. As Madeline McMahon explains, this particular reader showed their displeasure with the novel’s characters, if not the whole text, with various marginal comments throughout.

First American edition of Austen’s Emma

On the back of one page, they write their assessments of multiple characters, describing Mr. Elton as a “damned sneak,” Mr. Knightly as merely “tolerable,” the titular Emma as “intolerable,” and her father, Mr. Woodhouse, as “Grouty.” At another point fairly early in the novel, this reader had figured out a future plot twist and offers a spoiler — “I expect Emma will marry Mr. Knightly” — to any reader who came after. At the end of the novel, the reader’s guess is correct and they are very happy — but the comment they wrote, “I am delighted to be through with Emma Woodhouse or Mrs. Knightly,” suggests that the source of joy is not in that couple’s union, but in not having to read about them anymore (see McMahon, linked above, for the images).

Some marginalia in Shakespeare editions, first folio & 1970 “Robben Island”

In my more specific field of 16th & 17th century literature,we might look at this copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, in which a reader offered copious notes on the title page of each play. From this, we can see clearly that plays were not only understood as live productions at the theater, but as literary works to enjoy and respond to at home. Another example is the so-called “Robben Island Bible,” 1970 edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare that circulated in secret by political dissidents incarcerated at Robben Island prison in South Africa during Apartheid. It was disguised under Diwali paper to escape notice, and then passed around from prisoner to prisoner with the pretense that it was a religious text.

The prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, would each write their names by passages that resonated with them while imprisoned. Mandela wrote his name next to a passage in Julius Caesar that reads: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant taste of death but once” (2.2). Another South African politician and anti-Apartheid activist whose name appears in the margins of this bible is Billy Nair, a man of Indian descent; he wrote his name by a passage in The Tempest, a play that takes up colonialism, slave labor and indentured servitude: “This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me.”

Literature scholars tend to love this kind of thing, for even when we find readers pushing back against our favorites, their words reflect our own methodological values back to us: Any critical response — and that word “critical” can include positive appraisals — requires close engagement with the text. For us, the margins often represent a space for active reading, and the process of taking ownership of what one thinks and learns while reading. But margins are never reducible to one simple thing. As Lyn Tribble writes of literal ones in books, “The margins are not consistently a site of subversion, consolidation, or containment….the margins and the text proper are in shifting relationships of authority; the margin might affirm, summarize, underwrite the main text block and thus tend to stabilize meaning, but it might equally assume a contestatory or parodic relationship to the text proper” (6).

The margins that Tribble means have an interesting history, and there’s more to know about them than you might initially think. The margins have played a central role in determining what and how we read over many centuries, and they continue to have an impact on how we read today.

Given how much time we all spend reading on computers, it may be tempting to see books as inert objects — literally old school and low-tech. But books were a form of high technology in the period I study. In the 16th and 17th centuries, they were a marriage of physical labor and chemistry, with the pages made of substances designed specifically to hold ink. Paper that was to be run through the printing press was treated specifically to absorb oil-based ink used in that process; after their initial printing, the pages were treated again, coated with gelatin, a glutinous substance from animal bones, in a multi-step process called sizing. Sizing allowed those pages to resist oil-based in, and so preserved the ink already printed while readily receiving water-based ink — the kind that was used for daily writing in pen by everyday literate people. Which is to say: books back then were enabled for writing as much as they were enabled for reading — just as E-readers and tablets have comment functionality today (for more on this point, see Joshua Calhoun, cited below).

Books could have moving partsand interactive features, not exactly touchscreens, but elements like these, that we see in medical treatises and anatomy texts where the book allows one to look inside the human body, or see the various layers of the human eye (here’s another fun example). Then there are Volvelles, round charts of Persian origin that often appear in works about astronomy. And just as now we can keep 50 tabs open in an internet browser, 16th century readers could have several pages open at once on a rotating wheel.

Book Wheels!
Margins as ‘User Interface’

Anybody who was involved in the production of books in this period was concerned with design and formatting, what we’d now describe as information architecture; that is, there was an art and a science to putting them together for the needs of both the producer of a book and its reception by consumers.

The features that you recognize in books published in the 20th and 21st centuries have gone basically unchanged over time, including things such as thumb tabs like the ones you see here, as well as indexes and tables of contents. A lot of thought went into making sure you could find what you needed it, as you can see in this handwritten table of contents in a book of recipes, or the catalog in the 1623 Folio of Shakespeare’s Works, which organized Shakespeare’s plays by genre. And this is a book about how to treat sick cattle, where you could find a page number by tracing the line to the precise part of the animal that was ailing:

I owe Dr. Kathleen Walker-Meikle for this fantastic image https://twitter.com/Medieval_Badger/status/959378132590583808

If we think of books as information architecture, then we have to understand the margins as key part of the user interface. And in many texts, marginal elements were built into the basic structure of information within, and they played key roles in teaching readers how to prioritize that information. And this is true whether we’re talking aboutmanuscripts — that is documents that were copied by hand, and had therefore limited distribution — orprinted texts, those which were produced after the development of moveable type, which could be produced, sold, and circulated in much larger quantities.

If you took C&E last semester, you may remember seeing images of the Ellesmere manuscript that contains Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; you can see that its highly embellished, including ornamented and enlarged initial letters that mark the beginning of each new stanza as well as signal the start of each new tale. In addition to making it easier to identify different segments of the poem, these letters were obviously included for aesthetic value — that is, to make the text look attractive. In many, if not most cases of books that include borders and illustrations in the margins, these features don’t have any substantive relationship to the content of the text. Usually, these scenes are simply ornamental, drawn there to give readers an amusing break. Suffice to say I wish there were as many medieval books about cats and rabbits as there are texts with cats and rabbits battling their enemies in the margins. The Ellesmere’s Canterbury Tales is a pretty exceptional in this regard: it includes pictures of each pilgrim who tells a tale as well as Chaucer himself in the margins throughout.

In most, if not all of the examples I just showed you, there’s an implicit and explicit sense of what’s important on the page, with the center being where we read and the margins a place we look when we’re ready to take a break and need to be soothed or amused. But there are other examples of manuscripts where this sense of hierarchical ordering is not so easy to discern, and still others where the margins and text are in constant dialogue. Take, for instance, the page below on the left, where the image and text about Jonah and the whale fills up the margin of this prayerbook for Passover seder — ostensibly just as important and certainly more commanding of attention as what’s in the center. The image on the right is another example of a marginal drawing that is both beside the writing and contains it; both of these examples uphold and challenge the strict notion of center and margin.

The image on the left I owe to Dr. Emily Steiner: https://twitter.com/PiersatPenn/status/975909245433581569; the right is included in Keith Houston’s essay, https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/09/the-manicule-a-hand-with-a-pointing-index-finger-becomes-a-common-marginalia-during-the-renaissance.html

The one on the right also contains an especially useful marginal feature called the manicule, that’s the little hand pointing. These are ubiquitous in manuscripts of the period. “Simultaneously metaphorical and utilitarian,” as Voytek Bialkowski, Christine DeLuca, and Kalina Lafreniere note, Manicules appear as “directive[s] that revea[l] the authority or significance of a particular piece of text.” There are a couple ways to think about the relationship between the hand as an authorizing gesture. For instance, Bialkowski, DeLuca, and Lafrenierethe cite the verse in Exodus in which Moses receives the commandments describes the tablet as being “written with the finger of God.” Or, conversely, we could consider it in light of human anatomy and early modern theories about meaningful gestures. One writer, William Diconson, described the hand as “an ally to the mind,” and therein more trustworthy than “The Tongue and Heart” (cited in Sherman) in his book on the subject.

Whether we think of them as having the authority of a devine creator, or more simply human reason, we can find these manicules in many places. Below, you can see them in both manuscripts (left) and printed texts (right), the latter mechanically reproducing the same look and function of a manicules in medieval manuscripts. The development of the printing press in Europe changed the scale at which texts were produced and circulated, and it helped enable literacy at a new scale as well. Some of the marginal elements that were generally cosmetic or decorative drop out of most books, along with color ink, because of the high cost. But those who worked in the print trade modeled their practices after the norms of manuscript culture. So many of the features of books that we see in handwritten texts, like manicules, were carried over in printed works.

Manicules in Manuscripts and printed books

Regardless of whether they were put there by a scribe or a printer, Manicules served a practical cognitive function, assisting not only in discerning the most important information in the margins, but also in aiding the reader’s memory of its placement in the text at large.

16th & 17th century English readers didn’t just intuit how they should understand these pointing hands; in fact, the strategic use of marginal space and symbols was instilled in them in grammar school and in church. The teachings typical of both institutions are enshrined in this book, John Brinsely’s Ludus Literaria, or the Grammar School, which was, as its lengthy title page explains, “Intended for the helping of the younger sort of teachers, and of all schollers, with all other desirous of learning.”

For more on Brinsley and other lessons, see Dr. Adam Hooks, How to read like a Renaissance Reader http://www.adamghooks.net/2012/08/how-to-read-like-renaissance-reader.html

In a part of the book instructing peoplehow best to absorbe a sermon, Brinsley tells his audience to teach the use of the margins as an aid to memoryand understanding. He says, “Direct them to leave good margents, for these purposes: as so sooner as ever the Preacher quotes any scripture, to set it in the margins, lest it slip out of memorie. And presently after the sermon is done, to run over all again, correcting it, and setting it down the sum of every chief head, fair and distinctly in the margent over against the place, if his leisure will suffer.” For Brinsley, “leaving good margins” means taking notes in the text during the sermon and after it. He punctuates these lessons with manicules throughout.

I’ll come back to these later on this lecture, but I want to show you a few more things about margins on the production side of things by looking at three basic case studies.

Marginal Case Study 1: Bibles

The first case study involves Bibles.We refer to The Bible as a singular text, but of course there are multiple versions, and more importantly, multiple doctrinal traditions and scriptural configurations. Some of you no doubt remember from last semester that the Roman Catholic Church worked very hard to stamp out attempts at reform during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. And this not only meant banning books of bible commentary by people like Martin Luther and Jean Calvin, but also licensing texts and traditions that ensured people would interpret them in the precise way prescribed the church. For quite a long time, the Catholic Church in England didn’t want lay people to have bibles at all, for they needed to attend church and hear the Latin liturgy performed in person by people authorized to deliver it. From a centralized church government standpoint, the mass distribution of sacred texts was not desirable, particularly in a system in which parishioner’s souls were aided towards salvation by church-appointed mediators. This helps explain why the biblical texts that were initially printed in England prior to major reform movements, looked like this. You can see here the opening chapter and verse in Genesis, surrounded by what’s called the Glossa Ordinaria, or ordinary glosses.

Incidentally, you can find Glossa Ordinaria in other kinds of books too — any genre of writing where the people at the centers of power might insist on authorizing specific ways of reading and understanding. For example, see here a book of legal precedents by Roman jurists, basically the same principle. What’s in the center is surrounded by commentary that literally closes off what the middle says. Neither of these texts were produced for lay readers to purchase — they’re for people who are already experts in scripture or law. If you look closely at the text in each, they’re full of abbreviations & symbols that only those who are trained professionals would be able to follow. But the idea is that you get this class of readers to follow a prescribed interpretation and anybody they advise or educate on such matters will get the strictly orthodox reading.

Over the course of the sixteenth century, the Catholic church lost its firm grip on England, and we start see a variety of different configurations of biblical texts and marginal glossing after the Protestant reformation. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the history of Christianity or Bibles, but I do want to show you two additional examples. The first is the Geneva Bible,first published in 1560, and the first bible printed for a general audience in English. You can see that it still has quite a bit of marginal glossing, but those glosses compete less with the biblical text for the reader’s attention.

In substance, they have a distinctly protestant bent that emphasizes reformed views on the scripture in contrast to Catholic teachings in earlier Bibles. You’ll have to trust me on that content, but from the image you should at least be able to see how minimal they are compared to the Glossa Ordinaria — rather than for church officials they’re aimed at literate people who are reading at home. The text’s audience and pedagogical purpose is made clear in various features in addition to the margins: you can see here Genesis is preceded by an Argument, or summary of the text,and then on the page preceding it,the printer has offered the reader a handy chart to remind them what to do with the book.It says on the far left here:“Whosoever mindeth to take profit by reading scriptures must,” and then in several sections gives readers verbs that make reading part of an active devotional practice: for instance, “Diligently keep such order of reading the scriptures and prayer”; Vnderstand to what end and purpose the scriptures serve.”

Reader instruction flow-chart in The Geneva Bible

Here’s one more example of another Protestant Bible,first printed in 1611, The King James Bible, whose architects had a different reader apparatus and strategy for marginal glosses. This Bible was likewise designed for lay-readers rather than clerics of the Church, and it too contains a lot of helpful reference material for them, including genealogical tables, lists of terms and names, as well as maps. More significantly, it begins with a letter directly addressing readersin which the translators take steps to explain their approach for translating the scriptures.

Readers addressed by the Translators

Their note to readers includes marginal glosses so that when I was gathering images to show you, I could easily locate the places where they describe the labor and challenges of translating the text from Hebrew to Greek, Greek to Latin, and then Latin to English;moreover, they also offer explicit commentary on their marginal glosses, which, of course, is also highlighted by marginal glosses.

marginal notes in the letter to readers

Unlike the other Bibles I just showed you, these translators do not use the margins for elaborate commentary telling readers what verses mean; instead, they offer occasional glosses defining words in Hebrew and note additional verses that are intended to allow readers to cross reference other books chapters and verses. They explain this choice in their letter for readers by imagining critics saying that including too many cross references might “show of uncertainty.” “Some,” they note, “would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding Controversies… should be somewhat shaken” by it. The translators admit outright that it might seem risky to do this kind of gloss, but they insist that theirs is a superior practice: it is better for readers to read and take note of the margin’s citations of different passages that might clarify or complicate the situations described. They ask rhetorically, “Doth not a margine do well to admonishthe Reader to seeke further and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily?” That is, our margins don’t tell you what to conclude; in fact, they tell you not to draw any conclusions until you’ve read more and read more deeply. Ultimately, the compilers of the King James provide less in the marginal glosses so readers would seek meaning in consultation with other parts of the bible. “Diversity of signification and sense in the margine,where the text is not clear,” they say,” “must needs do good. Yea, is necessary.”

Explaining marginal glosses in the King James Bible

These books’ treatment of the margins offer insight not just into the doctrinal differences between one Christian tradition and the other, but also in the philosophical differences in how the Catholic Church and the Protestant Anglican church understood the laity. They allow us to see which readers in these traditions would be expected or allowed to access the text, as well as how explicitly they were guided within it by the margins and other elements of form and structure. These elements in the Glossa Ordinaria signal an elite clerical reader who would follow carefully directed interpretations and then read to the masses; the Geneva Bible imagines a slightly wider audience and one specifically in need of interpretations of doctrine that replace Catholic teachings. The King James Bible imagines a much bigger audience in a literate public, encouraging individuals to read scripture widely, using glosses to direct their reading and find multiple sites of textual authority in which to ground their faith.

Another case study for seeing how marginal glosses directed readers is the genre of the Chronicle, historical narratives that, in England in the 16th & 17th centuries, were very popular. Such works typically laid out the major events that took place in the reigns of monarchs in Chronological order. The one I’ll show you is a massive text popularly known as Honlinshed’s Chronicle, with Raphael Holinshed being just one of many authors who compiled the narratives in the 1500 pages or so within. Featured on the right is the opening page of the sections in the English Chronicle devoted to the reign of Edward I. Here’s what a typical pageof Holinshed might include in the margins:

Page from Holinshed

The year within a monarch’s time on the throne, the specific year, 1305, then a summary of what’s happening in the main text — here, a note about the King’s son, Prince Edward, and below that, Caxton and Fabian, the names of historians who are sources for the narrative about him. Then more summary — the information that the rebel William Wallace was taken & put to death — attributed to a writer named Richard South, and then further down, N. Trivet, the name of another historiographer. The margins here are basically citations and then content features that help readers locate the specific events they might be searching for.

What’s particularly interesting about Holinshed’s margins is that it includes a separate section called The History of Scotland, and parts of the chronological timeline in that section overlap with the timeline covered with the History of English monarchs like this one. The history of Scotland and England converge during the reign of the English Edward I, in part because he attempted to conquer the Scots both militarily and culturally.

From “The History of Scotland” in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587)

In keeping with what Dr. Elsey mentioned Tuesday about the way imperial powers attempt to wipe out the histories of those they intend to subject, we are told in Holinshed’s History of Scotland that after Edward’s initial victories there, “he burnt all the Chronicles of the Scottish Nation, with all manner of Books as well as those containing divine service…treatises of profane matters to the end that the memory of the Scots should perish.” And then in the second paragraph: “he compelled all such Scottishmen as were of any singular knowledge in learning or literature to be resident in Oxford, doubting lest the Scottish nobility increasing in political prudence by their instructions should seek to throw off the yoke of bondage.” The margins summarize both attempts. As far as I can tell, there’s no mention of this in the English Chronicle, and perhaps this is because Edward did not ultimately win the ground war or the culture war.

The very existence of Honlinshed’s History of Scotland is itself evidence that not all of the Scottish histories were burnt, since this part of the larger volume of Chronicles is drawn primarily from Scottish sources. Moreover, both the English sections of this text and the Scottish sections relay Edward’s martial failures, secured in part because the armies of much-lauded soldiers like William Wallace and Robert Le Bruce were able to defeat him. (Incidentally, there’s a film on Netflixright now that purports to tell the story of this very period.)

The English account does not suggest that Edward was a great or fair ruler in Scotland; but the main text presents an account that largely justifies his intervention in Scottish affairs.

Section from Holinshed’s English Chronicle on the “unfaithful dealing of the Scots”

See here in the margins how it summarizes the main content, noting “the unfaithful dealing of the Scots” and throughout the authors refer to Scots as rebels, a term that would only be accurate if you believe that Edward I was their legitimate king.

Certainly, any attempt to construct a historical narrative is going to confront competing sources at one point or another, and 21st century historians aim to deal with them in fair and sound ways. There are more than a few points in Holinshed’s histories that contain what I would describe as a neutral way to deal with these discrepancies. One example is in this is a brief segment in The History of Scotland in a section about Robin Hood and Little John where we see historiographers offer conflicting details about when these guys lived.

Discrepancy in the timeline for Robin Hood & Little John

Our writers in Holinshed say: “In these days, as the translator of Hector Boece hath written, that notable and moste famous outlaw Robyn hoode lived, with his fellow little John, of whom are many fables and merry jests …sung amongst the vulgar people. But John Maior writeth that they lived, as he doth guess, in the days of King Richarde the first of that name, which reigned in England about the year of our Lord, 1198. That’s it, that’s the whole thing. John Maior is a Scottish writer and so is Hector Boece. Holinshed’s writers leave it open whether or not Robin Hood lived during the reign of King Edward I or Richard I, and seem comfortable with the reader not being certain which Scottish writer is right or being more than a hundred years off.

But the margins of the History of Scotland are very different in tone from this moment — and from the simple summary and source marginal glosses I showed you in the History of England. Here are a few places in the margins where they imply that English historiographers say somethingdifferent from the Scottish ones:

“The cruetie of King Edward as is noted by the Scottish writers” and “See more of this matter in the English histories”; “so sayth the Scottish writers, but how truly read more hereof in England.”

There are also several places where the margins are more strident and even combative: like the one pictured in the top right, where, in the parentheses, they suggest what the Scots write “is not likely to be true”. Or in the instance below that where they suggest Scottish writers “smelleth of malice” against the English king and English writers; and in the bottom left, where they say incredulously: “How can this be true?” before going on to accuse Scottish writers of defamation against Edward I.

More combative marginal glosses…

As you can see, English writers and printers did not prevent readers in England from reading the versions offered by Scottish writers; but by including their work inside a larger work of historiography, they could control how readers received the work of people perceived to be political rivals.

The marginal comments kinds of comments once again raise questions about the hierarchy of information. Do we put more stock in the main text or the margin, particularly in cases like these, where they are explicitly at odds? One bit of text is smaller, but more fervent and dismissive in tone. Many English readers, no doubt, would be swayed by that as much as anything. In 1587, when this edition of Holinshed was printed, Scotland and England did not exist even as a nominal United Kingdom or Great Britain — that would be another thirty years in the future, when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I to hold the English crown as well. But even then, the legacy of this earlier period in their joint history would be a source of contention between the two.

I learned pretty much everything I know about Poly Olbion & its margins From Sjoerd Levelt https://twitter.com/SLevelt

For a third example,of an instructive marginal comment in a printed book, I’ll show you a poem called Poly-Olbion, with “Poly” meaning multiple, or diverse, and “Olbion,” is non-standard spelling of Albion, another word for England. The poem’s author, Micheal Drayton, wrote it as a celebration of the diverse people and places that fell under English rule, which, by the time of its composition in 1612, included Scotland, (parts of) Ireland and Wales. The poem is a great example of both National mythology and local history — smoothing over many of the conflicts like the ones you saw alluded to in the previous two case studies in order to glorify the places outside of London and Westminster, the urban centers of commerce and government. It’s also a great example of interdisciplinary work, for the poem is full of references to ecology, common law, and social history. Drayton had his good friend, a legal expert and talented artist John Selden provide illustrations as well as glosses throughout the text to define words, offer geographical insight, and finally provide additional information that would help readers understand context line by line to better appreciate the poem and England itself.

The book is divided into 30 songs. Each song is preceded by a map of a specific county in England, and then followed by several additional pages that unpack the significance of specific lines of the poem; in addition to explaining the references to people and places discursively, there are more marginal notes on those pages too. Here’s a close up of what the map, poem, and commentary look like.

Poly-Olbion: Map, Song, Discursive commentary on specific lines in the poem

Not unlike the translators of the King James Bible, Drayton begins the Poly-Olbion with a letter from its author to readers. He also provides a “Table to the Chiefest Passages”of things that readers might be looking for but couldn’t otherwise find. In the margins of this table, we see a note that says “If the page satisfy not, inquire in the margins.”

Inquire in the margins…

Here too, we see a kind of hierarchy set up between text and gloss but it nonetheless suggests that at any point in time the utility of one might be superseded by the other. It depends on what would “satisfieth” a particular reader.

‘Copying the Margins’

Now I promised you I’d return to marginalia that didn’t originate with authors, printers, and other people involved on the production-side of the book market. But it’s not quite so simple to separate what readers added to the margins and what printers introduced in them. Because readers’ marks in the margins often follow the patterns that authors and printers supplied for them. So Let’s go back to something we saw earlier: Manicules.We can see that readers suppliedthem in printed books that did not originally contain them, choosing for themselves what was most important to flag with the symbols given to them by the book trade.

Here’s another example of a printers’ marginaliathat, like the manicule, readers began to use for themselves. These things that look like little quotation marks are unobtrusive, but you can see they appear as part of the original text in two printed works, on top, the same part of Holinshed’s Chronicle you saw earlier, and to the right, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These marks were also occasionally written in by readers as well, as you can see in the bottom example, in which a poet named Gabriel Harvey had written them in the margins of a copy of Machiavelli’s Arte of War.

Commonplace marks in Holinshed, Hamlet, and Machiavelli

We call these commonplace marks, and printers sometimes included them in parts of texts that were seen to be imminently quotable passages — things that seemed not only important in context, but might also be applicable to other situations. Readers would see those marks or make them as notes to themselves to copy down the passages they encompassed. They would do so notin the margins of the book they were reading, but in blank books referred to as “table” or “commonplace books.” The name “common place” does not necessarily mean what’s copied down was a common or universal sentimentper se; rather, it refers to the idea that all of a reader’s most important passages could be located in a common — that is, single — place. The synonym “table book” also has a literal explanation; it refers to where the book was typically kept. It would sit on your table waiting for you to add new passages into it; it’s not a coincidence that “table” shares the same root word as “tablet.”

Harvard has digitized many commonplace books. See: https://library.harvard.edu/collections/reading-harvard-views-readers-readership-and-reading-history

Here’s are a couple examples of commonplace books that primarily contain poetry. Here’s another, which includes passages from plays by Shakespeare, including Hamlet. These are just a few of many surviving examples of these texts that reside in rare book libraries and public trusts across the world. Overall, these surviving table or commonplace books made out of other books are really eclectic and highly individualized. They might contain all kinds of things in addition to bits and pieces of well-known literature, from cures for ailments and shopping lists, to adages, psalms, and proverbs. When I post this lecture online, you’ll be able to seeadditional examples of them for yourself, including the two that Thomas Jefferson kept, digitized along with the same collection of texts, including his account books of slave receipts, digitized by the Library of Congress.

That the practice of marginal writing and common-placing was more than merely copying is evident in a 16th century poem by Henry King, called “Upon a Table-Book presented to a Lady.” He says:

King’s poem dates from the 16th century; it was published in the 17th century.

I love King’s poem because it gets at the way the margins (and their extension in the reader’s notes in tablets or commonplace books) are a site of creative opportunity. This is evident in his use of organic metaphors for those who are empowered by reading to copy out passages: to write like a scribe is to plant or populate a page. He also admits to the lady who receives the text that women like herself were not especially encouraged in their culture to imagine themselves as writers in their own right. This book here is imagined as “room,” a metaphor that Virginia Woolf would use in the 20th century in her landmark work, A Room of One’s Own, which lamented that women historically did not have societal structures or support to nurture careers as writers. King describes the margins as an alternative and a stop-gap for such structures — “those empty regions” on the page are therefore of greater value than the “prose or verse” in the main text, especially for women who were, in some ways, themselves marginalized. King’s metaphor also hints at the sort of “radical openness” that bell hooks describes; what makes margins powerful and of great utility, both as literal sites and as a metaphor, is that they are spaces in which to position one’s subjectivity — and by subjectivity, I mean, as the subject of our own stories and as people subject to a variety of social and political forces.

The Margins as a ‘Space of Radical Openness’

What I have presented today is, admittedly, a limited and very Western-centric history of literal margins. In fact, most of us, whether we’re humanities or social scientists, now use the word more often in its figurative sense than in the literal examples I’ve shown you today. But even in its limitations, I hope I have shown you why “the margins” is such a rich and useful metaphor. you can see that when bell hooks embraces it as a conceptual framework for feminist scholarship and cultural analysis, she’s talking about the same power dynamics; the same efforts to signal which information should be privileged in our stories; the same desire to establish meaning and assert truth that literal book margins convey.

The hooks excerpts you read demonstrate intersectional thinking not unlike the essay we read on Tuesday by Kimberle Crenshaw; hooks points out the way academic feminism has always been white feminism, that it has marginalized or silence the voices of black women. She uses the concept of margins not only to push back on that narrow perspective, but also to insist that black voices can offer something more than narratives of suffering and victimization.

Scholarship in this vein by hooks, as well as people before and after her, has had a significant impact — not just on what we study but who we study. As Dr. Elsey and Abraham noted of history and Sociology, there is a long tradition of Humanist scholars who have moved beyond old, established canons in art, literature, and music to consider those whose work has not received much attention of was not considered worthy of it because it doesn’t conform neatly to narrow standards of quality and taste. As our syllabus this semester suggests, we agree with hooks that it’s of central importance to address the artistic labors of marginalized people without projecting or re-producing those standards unnecessarily, particularly when we’re looking at works by people profoundly affected by structural inequality, settler colonialism and chattle slavery.

To be perfectly clear, many of the English texts I’ve shown you today are complicit in those very problems, even in cases where nationalist — often white, Christian nationalist — discourse is not so overt. Even the tacit depictions of English rulers and aristocracy in Jane Austen construct a sense of superiority and served to justify the subjugation of populations within and outside of its borders. Many of you learned this last semester with Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale: the aesthetics and formal features of those texts — marriage plots, vivid descriptions, and intricate wordplay­­ — are never separable from the violence they’ve been used to justify. This fact, as I said before, is one of many reasons that it is essential that we look beyond the effects of empire to see people and works of art and culture that we’ve missed: our aesthetic standards and syllabi have been, in effect, colonized along with those marginalized people.

At the same time, we are also sometimes forced by writers, artists, or musicians from marginalized groups to rethink those standards, when they explicitly interrogate, exploit, and subvert them in their works. For a great example, take a look at this portrait of Eliju Yale, a merchant and slave trader, as well as the namesake for the ivy league university. This 18th century portrait, by a British artist, is called “Elihu Yale with his Servant.” You can see the “servant” in the margins of the painting, but because the gaze of Yale himself is so commanding, you might not immediately notice that he is depicted with a metal collar around his neck.

Here’s another 18th century portrait of Yale with some of his peers. Now take a look at the work of a 20th century artist, Titus Kaphar, as described by this Tweet:

The act of making something new from something copied and destroyed forces us to change our sense of the subject of the painting. In the portraits of Yale from his own time, these boys are slaves, his possessions, and literally outside the sphere of the powerful. But in Kaphar’s portrait, the boy becomes the subject and the only person worth looking at; in fact, the artist has ensured that he is almost all we see. Kaphar has several paintings that work this way. For a similar approach we might look at another artist, Kara Walker, who uses the general model of 18thcentury silhouette portraiture to brilliant and unsettling effect.

What Both Walker and Kaphar do in these examples of their work is not exactly the same as what we see in Tiana Clark’s poem “The Rime of Nina Simone,” whose work is more than just an homage to Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” the poem to which it responds.In the pairing of these two poems, Coleridge represents dominant, white European literary patriarchy in relation to Clark and Nina Simone, whose legacy she invokes in her own poem. Coleridge’s poems are canonical — included in anthologies and probably known or at least familiar to you. I’m not an expert on Nina Simone or Tiana Clark, but I hope Clark’s poem inspires you to learn more about both and that you have excellent class discussions today! (See also this piece by Tiana Clark about Simone’s influence on her.)

In an effort to further enrich your discussions of the Clark/Coleridge pairing, I’m supplement the lecture I gave in week 1 by giving you a few details that you might not know about Coleridge’s poem.

First of all: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is canonical, but in its initial publication, that endurance as such was far from obvious. It appeared in this anthology, Lyrical Ballads, without the marginal glosses that you saw in the version I gave you, published nearly 2 decades later in 1817. In its first publication in 1798 in Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth gave the “Rime of the Ancynt Marinere” pride of place in the volume, and in the volume’s preface to the reader, he explained that it “was professedly written in imitation of the style as well as the spirit of the elder poets.” That is to say, Coleridge had deliberately used archaic language throughout the poem in order to give it a kind of old-timey sound.

Images from Lyrical Ballads (1798)

The poems in the original 1798 volume, and the volume as a whole, were well received, but reviews of “Ancient Mariner” review were mixed at best. While its antiquated diction and tone were perhaps fitting for the supernatural and trippy content of the poem and its hoary protagonist, the taste makers in 1798 found it too different from the rest of the volume and a bit hard to applaud. One reviewer wrote, “The author’s first piece, ‘The rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in imitation of the Style as well as the spirit of the elder poets, is the strangest story of a cock and a bull that we ever saw on paper… it seems a rhapsody of unintelligible wildness and incoherence” A second anonymous reviewer pushed back at Wordsworth’s attempt to blame readers for not getting that the old language was deliberate, claiming “We are tolerably conversant with the early English poets and can discover no resemblance whatsoever, except in antiquated spelling and a few obsolete words.” Wordsworth himself was not happy with its reception.

“From what I can gather,” he wrote in a letter, “it seems that the Ancient Mariner has upon the whole been an injury to the volume, I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If the volume should come to a second edition I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste” (quoted in McGann). Though Wordsworth opted to keep the poem when the second edition of Lyrical Ballads was printed, he moved its location to the middle; Coleridge continued to work on the poem and make changes to it — including the addition of the marginal glosses you see in the 1817 edition — for the next 20 years.

There’s one other thing I want to say about Coleridge the Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a whole, which is that Coleridge was an advocate for the abolition of the British slave trade. In 1792, a good five or six years before he wrote “the Rime,” he wrote a poem on slavery in which he called on the allegorical figure of Nemesis to inflict “burning punishment” on those who trafficked in human flesh. Three years later at Bristol (a city at the center of the trade), he attacked slavery in his “Lecture on the Slave Trade” as both a specific wrong to its African victims and as a “perversion” in British people. He denounced his countrymen and women for their complacency and complicity in the trade, as well as their addiction to profit and sugar. “The merchant finds no argument against it in his ledger,” he noted bitterly; “the citizen at the crowded feast is not nauseated by the stench and filth of the slave-vessel — the fine lady’s nerves are not shattered by the shrieks! She sips a beverage sweetened with human blood.” He also invited his countrymen to imagine themselves in the irons of those who were enslaved: “Would you choose to be sold? to have the hot iron hiss upon your breasts, after having been crammed into the hold of a Ship with so many fellow-victims, that the heat and stench arising from your diseased bodies, should rot the very planks?”

There’s nothing overt in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner that would signal Coleridge’s position in this regard, but there are some clues in this poem that suggest the ship that arrives and sends all the men on the ship to their death is intended to represent a Slaver. The Mariner is the sole survivor after contact with the ship’s crew, and he is doomed to walk his remaining days with a punishment. His need to tell the tale is a form of constraint that restricts the liberty of everyone he comes into contact with; he cannot choose but tell and they cannot choose but listen. To be sure, this is a different form of enslavement than the kinds he protested in his lecture at Bristol, but it’s the only kind he can imagine as plausible for an Englishman.

Finally, the poem’s rhyme scheme, narrative trajectory, and syntax follow closely an earlier poem written by Coleridge’s good friend, Robert Southey, called “The Sailor the Served in the Slave Trade.” In this poem, the speaker hears a man crying and approaches him to ask why he suffers so; the speaker then tells his tale, confessing fear of a certain wicked Captain as well as guilt for the wicked thing he himself has done. What he has done is followed an order to whip a slave, and ultimately throw her overboard when it is clear she won’t survive the journey in saleable condition. Southey’s poem thus offers an inversion of the framing device we see in “the Rime” with the Mariner’s seizure of the Wedding guest, but as in “The Ancient Mariner,” the reader of the poem joins the interlocutor as a public witness to a sailor’s confession. The verbal parallels in these two poems is also suggestive of an unstated link between them. In Coleridge’s poem, we’re told repeatedly that there’s “Water Water Everywhere,” in multiple places in Southey’s poem we’re told that the evil ship Captain “follows follows everywhere.” Finally, Southey’s Sailor exclaims, “Oh I have done a wicked thing!” and then reiterates it in another line, “O I have done a cursed deed” admissions that are rhythmically akin to the confession of Coleridge’s Mariner, who admits “And I had done a hellish thing” after he shoots down the Albatross.

Do these details make a difference in how we understand Coleridge’s poem? And what does it mean — with or without them — for Tiana Clark to imagine Nina Simone, the brilliant pianist and performer you heard just before the lecture, in the Mariner’s position? These are the things I hope we can discuss in our sections, perhaps along with the additional poems I’ve included as a handout. Those are explicitly about margins and the connected acts of reading, writing, and being.


Works Cited/Consulted that are not linked above:

Early Modern English Marginalia (Ed. Katherine Acheson), especially Joshua Calhoun, “Reading Habits and Reading Habitats; or, toward an Ecobibliography of Marginalia”

Margins and Marginality: The Printed Page in Early Modern England by Evelyn Tribble (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993).

Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England by William H. Sherman (UPenn, 1995)



Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.