Marginal gains, or a Red Letter Day

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This blog is primarily about the Turbulent Priests project, but between now and December 2014, I’m based in Tübingen, courtesy of the Humboldt Foundation, and working on something rather different, which I think of as Project Humbert (it’s about an 11th-century reformer of that name). It’s this that took me to the Royal Library in Brussels to look at a 12th-century manuscript, known as Brussels BR 9706-25.

You might be forgiven for wondering whether it’s really justifiable for medieval historians to make such visits these days. In this case as in many others, the manuscript’s constituent texts have long been edited (since the 1970s). And even if they hadn’t been, I could just have contacted the library, and, for a fee, have requested a black and white microfilm to scroll through at my leisure.  I didn’t know that there was anything specifically interesting about this manuscript – I just felt I ought to go and see it, because I was interested in its contents (which are only found in a handful of manuscripts). For those controlling research fund purse-strings, arguments like this might not seem terribly compelling.

And as the train chugged through the flat Belgian landscape, I wondered whether this was really just an elaborate form of procrastination, or a ritual that medieval historians still dutifully carry out in imitation of the great Studienreisen of the 19th-century when these manuscript collections were first catalogued properly. No wonder that in an era of digitised reproductions, the death of the travel grant is frequently predicted. Maybe we should all just stay in our offices, and get on with some screen-work like everyone else.

Still, I went anyway – and I’m glad I did. It turned out that the manuscript in question has nota marks in the margin: basically NBs, drawing attention to particular sections. That hadn’t been mentioned by any of the editions – understandably, since the goal of most editions is to reconstruct the original ‘pure’ text, not to track readers’ responses. And in themselves, such marks are hardly unusual in medieval manuscripts. Then as now, readers annotated what they were reading. Unless these marks can be dated, though, it’s difficult to make much of them; and most of the time, they can’t be.

In this manuscript, however, I noticed that the nota marks had been decorated with red ink – the same red ink used to decorate other bits of the manuscript (what’s known technically as rubrication). I know what you’re thinking. “Wow! That suggests that the marks had been written *along with* the text – that they had been added not by some later reader, but by the scribes who conscientiously copied out both the text and marginal notes: in other words, they probably came from the exemplar that this manuscript was based on.”

And that makes them altogether more interesting. The annotated texts in question are 11th-century ones, from the era of the papal reform, and were probably put together in southern Italy – so the nota marks are potentially evidence for how 11th-century people read these texts, quite soon after their compilation. And that raises all kinds of interesting questions, not least because the sections annotated seem to chime with key themes of 11th-century church reform. So, suddenly, I was looking at fresh evidence.

I haven’t fully worked through the implications of this yet. But I’m struck that the detail of the rubrication simply wouldn’t have been visible in a black and white reproduction. True, a full colour digital image would have shown it up (if one were available – and they’re often expensive). But with no particular reason to suppose that the marginalia would prove so interesting, I would have been much less likely to leaf through every page, staring at every detail, had I not travelled for four hours to get there, grimly determined to make the trip worthwhile.

Granted, this was a serendipitious outcome. But isn’t serendipity important in most fields of research? So, next time you see a historian of medieval Europe patiently sitting on a train or plane to some library or archive, don’t ask whether she’s wasting her time, or her department’s budget, or even public funds, and why she didn’t just go on line like everyone else, and anyway isn’t all her evidence well-known? Wish her luck – who knows what she might be about to find.