Medieval Marginalia

I’m right in the middle of reading the great historical whodunit, medieval mystery, Dominican detective novel The Name of the Rose. In part, it’s a book about books. “Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told,” says William of Baskerville, a surely Sherlockian character to his Watson, Adso. Curiosity has been killing certain illuminatiors one of whom is guilty of drawing diabolic doodles in the margins of his manuscript.

…I know what torment it is for the scribe, the rubricator, the scholar to spend the long winter hours at his desk, his fingers numb around the stylus (when even in a normal temperature, after six hours of writing, the fingers are seized by the terrible monk’s cramp and the thumb aches as if it had been trodden on). And this explains why we often find in the margins of a manuscript phrases left by the scribe as testimony to his suffering (and his impatience), such as “Thank God it will soon be dark,” or “Oh, if I had a good glass of wine,” or also “Today it is cold, the light is dim, this vellum is hairy, something is wrong.” As an ancient proverb says, three fingers hold the pen, but the whole body works. And aches.

-Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

I was reading another hypertext when I came across another reference to these complaints and doodles. Here is a little article on this very subject from a new issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. It’s worth a look.


4 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. Mike,

    Marco Agnoletto recommended the book to me when he visited Helena so many years ago. A good primer for a student in Italy. Post regularly and often KFC — Pop

    • Pop, you’ll love this book. Lots of good Franciscans vs. Dominicans and suchlike churchy debates. I’ll bring my copy home. I’m not the first one to say it, but it’s a fine novel. I read as quickly as I’ve read anything, and actually finished it too.

  2. Sara,

    This made me laugh!!! Too bad we lose this possibility with the computer…

    • Loose the possibility? Nah! I liked it so much because it’s so similar! Crass comments, rude pictures, right alongside the best information possible.