Thursday, June 12, 2008

the dense latin bible

In my earlier post about the glorious 1527 Latin Vulgate Bible, I commented on the density of the text block. My point then was that verses were not numbered, and that a reader needed to use the marginal alphabetical system to cross-reference different biblical moments.

Now I want to look again at that dense, dark, gothic lettering to notice something else: the handwritten annotations.

One effect of the dense text is that it doesn't have easily visible placemarkers. In addition to making it hard to cross-reference, it makes it hard to skim. Where's that reference to the Tygris river again? Look for it--not in the printed text, but in the handwritten notes in the margin. Just by the printed letter "C"--the word "Tygris."

Many of the notes in the margin act as placemarkers of that very simple sort. Here's where Phison is mentioned, here Gehan, here Tygris, here the Euphrates. I'm not sure why the writer wants to recall the names of the four rivers, but now he's got them easily visible in the margin, rather than picking them out of the text.

Other notes serve as placemarkers and as commentary. One example is the last annotation, in the bottom right corner, and shown enlarged below. “Institutio sancti matrimonij,” comments on the phrase it is connected to by a line, “hoc nunc os ex ossibus meis.” It thus calls attention to Adam’s quote about Eve, “This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,” as evidence of the sanctity of marriage.

And if I'm going to mention dense text blocks, it is worth noting the abbreviations that are used throughout the printed text, a convention that began with manuscript scribes to conserve paper and labor, and to format the text into nicely justified margins. In our underlined phrase, the second "n" from "nunc" is omitted and indicated with the macron (a tilde-like line) over the "u". And "ossibus" is written with the terminal "us" omitted and signaled with superscript figure that looks like a small "9".

This elaborate system of abbreviation continued from the manuscript tradition through the early years of printing. It took time for printed books to develop their own look, particularly when it came to heavily conventionalized texts like bibles. It is not that printers were trying to make people think that these printed books were actually written by hand, but that for a very long time, the form of a manuscript book simply was the form of all books.

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