Managing Readers: Printed Marginalia in English Renaissance Books


Managing Readers explores the fascinating interchange between text and margin, authorship and readership in early modern England. Printed marginalia did more than any other material feature of book production in the period between 1540 and 1700 to shape the experience of reading. William W. E. Slights considers overlooked evidence of the ways that early modern readers were instructed to process information, to contest opinions, and to make themselves into fully responsive ...
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Managing Readers explores the fascinating interchange between text and margin, authorship and readership in early modern England. Printed marginalia did more than any other material feature of book production in the period between 1540 and 1700 to shape the experience of reading. William W. E. Slights considers overlooked evidence of the ways that early modern readers were instructed to process information, to contest opinions, and to make themselves into fully responsive consumers of texts.

The recent revolution in the protocols of reading brought on by computer technology has forced questions about the nature of book-based knowledge in our global culture. Managing Readers traces changes in the protocols of annotation and directed reading--from medieval religious manuscripts and Renaissance handbooks for explorers, rhetoricians, and politicians to the elegant clear-text editions of the Enlightenment and the hypertexts of our own time. Developing such concepts as textual authority, generic difference, and reader-response, Slights demonstrates that printed marginalia were used to confirm the authority of the text and to undermine it, to supplement "dark" passages, and to colonize strategic hermeneutic spaces. The book contains twenty-two illustrations of pages from rare-book archives that make immediately clear how distinctive the management of the reading experience was during the first century-and-a-half of printing in England.

William W. E. Slights is Professor of English, University of Saskatchewan. He is also author of Ben Jonson and the Art of Secrecy.

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Managing Readers: Printed Marginalia in English Renaissance Books

By William W. E. Slights

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2001 William W. E. Slights
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472112295


When John Daye printed John Dee's General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation in 1577, he produced a slim folio volume with extensive marginal annotation printed on every page, but when Robert Barker published the King James Bible in 1611, it contained, by design, no interpretive sidenotes, only cross-references to other biblical passages and translations of a few foreign words. What stories are told--or suppressed--in the margins of these two artifacts of early modern print culture? Why is one book annotated but not the other? Is it a function of format, content, audience, or something else? How were the politics of print culture brought to bear on the edges of these two books? What, finally, can we learn about how texts were produced, transmitted, and received during the first century and a half of printing in England by attending to their margins?

Twenty years after The General and Rare Memorials was printed, Dee was consulted by Edward Dyer about the limits of Queen Elizabeth's maritime sovereignty, a matter Dee had touched on at several points in the book, and in his response he urged, "The Marginall Notes, sometimes, are of great moment." Of even greater moment was the decision of Bishop Bancroft and his team of translators convened at Hampton Court in 1604 to design the Authorized Version not to follow the example of those who had produced the extensive and markedly sectarian glosses in the Tyndale, Geneva, and even the Bishops' Bible. "No Marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the Explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words," declared Bancroft peremptorily, probably on orders from the king. To look at pages from these two early modern books side by side is to see in small compass what it means to be a managed reader (figs. 1 and 2). The King James Version moves the eye through its black-letter, double-column text with the aid of chapter and verse numbers, a brief chapter summary in roman type, and only the slightest visual and ideational interference from the Bible citations in the ruled margins. The effect of the marginal citations on the devout reader is to create from the verses what George Herbert in "The H. Scriptures. II" calls "configurations of their glory": "This verse marks that, and both do make a motion / Unto a third." The page layout in the King James Version encourages the reader to create his or her own constellations of spiritual significance. The layout of Dee's page, particularly its marginalia, not only manages but micromanages the reader's understanding of the centered text. The elaborately boxed Latin memorial to peaceable King Edgar's fame, for example, is marginally defended against the rival claims of warlike King Arthur. Dee anticipates that the stock response of a reader asked to identify Britain's model king will be to think of Arthur, so he heads off that response by using his margins to lay out contrasts between the policies and practices of the two kings. While his primary text chronicles King Edgar's success in guarding the British coastline, his marginal notes, recorded in ever-diminishing fonts, direct the reader to apply his revised antiquarian information to the pressing naval defense requirements of his own day. Dee had set himself a particular political goal in 1577--to persuade Queen Elizabeth's counselors to fund a royal navy. It was a goal best served by careful management of his readers. The translators and promulgators of the King James Version likewise had a goal to achieve: suppressing the massive scholastic and polemical glosses that earlier Bibles had attracted so as to reduce factionalism within the Church of England. Achieving their goal called for intratextual directions, a guide, that is, to connecting the scriptural dots into spiritually meaningful constellations of the kind that Herbert celebrates in his poem. Whatever interventions such annotation at the edge of the page make in the practice of reading--whether the notes open up or shut down the potentially hermeneutic space at the borders of the text--their presence in or absence from such serious books as Dee's and the Holy Bible is noteworthy.

By the phrase "serious book" I mean one with a genealogy or a style of typographical presentation that links it to ancient texts, especially those that were undergoing a scholarly renaissance in the wake of the humanist print "revolution" that arrived in England during the sixteenth century. Some of these volumes were fully dilated editions of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin originals, perhaps translated through Italian and French intermediaries into English. They were hedged about with learned marginal annotation that can tell us an enormous amount about concepts of authorship and authority, as well as about how these books were supposed to be read. But not only the classics and sacred texts were annotated. Some books, like William Baldwin's ur-novel, Beware the Cat (1584), included marginal notes as an ironic aside to the main comic narrative. Sometimes the purpose of margination is to accumulate authorities with vast supplementary knowledge about the subject of the centered text; other times, annotators seem intent on undercutting the assertions or instructions of what might be called the primary author. Whatever the case, sidenotes were strategically placed, frequently reprinted, and regularly cited throughout the early history of printing in England. Indeed, it is my thesis that printed marginalia did more than any other material feature of book production in the period to determine, from book to book, the nature of the reading experience.

What were the specific incentives to produce marginated books in early modern England, and, equally to the point, what has led me and a handful of other Anglo-American scholars to a renewed appreciation of those narrow channels of type that run down the edges of early books? First, as I have already suggested, from the perspective of those involved in the early book trade, a good way to make a book seem important and, hence, marketable was to accentuate its affiliation with older traditions of textual production. Most manuscripts dating from the twelfth century on carry some form of marginalia, verbal and/or pictorial. Certain canonical texts accrued marginal commentary in the monasteries, and other texts, both religious and secular, were illustrated by professional scribes working in the scriptoriums located in major centers across Europe and England. The function of these marginal "additions" has become the topic of heated scholarly debate. While some seem to reinforce the book's authority (e.g. citations from the church fathers), others evidently subvert that authority (e.g. drawings of cheating merchants, fornicating nuns, and defecating monks). Writing about these matters, Andrew Taylor concludes that even as the margins of the Smithfield Decretals (illustrated ca. 1340) are informed by protocols of earnest exegesis, they also "evoke the broader world of the storyteller and the common memory." Indeed, most scholars of the manuscript tradition agree that marginal headings, rubrication, and illustration serve an important memorial function for their readers, but accounts of exactly what is to be remembered vary widely.

What was being reiterated in each case was the increasingly standardized appearance of a codex page. Such pages, generally greater in height than width, prompted a vertical and hierarchal display of information. Looking at the page, one immediately perceives the patterns of subordination: some words are very large; some are colored; some are abbreviated; some are prominently isolated in the margin. The entire appearance of the page bespeaks an orderly presentation and a correct way to process the information contained on it: this passage has been enhanced by an illustration; that one has been written in a smaller hand and crowded into a corner, and so on. All this implies a responsive reading, one that grasps the systematic arrangement of information on the page for the purpose of retrieval and use. Our concern, then, must be with the history of the page even more than with the history of the book, which, after all, is just a colloquy of pages that remain inaccessible until opened to a particular page. Although the manuscript codex established the methods of writing and reading that I have been describing, they persisted largely unchanged into the culture of print.

If, as Tobin Nellhaus argues, following Paul Saenger and Brian Stock, the forms of literacy that developed from the twelfth century onward promoted linear thought, complex linguistic subordination, and the recording of information for subsequent rereadings, while orality depended on concrete materiality, repetitive verbal formulas, and other techniques designed to render recalled events immediately present to the listening audience, then printed marginalia are as much a testimony to the survival of orality as to the ascendancy of literacy. Directness of expression and simplicity of syntax are tokens of oral presentation that are also prized in marginalia. Complicated periodic sentence structures from the text are often reduced in the margins to catalogs of topoi, lists of dates, and abbreviated comments. Such headings--or sidings--also serve as visual reference points. This indexing function is specifically part of the iconography of the page rather than of oral/aural transmission, though marginalia served at times as notes for an oral disquisition upon the material contained on the page. Like modern scholars, medieval and Renaissance scholars frequently marked up manuscript and print texts in their margins as they prepared for lectures. And so, the margins served both the silent lector and the voluble lecturer, thus further collapsing any rigid distinction among oral, manuscript, and print transmission.

Readers of early printed books were visually prompted to recall the appearance of manuscripts. Printers often imitated the layout of marginated manuscripts. Their books harmonized with medieval manuscript collections and with those that continued to be produced and circulated well into the seventeenth century far more than they announced a revolutionary departure in the form of the written word. Typefaces mimicked scribal hands; rubrication was added to printed pages in incunables; and, as Paul Saenger and Michael Heinlen conclude, "the printer, by controlling which marginalia survived in the transition from manuscript to printed book, established certain marginalia as a canonical part of the texts they accompanied." But printers did not, pace Saenger and Heinlen, fix readers' perceptions of text with their management schemes of foliation, margination, rubrication, and the like. Instead, they created a comfort zone in and around the printed page that encouraged readers to move about the text, making internal and intertextual connections via history, theology, technology, and a host of other previously established systems of thought.

The printed page, then, was made to look familiar to readers, thereby easing the transition from a manuscript culture to a world of mechanically reproduced books. As a help to readers, running sidenotes often provided a convenient summary of densely printed text at the center of the page. These highly visible marginal signals served as aide-memoire and information-retrieval systems. Helpful distinctions, translations, and interpretations as well as evaluations of the accuracy or rhetorical excellence of the text also made readers feel more comfortable when dealing with difficult material. On the other hand, an oppositional voice from the margins could engage a reader in lively debate with the centered text or at least establish an alternative view of the matters it dealt with there. Marginalia could subvert as well as confirm the authority of the text. At the time of printing, then, the advantages of marginal annotation were considerable.

But there were objections to margination, objections that eventually defeated the practice in the eighteenth century and that still have some force today. While marginalia sometimes help to locate text, at other times they dislocate it. Some annotations are, frankly, irrelevant to the texts they pretend to expand or explain, and some glosses are annoyingly coercive. At the very least, notes printed conspicuously at the edge of the page catch the eye and can interrupt the progress of reading. Some aristocratic eighteenth-century readers objected on the grounds that sidenotes offended the eye, and their workmanlike content was said to disturb the aesthetics of the text. As Joseph Trapp declares in the preface to Praelectiones poeticae, "the elegance of the page would be diminished by notes." Such ungentlemanly business was demoted to the bottom of the page in the form of footnotes. Still later, notes were banished to the end of the book or to the ends of chapters. Earlier critics of the form were reluctant to obtrude distracting materials between the reader and the primary text. Forging too close a connection with earlier, Roman Catholic traditions of scholastic commentary, for example, could generate not comfort but suspicion and anxiety in the proposed readership. To some arbitrators in matters of page layout and supplementary annotation, supplying scholia was a trivializing activity. It also added expense to book production. But primarily, printed marginalia struck--and still strike--their opponents as needlessly and inappropriately intrusive in the reading experience. Fortunately, however, for students of early print culture, marginal voices remained strong throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England.

In recent years, when I have described to other scholars my project of cataloging and accounting for the printed marginalia in early modern English books, I have often been asked whether we know who wrote the side-notes. The easy answer is that sometimes we know (e.g. John Bunyan, like Richard Hooker, included marginal notes in the manuscripts of his works as he composed and saw that they were included in the printed versions; many of the sidenotes in Holinshed's Chronicles are followed by their author's initials, etc.), and sometimes we don't know (e.g. almost anyone connected with an author or a printing house could have been responsible for copying internal section headings and biblical citations from a text into its margins). The fuller, more responsible answer to the question is that determining matters of authorship and its presumed authority is less important in the case of sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century books than attending to their concatenation of voices--"central" and "marginal," "primary" and "secondary," "creative" or ploddingly notational-- whether these voices were produced by a single author or by, for example, a poet, a translator, and a compositor working in concert. Recent developments in the areas of textual scholarship and literary theory have gone a great way toward supplementing, if not replacing, the traditional emphasis on individual authorship with studies of the collaborative social and material forces at work in the production of books. While we can hardly expect to understand Dee's General and Rare Memorials without knowing about its author's scientific achievements and political aspirations, unless we also study the patronage system he counted on to get the book into the right hands and the printing practices of the man he chose to produce his proposal for the creation of a British navy, we cannot appreciate the cultural work that went into and came out of this one, very limited-edition book. It is not surprising that Dee chose a heavily marginated medium to disseminate his message. Similarly, a knowledge of the deep-seated ambivalence about annotating Scripture helps to explain the far plainer format of the King James Bible. The assumption behind the royal-clerical decision to permit only foreign-language translation and biblical citation in its margins was that the plain and unmediated text of the word of God might better speak for itself than all the Catholic church fathers and zealous Protestant reformers.

The notion of the unmediated text is, however, a tough one to sustain, even with the weight of a divinely ordained monarch behind you. God tended to rely rather heavily on mediators--Old Testament prophets and kings, New Testament disciples and parables, "dark" utterances that make no sense without some kind of interpretation. A primary site for the exercise of decoding and delaminating the palimpsest of early texts, not only the Bible but also scientific treatises, advice to princes, legal records, and even the occasional poem, is the annotated margin of the text. The hermeneutic endeavor, that is, may be said to inhabit the space between marginal justification and reader response. But the marginator's situation is more complex than this. Even as he mediates between text and reader, he produces fresh text that itself requires interpretation: more than one early modern volume has notes on its notes. We also need to take account of the larger cultural matrix out of which the reader reacts to what has been printed.

How might early modern readers have responded to their books? A certain group of historians of the book and of reading practices (Robert C. Evans, Anthony Grafton, Lisa Jardine, William H. Sherman, Virginia F. Stern, and others) have used the evidence of handwritten marginalia placed in books by such systematic scholars as Guillaume Bude, Ben Jonson, Johannes Kepler, and Gabriel Harvey to track the reading and noting habits of these careful humanist readers. Each reader devised schemes of epitome and marginal cross-reference to benefit himself or a patron with time-saving access to everything from military history to verse forms. Other readers vented their spleen or doodled their boredom with their pens in the margins. The patterns and purposes of these recorded acts of reading provide a great deal of material detail to fill gaps in theoretical models that have been provided by such scholars as Roger Chartier and David Cressy, models of who probably read what in the Renaissance and for what purposes. Equally important and more broadly influential (because they are not unique manuscript witnesses) are the printed marginalia that provide strong indicators of how at least one person thought a text should be read.


Excerpted from Managing Readers: Printed Marginalia in English Renaissance Books by William W. E. Slights Copyright © 2001 by William W. E. Slights. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction 1
Ch. 1 The Edifying Margins of Renaissance English Books 19
Ch. 2 A Theory of Margination 61
Ch. 3 "Marginall Notes That Spoile the Text": Scriptural Annotation in the English Renaissance 101
Ch. 4 The Cosmopolitics of Reading: Navigating the Margins of John Dee's General and Rare Memorials 129
Ch. 5 Nb: 1605 157
Ch. 6 Discording Chronologers: Reshaping History on the Margins 183
Ch. 7 Briefe, Trew, and Contentious as Hell: The Voice from the Margins of Religious Polemics 223
Afterword 259
Works Cited 263
Index 285
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