Skip main navigation

Annotating books

In this video, Mark looks at annotating books.
Anyone who uses libraries or who enjoys browsing in secondhand bookshops will have come across annotations or handwritten notes in a book at some time or another. Depending on your point of view and their contents, these marginal traces of previous readers can be illuminating, irritating, or amusing. There is something fascinating about being able to engage not just with the book and its author but also with other readers. And that’s certainly true when we’re dealing with books from the first century of printing. Annotations by the early owners and readers of these books play a vital role in helping us to understand how books were read and understood.
They allow us to converse with men and women across the centuries to better understand what they thought and believed and hoped. And the right annotation by the right person can make a book unique and uniquely valuable. Sometimes all it takes is a name. This volume is a bound collection of tracts, short controversial works arguing for a particular religious or political position. It begins with a copy of John Milton’s Of Reformation, which bears a signed Latin inscription in Milton’s own hand. In English the inscription reads, “to the most learned man Patrick Young John Milton sends these his things gathered together in one little volume satisfying himself with but few readers of this kind”.
The inscription tells us something about Milton’s friendship with Charles I’s royal librarian, and it also allows us to see him trying out a Latin phrase that he would famously translate in Paradise Lost as ‘fit audience though few’. Sometimes we come across more detailed annotations. And these can make us feel like spectators or even eavesdroppers on a conversation between an author and his reader. In the case of this volume, though, we find ourselves listening into something closer to a full scale row. This book is a controversial work titled A catholike confutation of Mr John Rider’s clayme of antiquitie and a caulming comfort against his caueat.
It was written by Henry Fitzsimon, an Irish Protestant, who subsequently converted to Catholicism and who led a Jesuit mission to Ireland in 1595. He published a number of books aimed at encouraging Irish Catholics to resist Protestantism, including this one which was aimed at John Rider, who was the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin from 1597 to 1608. This copy published in 1608 is annotated by John Rider himself. Unfortunately, later binders have cropped the margins losing some of the annotations in the process. Enough survive, however, to allow us to see Rider interacting with Fitzsimon’s work. Sometimes his comments are purely textual. More often though, we find Rider reacting vigorously to Fitzsimon’s insults and allegations.
We usually refer to annotations as marginalia, because they’re typically found in the margins of books. This is not always true, however. Occasionally, annotations might be interleaved with the original text. There’s an excellent example of this in the Edward Worth library, where a manuscript copy of the Greek text of Galen’s De Ossibus (on bones) has been interleaved with a Basel 1538 edition of Galen’s works. Most librarians disapprove of readers writing in their books. And any readers who are caught doing it risk a stern rebuke or an ignominious trip to the exit.
But as historians of books, of thought, and of ideas, we are always excited to encounter the marks of readers who have been this way before us, leaving us a trail to follow. In Hamlet, Horatio jokes with Hamlet about being ‘edified by the margent’, as readers of early printed books we often are.

Examining the annotations in early modern books can give us some fascinating insights into the readers of these books.

  • Take a look at this link to the Archaeology of Reading; a project which is digitizing annotations in books from the early modern period.
  • Tens of thousands of handwritten notes were left by two of the most dedicated readers of the early modern period: John Dee and Gabriel Harvey.
  • Select a book and describe in the comments below an annotation you have found.

For more information about the interleaved copy of Galen in the Edward Worth Library, Dublin, see Magdalena Koźluk and Jean-Paul Pittion, Editing Galen and Hippocrates in the Renaissance (Dublin, 2007).

This article is from the free online

The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: 1450 to 1800

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now