Tag Books

More Medieval Marginalia

Last year I wrote about the funny things monks drew in the margins of their manuscripts. In that same vain here is a whole blog dedicated to some of the weird illustrations that show up in these old hand written books. Check out Little Red laying eggs and Ugly Skeleton.

 Via Boingboing and discarded image|discarding images

Masks of the History Museum

While I was still in New York I had the pleasure of running through the American Natural History Museum looking at some of the beautiful masks tucked away in their collections. It’s an old fashioned museum in a lot of ways, and masks of the are displayed with almost no context, like butterflies on a pin-board. In one particularly bad display of Pacific Island masks one card read, “New Ireland.” Well, I thought, there is a New Ireland.


Today the low pile carpet and oak and glass cabinets make the Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians pretty shabby and unwelcoming but in his book The Way of the Masks, Claude Levi-Strauss described his experience of the hall with the first stanza of Charles Baudelaire’s poem Correspondences:

Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.

Taken as objects behind glass the masks can seem meaningless, crude and lifeless. Their cards are unhelpful to the point of silliness. They all seem to read along the lines of: wooden mask, shaman’s mask, a mask is a pretend face etc. But with a little imagination and curiosity they start to come alive. Piercing stares, flapping, lolling tongues. Some even have mechanisms–hinges and pulleys–that can tear apart one face to reveal a face underneath. Not to mention the human bodies that must have played these masks, breathing through them and embodying every distorted and extreme detail.  Whoo!

W. Reginald Bray

I was browsing in an ultra cool book store in Brooklyn and came across a title I could not pass up. John Tingey’s “The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects,” tells the story of how accountant and postal regulation enthusiast W. Reginald Bray became “The Human Letter” and “The Autograph King.” From the 2010 review in the New Yorker:

Bray (1879-1939) was an avid collector who amassed stamps, postmarks, train tickets, and girlfriends, and who, after reading the entire British Post Office Guide, impishly determined to take the rules as challenges. He tried posting an unimaginable array of things, to see whether the post office would deliver them. At one point or another, he mailed a bowler hat, a rabbit skull (the address spelled out on the nasal bone, and the stamps pasted to the back), a purse, a slipper, a clothes brush, seaweed, shirt collars, a penny, a turnip (address and message carved into the durable tuber), an Irish Terrier, and a pipe, among other curios.

Needless to say I loved it and it inspired me to send a few return address experiments of my own today. Will my letter to PJ reach all the way to the fictional address in Saipan before it reaches him in California? Who knows, but it’s worth 45 cents to find out.

More on Bray on the author’s website.

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.

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