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The Medieval origins of the modern footnote

As in our modern day, the urge to write down a note in medieval times often came while reading a book. And so the margins of the page grew into a prime location where the reader could vent his objections or—albeit more rarely—express his or her approval.
This essay deals with the logistics behind this “window dressing”: it shows how a reader with many important things to say kept track of his marginal comments. Particularly, it deals with a serious problem that came with adding notes to the page: how to connect a particular comment, placed among a dozen others, to the specific text passage it refers to. The clever system that was created for this purpose lives on as our modern footnote.

Disconnected

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 234, fol. 11r (9th century)
Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 234, fol. 11r (9th century), view the book here
The crux of our footnote system is the presence of a symbol that connects the note to the relevant location in the text. Curiously, in medieval times it was quite common not to have such connections in place, perhaps especially in the earlier period (see above). When few remarks were added to the page, a reader could deduce with relative ease to which passage a marginal note referred.
Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12, fol. 21v (10th century)
Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 12, fol. 21v (10th century)
It helped if a text was in popular use or known by heart, as many medieval works were. In such cases the note made sense instantly because the reader was familiar with the referenced literary context. Moreover, as long as notes were few and short, a reader could simply insert them—interlinearly—above the relevant word or passage (see above).
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. 89, fol. 59v (Horace, 12th century)
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. 89, fol. 59v (Horace, 12th century) – view the book here
Cleverly, in this system the very position of the remark identified the word to which it referred. However, as the number and size of such comments increased, it became impossible to place them between the lines. The great blank space provided by the margins was now drafted into service. It is here that the absence of a proper reference system was felt. As the marginal body of remarks and critique began to accumulate, the page became a messy place, a labyrinth in which it became impossible for readers to find specific pieces of information (see above). In came the footnote.

Dots and lines

Connecting a marginal remark to the relevant passage in the text was usually done with a duplicated symbol, called a signe de renvoi: one was placed in front of the marginal note, the other near the word or passage that the remark commented upon. While it is hard to deduce a clear pattern of development, it appears that in the early stages of using such footnotes scribes and readers resorted to plain symbols rather than letters or numbers. These symbols varied considerably in shape and sophistication. At the high end of the spectrum we encounter complex symbols, such as the reversed letter E seen in the image below (magnified).
St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 4, fol. 170r (820-840)
St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 4, p. 170 (820-840)—view the book here
More popular, however, were less complex symbols, which could be added to the page much quicker. Dots and lines are particularly common ingredients of such footnote symbols. Interestingly, their first appearance is not as a connector of comment and text, but as an insertion mark that added an omitted line into the text. In the image below such an omitted line is placed in the margin accompanied by a symbol made up of a line and a dot. It is repeated in the text itself, near the location where the line belonged. This omission mark may well be the origins of the footnote system that would emerge over the course of the Middle Ages—and that we still use today, almost unchanged.
Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 172, p. 20 (9th century) –
Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 172, p. 20 (9th century)—view book here
Leiden, University Library, VLF MS 69, flyleaf (12th century), photo Erik Kwakkel
Leiden, University Library, VLF MS 69, flyleaf (12th century), photo Erik Kwakkel
Scribes used different versions of the line-and-dot symbol. In fact, they had to if they were to produce unique ties between comment and text. When dots were used, their number would increase as more notes were added. Alternatively, the position of the dots could be varied, so that they formed different—unique!—patterns.
Customising the line-type footnote, scribes usually distinguished one from the other by added circles, which were attached at different locations and in varying numbers. In what is a most unusual find, in a Leiden manuscript we see a scribe practicing his dot and line footnote symbols (left). It shows variations in the number and pattern of dots, as well as in the treatments of lines.

Letters

Closest to our modern system of footnotes, finally, is the use of letters to tie a marginal remark to its proper location in the text. In some manuscripts we see the entire alphabet running down the margin. The image to the left shows a page from a manuscript with works by Horace (left column) to which a high volume of notes were added (right column), all of which are connected to specific passages with the letters A to Z.
Leeuwarden, Tresoar, 45HS, fol. 45r (c. 1100), photo Erik Kwakkel
Leeuwarden, Tresoar, 45HS, fol. 45r (c. 1100), photo: Erik Kwakkel
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries such classical texts were most commonly used in a classroom setting. The instructors who used the books, typically in a monastic school, had many things to explain to their students, as the notes show. It made sense to organise such added information in a clear manner, and the alphabet came in handy in this respect. Some pages in this particular book contain more footnotes than there are letters in the alphabet, which challenged the system. In such cases the user added into the mix symbols made from lines and dots.

The last word: numerals

So where are the medieval footnotes that make use of numbers, like we do today? Curiously, I have not been able to find them, which makes sense. Roman numerals would not be suitable for the task. Placed out of context, as a symbol initiating a segment of text (i.e. the marginal comment) they would easily be mistaken for a letter—which they are, graphically speaking. Moreover, a high Roman numeral would quickly take in a lot of space —not what you want in a note symbol. Arabic numerals were far less popular than Roman numerals, even in the later Middle Ages. Readers may not have felt comfortable enough with these new numbers to use them in the margin. In fact, some scribes in the later Middle Ages are still confused by the zero. The leap from alphabet to numerals—from the medieval to our modern system— appears to have been taken in the age of print.
Essay by Dr. Erik Kwakkel

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Christian Laube
    i wonder with all this added content in the margins and footnotes it would be hard to copy a book, so did the monasteries have different books that were used to make copies from than the ones they used to study?
    And if not did the added text sometimes by mistake or intentionally get copied as well?
    (4 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Magistra H
      Great questions! I'm not sure about the answer to the first, but I have experience with the second. Copyists often inserted annotations (whether by intent or mistake is anyone's guess and probably a mix of both), and textual critics - scholars who study the same text in multiple manuscripts in an effort to determine the most original version - can use those mistakes/insertions to create a sort of family tree of the copies, tracing the text back sometimes even farther than the longest surviving copy. A lot of scholastic (and even some high school!) editions of medieval and classical texts will contain footnotes that point out when the editor of that edition has either included or omitted sections that textual critics are not sure is original.
      (5 votes)