A Definition
The term "marginalia" generally refers to handwritten or printed text situated at the borders of the page. A page from Juntusās handsomely illustrated 1537 edition of Virgilās works shows manuscript as well as print marginalia. (Fig. 1) The term may usefully be extended to include graphic images attached to a page of text and material that has been electronically linked to a digital page.

From Manuscript to Print
The traditional form of marginal annotation is the explanatory gloss. In the Middle Ages the glossed manuscript was king (see Ordinatio). The habits of mind that shaped high scholasticism prized detailed marginal annotations on "dark" passages from the Bible, such as those produced in the Glossa ordinaria. (Fig. 2) Indeed, all kinds of text produced in the medieval scriptoriums were likely to carry learned marginal glosses, doodles, or elaborately decorative drawings of such figures as the three-headed acrobatic jester and the fantastic push-me-pull-you birdman in the lower margin of an early 14th-century Coronation of the Virgin.1 (Fig. 3) The great humanist printers of Renaissance Italy, such as Aldus Manutius, carried over the look of the manuscript page, including text-swamping annotations in various editions of the classical poets. (Fig. 4) The look of the page, with its running titles, page or signature numbers, centered block of text, catch words, and printed marginalia remained largely unchanged until the 18th century, when a growing antagonism toward scholarly labor and the cluttered page forced annotations to the bottoms of pages or to the ends of sections or volumes.2

Size and Placement of Marginalia in Print
The size limits generally observed for shoulder-notes (those placed at the side or shoulder of a text) in early printed books were set by the standard size of quotation quadrats. Before a chase of type was locked up, these blank blocks were set at the end of those sections of type wherever marginal notes were not to appear, in order to produce the white spaces surrounding the text and to separate one marginal note from another. These quads (12 x 18 mm in one standard size) could be set either endways or sideways, singly or two or several side-by-side, to determine the width of the white space and the notes.3 (Fig. 5) The space allotted for supplementary material at the sides of the page — references, evaluative comments, definitions, etc. — could be increased considerably by wrapping notes above and below the referring text, as illustrated in the pages from Virgil (Fig. 1), the Glossa ordinaria (Fig. 2), and Horace (Fig. 4). In our own time, such restrictions to textual supplements appear to be swept away by inserting hypertext links in the digital page, though there remain practical limits to the amount of useful material that can be linked to any particular text.

Authorship and Authority in the Margins
To speak of the margins of the text is immediately to raise questions about the relative authority of note and referring text, questions begged by such innately hierarchical metaphors as the "body" of the text, headers, footnotes, shoulder-notes, etc. and such terms as "centered" or "principal" text. The current Dean of Margins, Jacques Derrida, inverts the relationship out of its usual order, claiming, "in a polemical context, if I want to be sure that my reply or my attack will be read and not passed by, indeed read even before the main text, I put it into a footnote."4 Pouf! the margin becomes the center of the debate. The annotators of 16th- and 17th-century English religious polemics likewise knew how to use the margins to signal the center of a debate. (Fig. 6) Ben Jonson used capacious marginal notes in Latin from ancient sources to lend authority to his play Sejanus His Fall in its 1605 quarto edition. When the play reappears in the 1640 folio edition of the Workes, Jonson no longer felt the need to protect himself from accusations of sedition, and the marginalia disappeared.5 In cases where a "secondary author" or editor is responsible for printed marginalia the result is sometimes support for (authorization of) the primary text but also may be subversive attack on the text. Such is frequently the case when the annotator is also a translator, raised in a cultural milieu foreign to the original author. The interplay of conflicting cultural discourses across the margins of early books adds layers of complexity that destabilize texts. Much of that kind of complexity has since been stripped away from the printed page to leave the margins clear of supposed distractions.

Managing Reader Response from the Margins
The habit of writing in printed books persists to this day, to the benefit of scholars and the horror of librarians. S.T. Coleridge, an inveterate marginal annotator, not only printed sidenotes in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner but also wrote copious notes in the margins of books in his own library and those he borrowed from friends.6 While the former activity suggests the author/editorās desire to manage reader response, the latter records the actual responses of an individual reader. Both kinds of evidence enrich our understanding of the history of reading as well as the history of the page, and both suggest possible new uses for the "margins" and deep recesses of the digital page.

Annotating the Digital Page
With the advent of the digital page, attraction and distraction have become as one. We are attracted to the interactive page in hopes of being forced centrifugally outward to other sites via an intricate web of intertextuality. In hypertext format, materials that might have been distracting on the printed page remain hidden until the reader chooses to make the outward connection, and after several such links are made, a new "central" text may well be revealed. The digital page becomes a stage on which text is mimetically represented with a kind of fluidity and flexibility undreamed of in the early centuries of printing. The page and its various appendages can easily be expanded, reduced, and given volume, hence acquiring more potential orientations in space than the printed or manuscript page. (see The 3-D Page: Architecture of Information) Zooming in on a marginal note can obliterate its referring page. There is no longer any reason why a note need remain fixed at the shoulder of the text. It might become a virtual floating signifier. [Fig. 7]
- William W.E. Slights


1. For a lively reading of such marginal creatures, see Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion, 1992).

2. See Evelyn Byrd Tribble, "'Like a Looking-Glas in the Frame': From the Marginal Note to the Footnote" in The Margins of the Text, ed. D.C. Greetham (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 229-44, and Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

3. I owe this information to Peter W.M. Blayney of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

4. Jacques Derrida, "This is Not an Oral Footnote" in Annotation and Its Texts, ed. Stephen A. Barney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 194.

5. This is the reverse of the normal pattern that finds far more annotations in large format books than smaller ones. My own survey of folio volumes in the Huntington Library shows 80% of them with some form of printed annotation (ranging from simple biblical references to extensive disquisitions), while quartos, octavos, etc. average about 40%. A similar survey of STC books in the Huntington with manuscript marginalia added reveals the readers' inclinations to write in books vary greatly according to the type of book, with literature being very lightly annotated while legal and medical books are heavily written in.

6. See H.J. Jackson's amusing and informative essay "Writing in Books and Other Marginal Activities," University of Toronto Quarterly 62 (1992/93): 218-31.
Home Page