Text on the Margins (Mmm… Marginalia #14)

[UPDATE: 2/26/09 — Looks like I was wrong when I tagged this image as being from a manuscript of Alain de Lille’s Anticlaudianus. The text over our marginal man’s head is Psalm 2, and the manuscript itself is a Benedictine breviary. For whatever reason, the day I accessed this image, the Bodleian’s databased was acting all wonky and I took it at its wonky word. I’ve adjusted the following post appropriately, which means losing one level of recursion from the joke. But check it out, this may be the first time the blog has ever used the strike tag for anything other than a silly joke!]

Following up on my recent tirade about medieval textual precociousness, let’s leave the monkeys behind for a week and instead peer into the lower margin of this manuscript of Alain de Lille’s Anticlaudianus Benedictine breviary.


I apologize for the poor quality of the image. Apparently, generations of readers have leaned in for a closer look, too, and worn away a lot of the ink. On each side of the page we have fairly mundane grotesques.* The one I’m interested in is the old man on the left. You can just barely make out that he’s holding a globe in his hands. And if we peer even closer at the globe (the image below should be clickable to zoom if you need), what at first looks like an image resolves to…

That’s right–more text! And not just any text, but the Magnificat and part of the Ave Maria, as well as a teensy tiny scribal signature at the very bottom.**

The result is a fairly clever series of little jokes. In order to read the text “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” or “God magnifies my soul,” you need a magnifying glass!

The recursion joke of a man at the edge of a text holding a text has theological dimensions as well. The Magnificat is no random ipsum lorem. It’s a canticle in praise of Mary, from whom sprung Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, the Son who made His Daughter His Mother. In other words, this marginal text “outranks” the text that is in the center of the page. The text this weird grotesque holds praises Mary, who is the mother of the Word, who is the Father of all of Creation, including the main text it attends.***

And as if that wasn’t already enough, Alain de Lille, the author of the main text, is famous for his description of God as “an intelligible sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” We almost have an attempt to literalize this quote here: a sphere that is intelligible, because it is formed by words, a sphere whose circumference bleeds into those words and disappears, a sphere whose content is literally everything, including the name of the scribe who put it all together.

Pretty deep for a bunch of illiterate clods waiting on the printing press to give them their humanity, eh?

BONUS: Any budding paleographers out there, here’s one last clickable image of the sphere, if you want to try your hand at some serious transcription:

Next week: A most thrilling tale of monkey adventure!

*You know you’ve seen too many marginal images when you can describe a man with a an old man’s face for a butt as “mundane.”
**Alas, the name is smudged in the middle, but our scribe appears to have been called something like “Humfredus R*smudge* Matt.”
***Theology requires lots of capitalization.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • kmeghan

    As a wanna be Medievalist, I am always in awe of your blogs. I ‘sort of’ majored in Medieval history in college, but am sad that I never really took my studies to the next level. Look forward to reading more! 🙂

  • ichseke

    Actually the Magnificat is not in praise of Mary — it is sung *by* Mary in praise of God: “My soul magnifies the Lord …” — does that affect your analysis?

  • Got Medieval

    It should, shouldn’t it?

    Looking over it more carefully, I think what I said still applies. The Magnificat is obsessed with recursive origins–both Mary’s role as origin and of Christ, and God’s role as origin of the origin.

  • ichseke

    “origin of the origin” — verrry nice!

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