Mmm… Medieval Emoticons?

Those of you subscribed to the News for Medievalists blog have probably heard about this one already. A paper scholar* by the name of Sydney Shep from Victoria University of Wellington has been in the news lately for her work on the pre-history of the humble emoticon. 🙂 As the Canada’s National Post puts it:

For all their slick sheen of modernity as a by-product of the computer age, the roots of the emoticon can be traced as far back as the days of dank medieval castles.

*sigh* Why is it always dank castles? 🙁 Why never well-appointed medieval castles? Or sufficiently maintained medieval thatched-roofed cottages?

I tend to be suspicious of any news story that promises the medieval roots of X, where X is a current or recently expired fad like “girl power” or “subprime morgages.” Emoticons are a pretty specific phenomenon: faces made from punctuation in order to clarify some emotional register beneath the text they accompany.**

From the article, it looks like the main thing Dr. Shep has done is find bona fide pre-Internet emoticons–that is, faces made with punctuation (-)_(o) marks –in a hand typeset page from the 1880’s. This discovery is pretty nifty, if you ask me. So, did medieval scribes do the same thing, making faces out of loops and whorls of script? Well… not exactly, not even in Shep’s account. She points to a different medieval phenomenon as the precursor to the emoticon, illustrated below:


The Post (and Shep) explain:

Writers, and often readers, she [Shep] said, would annotate medieval manuscripts with drawings of pointing hands to emphasize particular passages. “It’s a human hand saying, ‘Look, I’m here and I’m reading this with you,’ ” she said. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, this is me in the text,’ and ‘Let’s have a conversation.’ “

Depending on who you ask, these sorts of symbol are called fists, hands, digits, or manicules. I’ll be using the latter term from here on out, because “manicule” sounds more pompous and obtuse–and therefore more scholarly. You can find manicules all over medieval texts, but should we really consider them the precursors of emoticons?

Certainly, manicules are icons, but their primary function is indexical, rather than emotional. I don’t think they’re saying, “Hey, let’s have a conversation,” but rather, “Hey, this is important, pay attention.” Yes, a pointing hand is a bit more emotive than a stripe of yellow highlighter or one of those angled paperclips, but I would hardly think that this trace amount of “emo” that the manicule boasts qualifies it for elevation to the status of ur-emoticon.

Then again, occasionally, manicules became more elaborate, like this one here:


What emotion do you see behind his lopsided eyes? Boredom? Maybe even despair? It’s hard to say, and so I think this expanded manicule is still a pre-pre-emoticon at best.

If I had to nominate something medieval as an emoticon-precursor, it’d probably be the portrait initial, a fancy drop cap that contains the head or head and shoulders of a person inside the letter. Most emoticons try to depict faces, too. ^.^; Sometimes, rarely, the faces in portrait initials direct their attention–and thereby the reader’s–to something else on the page. Yale MS 229, a manuscript I’ve worked a lot with, contains three of these portrait initials on a single page:


I know it’s hard to see at this resolution, but each of these three faces is staring at something off to the right, in the margin, and each of them looks surprised by what they see.

Here is an image of the page they’re originally on. You can follow their line of sight:

So while these icons are not made out of punctuation, there is definitely more emotional content to them than “Hey, look at this.” Instead, it’s “Hey, look at this; it’s really freaky.” The freaky thing in question is this blog’s old pal, the egg-laying man (pictured way above, in the blog header), who graces the right-hand margin.*** If you saw a man laying eggs, you’d gasp, too. You probably gasp every time you load up this blog.

The only thing that truly disqualifies these three portrait initials from being clear emoticon precursors is that they’re not exactly a commentary on the text around them. They don’t cause us to understand the emotional content of the text any better; they’re really just a commentary on the marginal image.

Ultimately, I think any search for medieval ancestors for the humble emoticon is destined to be frustrated by the comparative freedom that medieval scribes and bookmakers operated within. Printed text (and its online descendants) is bound by all sorts of limitations that manuscripts are not. Emoticons are useful because they operate within those limits, eking a little more message out of a very narrowly constrained medium.

*That is, a scholar who studies paper, not a scholar made of paper.
**Like, when I put a capital B, a hyphen, and a closed parenthesis after the sentence Don’t worry, I’ve got it all taken care of. B-) my readers should be able to see that, actually, I don’t have it all taken care of and that I’m hoping in vain that cheap sunglasses and a forced smile can hide the furtive, haunted look in my broken eyes.
***It’s also interesting to note that these three portrait initials are the only portrait initials in the entire manuscript. I think the illuminator wanted to amp up the freakiness of the egg-laying man by providing him with an audience.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rachel

    I have an extraordinarily vague memory (absolutely no useful clues as to provenance) of a manuscript that has an image of a scholar in a margin pointing to a bit of a text that goes ‘Bede says’ (or it may have been ‘Augustine says’ or someone else, that’s how vague it is). And the man is commenting ‘that wasn’t me’.

    My web site

  • GW

    I do appreciate things medieval and your blog is fascinating. Linked. http://wolfhowling.blogspot.com/2008/06/interesting-posts-from-around-web-19.html

  • tenthmedieval

    Wow, there's a coincidence, Carl, you redirecting me to this post means that I suddenly realise I've since met the example that Rachel mentions. It's a commentary on Kings, I think, that cites Augustine and the copyist has checked and the cite is false, so he adds a banner to a cartoon Augustine in the margin reading "Non dixi". I don't know any more, but I know where I found it, and that was as an illustration in Robert Swanson's The Twelfth-Century Renaissance, and there aren't many illustrations in it so it should be easy enough to track down there if anyone needs to.

  • Heidi Murphy

    I did a Baronial investiture scroll once which featured, among other things, the hear-no-evil monkeys and a bunch of Spanish slurs. Mainly I did that because the new Baron was Spanish and his wife’s device was a hand holding a moon, which looked very much like a banana. I love whimsy in a scroll, especially if it was a medieval manuscript. To me, they bring out the humanity of the poor sod who had to sit there copying and illuminating until he went mad. I saw a shopping list on the margin of a manuscript once. I thought it hilarious…;o)

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