Leeds IMC Pre-thinkings: Hand, Eye and Brain in the Peripheries of the Medieval Book

Kiyoshi Koishi, Early Summer Nerves

Brain…eye … world … connections. Kiyoshi Koishi, Early Summer Nerves

I’m gearing up for a research trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles, whilst also looking forward to two conference appearances: at the Writing Britain conference at the University of Cambridge, right on the cusp of June and July, and the Leeds International Medieval Congress in July. As I prepare to talk about neurology, my own brain has been failing me due to a sharp attack of the common cold. So, I thought that, whilst I was operating on around 50% processing power, I’d engage in something stimulating and (it has to be admitted) less intellectually taxing than pure research. Thankfully, my cold is now in hasty retreat, pursued by a dose of vitamins, and here is what it left behind:

     My visit to San Francisco will be an information-gathering opportunity for me as a discipline-hopping postdoc. It was my intention, from the outset, that my medical humanities project would be reinforced with advice from medical professionals. Thus, I will be making a visit to the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco. As I am investigating the effect of diseases and disorders on the daily functioning of historical individuals, I need to find out more about how they affect people today. I want to see, first hand, the diagnosis of these conditions in a clinical context. I wish to speak with people who study the cognitive changes associated with certain diseases, and who develop and use the techniques that are used to assist with disease detection and monitoring. This visit is going to give me the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom and experience of staff who work with people with neurodegenerative diseases on a daily basis and also to observe patient assessment clinics. I’ll be writing a blog post specifically about this visit in June, so more anon.

     As I’ve been preparing for my Leeds IMC paper early, in anticipation of a lack of time in June, I thought I’d share some of my embryonic thoughts. I hope to develop this work into a publication that combines my existing interest in medieval manuscript studies with my growing fascination with neurology. The title of my paper is ‘Disembodied Readers: The Medieval Reader in the Peripheries of the Page‘.

     Early-modern scholars often valued marginal inscriptions, in both printed and manuscript books, for their potential for communication, insight and a continuum of shared learning. Nowadays, these marginal annotations are of interest to modern scholars as evidence of an interaction between the pre-modern reader and the material book. In the intermediate period, the margins have often been truly marginal, considered by many scholars to be irreverent, and even entirely irrelevant. The nineteenth century was an especially precarious period for annotations, witnessing the premature ‘death’ of many at the hands of Victorian book collectors and sellers. A process of ‘tidying up’ manuscripts and incunabula saw marginalia sliced out by those who viewed them as a defacement of the text.

     This perspective was certainly not universal. Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Wind in the Willows, praised the inscriptions on the edge of a page and the space, itself, in which they appear:

‘when shall that true poet arise who, disdaining the trivialities of the text, shall give the world a book of verse consisting entirely of margin? How we shall shove and jostle for large paper copies!’

(Kenneth Grahame, ‘Marginalia’)

However Grahame’s words had a jocularity that arose from the liminal nature of these scribblings, their boyishness, their naughtiness, the way in which they thumbed their nose at the main text. The margins invited griffins and other beasts to inhabit them, where more serious words were compelled to the space in the middle. His fascination was also a narcissistic one. Though Grahame professed an interest in the general study of marginalia, he was primarily focused on his own childhood work. How much he actually relished encounters with other people’s mental floss in the margins, we do not know.

     In the twenty-first century, we look to the margins for the unique information that they provide about the relationship between material object, literary text, human eye and brain. Though they are peripheral, they have a clear relationship with the text, arising out of shared space. Glosses, interpolations, commentaries on the text: they all have a connection with the text that they surround. Though they, largely, keep a reverent distance by sitting on empty material, they have become part of it by virtue of being on the same page. It may take time to unpick the meanings of these annotations, but meanings there clearly are.


the retina:

     What of, then, that which exists in the true periphery? The edge of the edge, such as the flyleaves of the manuscript book. Though manuscript scholars have opened their eyes and arms to the meaning contained in the medieval margins, they have been less welcoming of that which lives in the flyleaf. As the scholar of marginalia, H. J. Jackson, wrote, ‘there are significant differences between notes made on separate sheets of paper or in a notebook and notes made in the book that become part of the book and accompany it ever after’ [1]. A flyleaf, though not strictly speaking a separate sheet of paper, can be (and often has been) torn away, discarded, ripped up, and used to bound another book. The textual outbursts that appear on the flyleaf can appear, to the modern reader to be formless, frivolous, fruitless – mere scratchings. The flyleaf was an especially welcoming habitat for the pen trial. These tests of the pen are usually repetitive and often apparently meaningless. They appear upside down, side to side, topsy turvy, round and round, one on top of the other – they pay little heed to the order of the book. They have not been made, by virtue of a locational relationship to the main text, part of the book ‘ever after’. So what are we to make of them?

     Similarly, ‘doodles’. The word ‘doodle’ was first recorded in the seventeenth century, to mean ‘fool’ or ‘simpleton’. Doodles, or should we say, informal drawings produced by a non-expert outside of the formal commission of the book, have not quite been ignored in the same way as pen trials in the flyleaves. However, they are, on occasion, dealt with as if they themselves were fools, tumbling and bumbling in the margins. In the twenty-first century Twittosphere, they are shared and re-shared on an hourly basis. At times, they are noted for their irreverence, crudeness, or endearing cuteness. When they have an obvious relationship with the text, this is signaled and commented upon. However they are frequently taken for granted, perhaps being given a quick and superficial mental note, but often quickly disregarded. William Sherman noticed this about the manicule, or ‘pointing hand’, in manuscripts. [2] He had assumed that there would be a pre-existing, seminal work on the significance of these pointing digits. However, there was not. Scholars acknowledged their existence, but did not care to expand upon their observations. It was enough that they knew that they were there. Do we see these ‘doodles’ in the same way?

     I read recently a thought-provoking piece published by Lucy Allen/ Jeanne de Montbaston about the potential economic and social implications of Robert Thornton’s drawings of knights. This post brought to our attention an older post by Carl Pyrdum/Got Medieval. Pyrdum’s witty entry objected to the label of ‘doodle’ for professional marginal illuminations in a way that spoke volumes about how we might regard these true ‘doodles’. We may compare them to the crumbs that a person drops whilst eating a cake. They are there, and they are evidence of her having gobbled her cake. However, aside from being a witness of her presence, they do not mean an awful lot. As Pyrdum implied, they were ‘scribbled’ into the margins surreptitiously ‘whilst no one was looking’ – without an awful lot of thought. Thus, they are an entirely different beast from those meticulously-planned, beautifully-executed professional manuscript illuminations.

       However, no doodle can ever be mindless, since its very execution involves the mind. This is a fairly obvious point – and of course we could never see a doodle as literally mindless – but the significance of these marks can be easily overlooked. The doodle, like the pentrials on the flyleaf, is a material witness of neurons firing in the central nervous system. Those neurons, working with the peripheral nervous system to lift the book and turn the pages, and grappling with the outside world as it fed them information, made the reader. As textual scholars, we may – if we choose – subdue the meaning of these drawings, but as codicologists we simply cannot. Thus, my paper considers the non-expert drawing, or ‘doodle’ as a production of the brain warming up, at rest, at work, and in synthesis with the body – as part of, and a signal of, the work of the reading mind.

What of doodles? Royal 17 D XVIII f.58, BL Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

What of doodles? Royal 17 D XVIII f.58, BL Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

     Both strands of my paper consider how the most peripheral of marginal inscriptions – the ones that have the least obvious meaning – attest to what Andy Clark has described as the ‘EXTENDED’ model of the brain: how human cognition includes ‘loops that promiscuously criss‐cross the boundaries of brain, body, and world’.[3] My paper will reiterate that medieval readers were not, in their own time, ‘disembodied’. In fact, they were extremely aware of their own minds, bodies, and books. It is only in our eyes, as we neglect these peripheral marks, that they might be disembodied. The pen trial or the doodle, though often devoid of an obvious connection to the literary text, both represent a significant process of ‘feedback and feedforward’ between the brain, the hand, and the book as material object.  Since the book as material object was created to deliver the words of a text, it may be hasty to disregard these loose sheets and irreverent doodles as not part of the ‘ever after’ .

Disembodied Readers: The Medieval Reader in the Peripheries of the Page‘, in session: Fragmented Body Politic, III: Habeas Corpus – Producing the Material and Textual Body, 9am on the 10th June (one argument against that *last* drink at the dance the night before).

[1] Jackson, H. J. Marginalia: Readers Writing In Books (Yale University Press, 2001), 14.

[2] William Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 32.

[3] Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).





  1. Jeanne de Montbaston · · Reply

    Thank you for the mention! Your paper sounds amazing.

  2. Oh Debs – this is beautiful stuff! Among the first pieces taking steps towards really *excellent* interdisciplinarity/integration between neuroscience and medieval studies I’ve read. (And I know whereof I speak!) Can’t wait to hear more about this at Leeds and chat with you about the project overall, Looking forward to your site visit report…

  3. Thanks both of you, I’m really enjoying developing this work.
    Looking forward to seeing you at Leeds, Kathleen!

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