Aug 5, 2014

Asterisks in the Middle Ages

Astérix and Obélix. Image: the Indomitable Blog.
One of the jokes of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Astérix comics is that the names of the two main characters, Astérix and Obélix, are typographic puns: the asterisk and obelus (also obelisk, thus a double pun referring both to the punctuation mark and to the menhirs that Obélix carries around) were used since Aristarchus of Samothrace edited Homer in the 2nd century BC. The origins and early use of both punctuation marks are described in a chapter of Keith Houston’s cheerfully readable Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (2013), practically the only reasonably informative book in English about the history of punctuation since Malcolm Parkes’s more scholarly Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (1993). For more about the obelus (which became the modern typographic dagger), read Houston’s book. Here I will focus on the asterisk.

The asterisk was originally a symbol in the apparatus of textual scholarship. Aristarchus seems to have used the asterisk to indicate passages that were interpolated into the text of Homer from another source, or (in conjunction with the obelus) verses that he thought belonged elsewhere in the text. Since no manuscripts in the hand of Aristarchus survive, we don’t know for certain what his asterisks looked like, but the Greek word (ἀστερίσκος) means ‘little star’. The symbol was picked up by Origen of Alexandria in the 3rd century AD when he created his Hexapla, a magisterial attempt to produce a reliable text of the early Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, the Septuagint, by collating it with a Hebrew text and other Greek translations. (The Hexapla survives today only in very fragmentary form.) Origen used the asterisk to indicate text that he added to the Septuagint because it was probably in the original Hebrew, and the obelus for text that he believed to have been added to the Septuagint but was not in the original Hebrew.

Following this practice, asterisks appear in the modern edition of the Latin Vulgate on my desk, where Jerome’s Latin translation of the Psalms from a Hebrew text is printed facing his translation from the Septuagint. For example:

Robert Weber and Roger Gryson, ed., Biblia Sacra Vulgata, 4th ed. (Stuttgart, 1994)
The asterisk at the beginning of Psalm 23, verse 2 (Psalm 24.2 in modern English translations) indicates that the word quia (‘because’), translating text not in the Septuagint, translates text taken from the Hebrew. The colon-like sign following it is a version of the metobelus, indicating the end of the correction. (In verse 1 are an obelus and metobelus around universi.) Notice the dotted-X form of the asterisk, not the star-like symbol we usually associate with the modern asterisk, but approximating the earliest form of the asterisk in manuscripts of late antiquity.

Medieval scholars were familiar with this use of the asterisk to annotate biblical and other ancient texts. Isidore of Seville, in his hugely influential and encyclopedic Etymologies (early 7th century), mentions the asterisk and obelus, as used by Aristarchus, in the section on critical signs (De notis sententiarum). The Wycliffite Bible used asterisks to indicate text translated from the Hebrew that was not in the Latin Vulgate, and Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon refers to the practice for marking the text of the Septuagint (the quotations appear usefully in the MED entry for asterisk).

Notice that the asterisk was thus associated with textual correction, specifically with the supplying of missing text. It was natural therefore for it to be also employed in the Middle Ages as a signe-de-renvoi, linking marginal text to a location in the main text, usually again to supply a passage that had been erroneously omitted. Parkes says that ‘The asterisk appears occasionally in early medieval manuscripts, but with even less frequency later’ (57). Nevertheless, one does find asterisks in medieval English manuscripts, perhaps more frequently than Parkes suggests. For example, a scribe or scribes who added Latin text to the margins and images of the Old English Hexateuch in British Library MS Cotton Claudius B.iv used asterisks to aid navigation, or simply to signal a Latin annotation. The asterisk here takes the dotted-cross form:

British Library MS Cotton Claudius B.iv, fol. 59r, detail.

And here is a fine asterisk from Rochester Cathedral Library MS A.3.5 (the Textus Roffensis, a collection of early English law codes), fol. 6r (early 12th century):

Rochester Cathedral Library MS A.3.5 (Textus Roffensis), fol. 6r, detail.
It takes the form of a hooked cross with four dots between the arms. The scribe copying the text missed a couple of lines after Gest hine clænsie sylfes aþe on wiofode (‘a stranger must clear himself by oath at the altar’), and added them in the lower margin, linking them to the main text with the asterisk used as a signe-de-renvoi: * swylce cyninges ðeng [this should be ðegn, another scribal mistake]. Ceorlisc man hine feowra sum his heafod-gemacene onwefode (‘so also a king’s thegn; a common man [must clear] himself with four of his head-companions [that is, men of his own social group] at the altar’). The main text then continues: & ðissa ealra að sie unlegnæ (‘and the oath of all these shall be immune to challenge’).

Here’s another one, used by a corrector to add a note to the Latin text of the Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius, in a 12th-century manuscript, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 139, fol. 169r. The asterisk in the main text is just above the word bellicorum (?), eleven lines down:

CCCC MS 139, fol. 169r, detail.

There are a couple of images of asterisks in Kathryn Kerby-Fulton et al., Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts (2012; pages 223 and 342), from an early 15th-century manuscript of Piers Plowman (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 102, fol. 53v) and from the 15th-century manuscript of the N-Town plays, British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D.8, fol. 73v. But in neither case are the asterisks identified as such by the modern authors; the second is described simply as a ‘red-dotted cross’.

As far as I can tell, the earliest appearances of asterisks in print are associated with editions of the Bible, thus probably following the precedent of Origen and other early Christian scholars. Houston notes that Johannes Eck criticised Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in a polemic titled Obelisci (1518) and Luther defended himself in Asterisci. According to Parkes, Robert Estienne’s Latin Bible of 1532 used asterisks as signes-de-renvoi to link glosses to the main text. For printers of the Bible, therefore, the asterisk would have been a useful symbol to include in their typesets, and thus would have been available as a linking symbol for annotations of all sorts, not only to mark up biblical texts. It also continued to suggest omission, so that it can represent ellipsis in modern printed texts. However, the asterisks I have seen from early printed Bibles all have the star form (usually with five points), and it is not clear where this came from.

When Ben Neudorf and I were investigating signes-de-renvoi, I became curious as to how the asterisk got from Origen’s Hexaplaric signs to today’s little star. Houston skips right from Origen to the Protestant Reformation (in spite of providing two helpful pictures of medieval asterisks); and Parkes, that eminent paleographer, has not much to say about medieval asterisks other than the one vague sentence I have quoted above. But if asterisks appeared in the typesets of early modern printers, those signs must have had some kind of expected utility, and most likely some important medieval precedents. It’s easy to get the impression that the asterisk more or less went underground in the Middle Ages and somehow re-emerged in all its modern glory with the invention of print. But this impression is probably false, the result of scholars not really paying attention to asterisks when they appear in medieval manuscripts, and often not recognising them as asterisks, since their medieval form is different from the modern. If anyone out there knows of more examples of medieval asterisks, or can add to or correct this little history, we’d be grateful.

Yin Liu

References and further reading

Attenborough, F. L., ed. and trans. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1922. (For Wihtræd’s law code from the Textus Roffensis; my translation differs slightly.)

Barney, Stephen A., W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof, trans. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 50-51.

Grafton, Anthony, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis, ed. The Classical Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. See the entries for ‘Asterisk’ and ‘Astérix’.

Grafton, Anthony, and Meagan Williams. Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006.

Henry, Anne C. ‘Iconic Punctuation: Ellipsis Marks in a Historical Perspective.’ In Olga Fischer and Max Nänny, ed., The Motivated Sign: Iconicity in Language and Literature. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2001. 135-155.

Houston, Keith. Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. New York: Norton, 2013. 97-119.

Jellicoe, Sidney. The Septuagint and Modern Study. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1968.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2012.

Metzger, Bruce M. Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Paleography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1981. (See page 38 for a discussion of the Hexaplaric signs used by Origen.)

Niehoff, Maren R. Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. (See pages 26-27.)

Parkes, M. B. Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Roberts, Bleddyn J. The Old Testament Text and Versions. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1951.

Swete, Henry Barclay, and Richard Rusden Ottley. An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1914. Rpt. New York: Ktav, 1968.

Walters, Lori J. ‘The Rose as Sign: Diacritical Marks in the Tournai Rose.’ Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire 83.3 (2005): 887-912.


  1. On the obelus, Irene van Renswoude, “The Censor’s Rod: Textual Criticism, Judgment, and Canon Formation in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages,” in The Annotated Book in the Early Middle Ages: Practices of Reading and Writing, ed. Mariken Teeuwen and Irene van Renswoude (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 555–595.

  2. I am so very glad to meet someone who also adds footnotes to their work using the 'comments' box! And thanks so much for this post, on which I've drawn for my own. I won't give details; you'll get a pingback automatically.

    1. Dear fellow footnoter, please feel free to send me by email a link to your post. I am not sure that Blogger is set up for automatic pingbacks. In any case, I would be interested to know anyone else interested in medieval markup, a.k.a, punctuation. Am happy that you found my post useful.