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7 Pieces Of Fascinating Marginalia

From a forgery of William Shakespeare's signature to a queen's love note asking not to be beheaded.

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In January, the British Library was readying Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for digitization when they noticed an unusual handwritten note on the medieval manuscript: "She cares not a turd."

The marginalia was a surprise, and the library turned to scholars and social media for help. Who didn't give a shit? And was she really apathetic, or was this nothing more than idle gossip? We may never know the answers to these pressing questions, no doubt heartbreaking to Chaucer scholars worldwide, but for those of us who relish in marginalia — writing in books — this discovery was simply delightful.

Committing your personal thoughts to a library copy of Pride and Prejudice will certainly earn you the ire of many parties, but during the manuscript era, extra-wide margins provided scholars with plenty of room to interpret, debate, and reinforce authorial intent. They made quite a few doodles, too but whatever they scrawled, no matter how insignificant, personalized the text, transforming a standard document with each new addition. It could also be done somewhat unconsciously, lending the page an inherent intimacy. Whether this occurred in the rarest of books or one of a hundred or thousand, marginalia has the power transform the solitary act of reading into a social exploration.

Marginalia comes in many forms, and I found seven great examples at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

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1. The Father and the Forger

Via luna.folger.edu

By the 1790s, Samuel Ireland had acquired Oliver Cromwell’s leather jacket and Joseph Addison’s fruit knife, but the London-based collector longed for something signed by Shakespeare. His son, William-Henry Ireland, was just as desperate for his father’s approval. Like the rest of the nation, he had gone in search of Shakespeare’s personal documents, only to return empty-handed — but unlike others on the hunt, William-Henry had an interest in forgery. In 1794, he presented his father with a document signed by Shakespeare, authenticated by the poet-laureate Henry James Pye and various antiquarian book experts. Basking in his father’s attention, William-Henry went on a serious forging binge, which the Ireland family proudly displayed in their home. The Shakespearean scholars who visited immediately questioned their provenance, but Samuel, none the wiser, stood by his son and proudly published his discoveries. This allowed the poems, deeds, letters, and play to be widely circulated, and a consensus quickly formed: The materials were bogus. Although William-Henry confessed, his father received much of the blame, and by the time Samuel died in 1800, they were still estranged.

2. Epic Annotation

Via luna.folger.edu

The extensive annotation crowding this edition of Homer’s Odyssey seems worthy of the epic poem, the second oldest extant in the Western canon. The library believes the manuscript, printed in Greek type in 1517, was probably used as a schoolbook, thus the pages are littered with underscored words, Latin translations, and notes on the themes each character embodies — a testament to Penelope and Odysseus’ perseverance.

3. The Inquisitor and Shakespeare Disagree

Via luna.folger.edu

The Catholic inquisitor who vetted books at the English college in Valladolid, Spain, was not a fan of Elizabeth I, the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. By the time he painstakingly blacked out lines praising her from the final passage of William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, published in 1623, she had been dead for over two decades. But the passing years had done nothing to enervate the queen’s legacy as a Protestant heroine, thus the inquisitor, tasked with preserving the faith in municipalities loyal to Rome, censored Shakespeare. Of course, the play was based on the king of England’s life, who broke with the church in order to marry Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn.

4. Fancy Manicules

Via luna.folger.edu[Quaestiones%20super%20Physica%20Aristotelis]/Aristotle.%20Physics./Annotations%20(Provenance)%20rbprov/;lc:FOLGERCM1~6~6,BINDINGS~1~1&

The United States Post Office has long embraced the manicule for its matter-of-fact, “return to sender” stamp, but the symbol was once so commonplace, it was included in lists of standard punctuation between the 13th and 18th centuries. A rather fancy version is seen here on Johannes Canonicus’s Quaestiones super Physica Aristotelis, printed in 1475 — but the elaborate cuffs, elegant bracelets, exaggerated fingers, and intricate shading meant to highlight specific passages also speaks to the symbol’s ultimate decline. The fanciful miniature hands gave way to less time-consuming and labor-intensive markings, and were out of fashion by the time the highlighter was introduced in 1963.

5. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Via luna.folger.edu

This 1615 edition of Epigrammata looks as though it was the victim of an uncapped pen in a messenger bag, and the marks found on the page may very well be the fault of its owner. It belonged to Ben Jonson, the 17th-century English playwright considered second to Shakespeare. The dramatist lays claim to the book on the right side of the page, where he signed, “Su[m] Ben: Johnsonij [Jonson] liber.”

6. Grounded

Via luna.folger.edu

I wonder if Elizabeth Okell was punished for drawing all over first editions of rare manuscripts? As the superscript on the verso attests, it was “her Book 1729.” By the time young Elizabeth took her pen to the page, Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies were over 100 years old — and obviously in need of a modern cityscape.

7. Dear Henry, Please Don’t Kill Me, Love Anne

Via luna.folger.edu

Sarah Werner, Folger’s digital media strategist, aptly described Anne of Cleves’ premarital gift to Henry VIII as “terrifying and touching.” While Henry found Anne to be generally disappointing, her inscription reflects the gentle and virtuous traits he most admired. “I besiche your grace h[humble?] when ye loke on this remember me,” she wrote, above her signature, “yo[u]r gracis assured anne the dowgher of clues.” We cannot say if the Christian devotional book of hours was well-received by the mercurial king of England, but his fourth wife was lucky enough to emerge from the six-month marriage with an annulment and a generous settlement — and most importantly, her head.

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Alexis Coe's first book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, will be published in October. Follow her.

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