May 22, 2014

The significance of the page

The layouts of a medieval manuscript’s individual pages expose valuable information about the manuscript, and therefore about texts. Some scholars are working ‘to reconstitute the page of the scribal manuscript as an authentic object in its own right. . . . [I]t is not a mere transparency through which the author’s “original” is to be viewed but rather an artifact of independent visual interest’ (Butterfield 49). Such scholars are trying to vouch for the worth of everything on any given manuscript page, because all added notes beyond the original text also reveal important information: ‘Every decision of layout—[including added glosses]—not only reflects the assumptions and cultural habits of medieval readers but also forms assumptions and habits that govern the way in which the text is received’ (Butterfield 49-50).

British Library MS Cotton Vespasian A.i, fol. 13r, detail (opening of Psalm 3)

The Vespasian Psalter (British Library MS Cotton Vespasian A.i) contains extensive interlinear glosses. This Old English gloss serves as a translation aid for the Latin text, so it follows the Latin syntax word-for-word. Although the Old English is not part of the main text, it reveals important information about the manuscript, its audience, and the state of the English language at the time. Evidently the Old English gloss is meant to be used for quick reference when the reader has trouble with the Latin, but the Latin text is the text that is meant to be read. After all, Latin was the language of the church, and English was lowly and common.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines mise-en-page as ‘the design of printed pages, including the layout of text and illustrations[,] [and] the composition or layout of a picture’. Bonnie Mak, who emphasises the importance of the medieval manuscript page, goes into more detail about what should be considered significant on a page: ‘The page is more than a simple vehicle or container for the transmission of ideas; it is a part of those ideas, entangled in the story itself. The platform of the page, the markings inscribed upon it, and the odours that issue from it together constitute a message’ (9). Even so much as a stain on a page becomes part of that page’s ‘unique identity’ (10); every little detail of any given page is an intrinsic feature.
no aspect of any given manuscript page should be considered insignificant

Originally, each page is thought out and designed to present information in a certain way, and then it takes on a life of its own. Marks (whether intentional ink markings, spill marks, or otherwise) on manuscript pages expose the use and experiences of that particular manuscript, and these marks become just as much a part of the pages’ identities as anything that was originally meant to be there; such marks all become part of each page’s ‘social history’ (10). Therefore, no aspect of any given manuscript page should be considered insignificant. Scripts chosen by scribes might convey meaning that is lost when the text is printed in modern fonts: ‘specific letter forms can infuse a text with social or political suggestion. By generating a particular visual expression, the shapes of letters may . . . exploit the authority of an established tradition or diverge self-consciously from conventional patterns’ (15-6). In fact, the large margins of medieval manuscript pages reveal a lot about the treatment of written texts at the time; such large margins seem to promote the supplementary text that readers might add, which, in turn, promotes the social facet of medieval reading: ‘Reappearing in different contexts through time, the page invites us to bridge [the] boundaries and explore how and why its communicative space continues to matter, both within and without the codex’ (7).

All aspects of medieval manuscript pages are significant for one purpose or another. Each characteristic only gains or loses significance according to what any specific researcher is looking for; for instance, one researcher might be looking only at the original text and its meaning, while another might be studying particular passages that have been marked by medieval readers as significant (perhaps by bookmark, manicule, asterisk, etc.) in order to study the values of medieval readers. Many medieval manuscripts reveal that the original text is not the only important part, since scribes continually made changes as they saw fit, and readers added emphasis and notes in the margins or interlinearly as they saw fit, thus making the manuscript into a collaborative work: ‘The page is . . . an interface, standing at the centre of the complicated dynamic of intention and reception; it is the material manifestation of an ongoing conversation between designer and reader’ (21). Every characteristic of an individual page should be considered significant at least to some extent because each feature tells us something about the manuscript, such as its origin, its provenance, and its social history.

British Library MS Cotton Nero D.iv (the Lindisfarne Gospels), detail of fol. 259r, part of Aldred's colophon

Aldred’s colophon (British Library MS Cotton Nero D.iv, fol. 259r) is written in Latin and Old English, and it outlines the origins and history of the manuscript. Although it is not significant to the Latin main text of the Lindisfarne Gospels, Aldred’s colophon is significant to the manuscript as a piece of religious and linguistic history in England. By outlining the history of the manuscript, Aldred utilises the medieval concept of validating works by attributing authority to others. Aldred also added interlinear Old English glosses throughout the manuscript in the 10th century—over 200 years after its creation. Like the interlinear gloss of the Vespasian Psalter, that in the Lindisfarne Gospels reveals that Latin was not as accessible in Aldred’s time even to educated churchmen in England.

We can study a manuscript much more deeply and thoroughly by remembering the significance of the individual pages. A close study of individual manuscript pages and their contents, rather than just the authorial text or the manuscript as a whole, can divulge intricate details we would be mistaken to dismiss as unimportant.

Brittany Pickering


Butterfield, Ardis. “Mise-en-page in the Troilus Manuscripts: Chaucer and French Manuscript Culture.” Huntington Library Quarterly 58.1 (1995): 49-80.

Mak, Bonnie. How the Page Matters. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2011.

“Mise-en-page.” The Oxford English Dictionary Online.

[Note: Brittany Pickering is an MA student in English at the University of Saskatchewan. This post was originally a piece written for a graduate seminar based on the Medieval Codes project.]

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