Why Marginalia Still Matter

Finding a Voice for Humility in Google Books

by Richard Oosterhoff


I chuckled at the screen: carefully shaped letters, ostentatious ligatures for the classical diphthong “æ”—the writer must have thought himself a humanist. Sixteenth-century readers left marginal notes in many copies of early printed books, which have now been digitized by Google and other online repositories. But such marks are usually close to indecipherable, either because of low-quality digitization, or because they’re written in a “school hand,” a scrunched, specialized scrawl that scholars developed between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries to copy school texts at speed. In the fifteenth century, however, some scholars rejected this hurried, inelegant script. Humanists preferred instead an “italic” hand they thought was based on ancient Roman examples. (They would have been unnerved to know that they actually copied the early medieval “Caroline” script in which monks had preserved many ancient texts.) 
“In fact, this looks just like the hand of Beatus,” I thought. I had spent months reading marginalia and class notes by the Rhineland humanist Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547). While studying for the BA and MA in Paris between 1503 and 1507, Beatus bought over 200 books. His neat cursive spills over the margins of these books: a testimony to an age equally well classified as “late medieval” or “early modern”—a snapshot of a moment when printed books began to filter into education. And Beatus acquired many more books in a long life of scholarship, as an editor of the Church Fathers and Pliny the Elder, a historian of Germany, a consultant at some of the most prestigious early printing houses, and a collaborator with the most famous author of his day, the Dutchman Erasmus of Rotterdam. Today his fifteenth-century grammar school still stands at the center of Sélestat, where Beatus was born and lived most of his life. Now a library, the old building carefully preserves nearly all of Beatus’s books. Nearly all.

I turned the page. There it was. “Lefèvre d’Étaples sent this Quincuplex Psalterium to Beatus Rhenanus from the most famous University of Paris, as a gift, 14 Kalends September [19 August], the Year of Our Lord 1509” (Figure 1). The implications slowly dawned on me. Google had digitized one of Beatus’s books. In the eighteenth century, Sélestat gave thirty-nine of Beatus’s books away. (See Note1) A couple of them have turned up since. Harvard, for example, has Beatus’s copy of Waldseemüller’s Cosmographia, the first printed work to name the New World America. For friends of Beatus like myself, these lost works are a lamentable hole in a rare collection of evidence about Renaissance education and scholarly obsessions. Just finding one of these is a victory. 



Yet this one is special. Its marginalia offer the closest thing to seeing an early modern reader at work. In the age of Beatus, the printing press and new critical practices were making more information available than ever before, with new standards of rigor. Armed with new ways of thinking about texts and an unparalleled grasp of Latin and Greek, scholars like Beatus are known for their vast ambitions to know and to recover antiquity—for crafting the foundations of modern, critical scholarship. But in his annotations on the Quincuplex Psalterium, Beatus reveals the other side of this ambition—interdisciplinary ambitions also require humility, all the more necessary in times when new habits of reading and writing emerge with new media, whether printed books or networked screens.

The Quincuplex Psalterium (1509)

Breath held, I clicked my way back to the first images of the online file. Sometimes Google cuts away the first pages of a book—the place where libraries leave their markings: a trail of ink and pencil. Where is the flesh and blood copy of this digital ghost? (See Note 2)
I had turned to Google Books to check a passage in the Quincuplex Psalterium, which Beatus Rhenanus’s beloved university professor, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (c. 1455-1536), published in Paris in 1509. Lefèvre wrote the book during his first years of retirement from university teaching to a Paris monastery, where he applied his learning to biblical exegesis. The result is a triumph of early printing. Large folio pages are arranged in three columns, including all three of Jerome’s vulgate translations of the Psalter—the Roman, the Gallican, and the so-called “Hebrew” versions, translated by Jerome at different times and places in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. 
Lefèvre did much more too. After each psalm, he enriched the reader’s experience with three kinds of commentary. For those only interested in a quick recap of the main points, Lefèvre offered a “synopsis” of the psalm. Then, for those who hoped to see the psalm’s Christian meaning more clearly, he expounded the manifold references he found to Christ. Like ancient and medieval Christian commentators, he believed that Christ was the ultimate singer of every Psalm. Finally, he supplied notes on literary meanings, textual criticism, and historical or theological reflections. In the book’s last pages, Lefèvre gave his own conjunctum, an effort to improve Jerome’s own work by harmonizing the textual traditions into one best version.



The book placed Lefèvre at the bleeding edge of humanist biblical scholarship—a mere five years before Erasmus published his momentous edition of the New Testament (1514). Lefèvre’s book also showcased the skill of its Paris printer, Henri Estienne. The printer had taken pains to print each page twice: first, the main text; then, a second pass to add red elements, including decorative capitals, headers, decorations around paragraphs and in the margins, and letters from the Hebrew alphabet. These deluxe pages are evidence of special care, a new benchmark of sophistication in the printer’s art, only rivaled by Aldus Manutius in Venice. (See Note 3)
Beatus’s annotations satisfy more than an antiquarian curiosity. His scribbles and scrapes in the Quincuplex Psalterium give important clues to how scholarship and the Bible fit together at a crucial juncture in Western history. Beatus likely read this book late in 1509, just as he took his place in the most vibrant community of scholars and printers in all of Europe. He first lived in Strassburg, where his old grammar-school friend Martin Bucer would shortly leave the Dominican order to lead a city-wide reformation, much like the rogue Augustinian friar Martin Luther. Then Beatus traveled up the banks of the Rhine to Basel, where he studied Greek with the Dominican scholar Johannes Cuno, newly returned from Italy. Among other things, Cuno helped the rough and enterprising printer Johann Amerbach to prepare an edition of the works of Saint Jerome. Cuno died in 1513, but Amerbach quickly found a substitute. Erasmus, at the height of his powers, having traveled from England to Venice, decided to make his home in Basel where he could consolidate his preeminence in the “republic of letters” from Amerbach’s print shop. As Erasmus published his own edition of the New Testament, Beatus Rhenanus became Erasmus’ closest student and friend. 
This newfound copy of the Quincuplex thus occupies a between-space. It brings together fifteenth-century notions of reform and the sixteenth-century reformations. It also spans Lefèvre’s university teaching in Paris and the critical scholarship of Erasmus in Basel. The Quincuplex quickly found a chorus of appreciative readers. Around 1513, at the new University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther densely annotated his own copy as he prepared the lectures on the Psalms that would increasingly focus on justification by faith alone. Luther’s close confidante Johannes Bugenhagen based his own commentary on the Psalms (1524) on a close reading of the Quincuplex.(See Note 4)
Beatus’s own reading of the book faces forward and backward in time. It reflects his earlier days in Lefèvre’s university classroom; it also hints at the biblical scholarship of later scholars energized by the idea that deeper, better reading of the Bible could bring about spiritual reform. In particular, his copy of Quincuplex offers a deep probe into the internal life of the group of scholars and reformers that streamed through Amerbach’s printing house in Basel from 1514, when Erasmus published his New Testament in Basel, to 1529, when Basel officially espoused Protestantism (and so Erasmus left). 
The usual portrait of Beatus Rhenanus is somewhat desiccated, aimed at understanding the mind and textual habits that endeared him to Erasmus. From his days with Lefèvre, whom he helped publish several books, Beatus was fascinated with textual editions. After Beatus returned from Paris to his homeland along the Rhine, he quickly developed a career as a valued corrector in Strassburg and Basel. In his mature years, while jealously eying Italian humanists, he helped build the robust German tradition of textual criticism of Church Fathers and other ancient authors. (See Note 5)  All this is true. But his annotations reveal a stranger, more interesting pattern.  

Beatus in the Margins

Already in 1509 Beatus read with a close eye to the topics that would wrack European souls in the next decades. Some of his most revealing comments are on Psalm 118 (119 in English translations), by far the longest in the Psalter. The Psalmist reflects at length on the “law of God” as the single source of wisdom, and cycles back to avow obedience to God’s precepts as the only path to happiness. In Psalm 118, the Roman and Gallican versions of the Latin Vulgate translate as “iustificationes” the same word that Jerome, working from the Hebrew, rendered as “precepts” (precepta). In his commentary Lefèvre never distinguished the two, and in his “harmonized” (conjunctum) version he preferred “iustificationes.” 
This word choice mattered in the following decades, since Luther would distinguish Old Testament “Law” from New Testament “Gospel.” Luther cited the Apostle Paul to argue that deeds (or obedience to the law) could in no way “make one just” (iustus-facere). For Luther, Psalm 118 presented an unattainable ideal—or rather, an ideal only possible for Christ, the one pure law-keeper.


Beatus’s annotations show him interested in some of the same questions that plagued Luther—how grace and law-keeping reconcile to make one just or “righteous.” With a mannered, elaborate squiggle he notes a section where Lefèvre glossed “keeping God’s justifications” as a prayer: “would that you, O my Maker, direct all my will and its motions to fulfilling your commandments—only they can justify me” (175r). Here Lefèvre does not clearly distinguish “works” from “grace” the way Luther would do in the following years. Eventually, Luther would take great pains to say that sinful humans can do no blameless works and therefore were dependent solely on grace. But this line of reasoning was also on Beatus’s mind. A few pages later, he underlined Lefèvre’s reflection on the lord-servant relationship between God and his people, “for what can a lord owe his servant that is not by grace?” (178v). Beatus distilled the point into a few words in the margin: “whatever God gives, he gives by grace” (Figure 3). Beatus, like Erasmus, would remain loyal to the Roman church to his death in 1547, when confessional boundaries had hardened. But in 1509, before “Protestantism” was even a word, we can see him preoccupied with the same Augustinian themes of grace and justification that leaders like Luther, Eck, and Calvin would use to mark confessional boundaries.
Psalm 118 also prompted Beatus to reflect on a topic close to the heart of many humanists, namely the enduring value of erudite and liberal learning. Of course, Lefèvre’s very style of glossing presupposed that learned letters should matter to biblical exegesis: he compared Latin versions and regularly spiced his commentary with Greek and Hebrew roots. For the reader sensitive to Hebrew, Psalm 118 was especially fascinating, because it was an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet. “The prophet sings through each letter of the alphabet,” Beatus scribbled alongside the text. In antiquity, Jerome had already commented on this feature of the psalm, but Lefèvre took advantage of the new vogue for Hebrew learning to reproduce the Hebrew letters themselves, and to offer regular citations of his friend Johann Reuchlin, author of a new Hebrew grammar (1506). Each time, Beatus faithfully noted the citation in the margins. Hebrew also brought connotations of Cabala and numerology. Besides Latin literature, one needed to know mathematics and philosophy to understand properly the biblical text. Otherwise the reader might miss lessons in the text. For instance, Beatus flagged Lefèvre’s discussion of the octonarius, the eight-line structure of each section of Psalm 118. The Holy Spirit had inspired the prophetic psalmist to use this “mystical and holy number of the new law” of Christ; while the people of the old law held their Sabbath on the seventh day, the Sunday Sabbath of the resurrected Christ marked a new life, a new epoch, figured in the psalm’s very outline. 
Beatus therefore drew on an ancient Christian defense of interdisciplinary scholarship: numbers, as much as letters, mattered for understanding scripture. The most intriguing of his annotations, to those of us who know Beatus as a supremely erudite scholar, reveal him wrestling with the role of the liberal arts. 
Some of his annotations reflect uncertainties about illicit forms of knowledge related to Cabala and numerology, such as magic. In the 1490s Lefèvre had written a long treatise of natural magic, as the “practical” or operative part of natural philosophy. By the early 1500s he had become worried that, at best, much magic was the deceit of charlatans. Or it might be commerce with demons. At its worst, it was presumptuous pride. In the Quincuplex, Lefèvre railed against certain contemporaries “in our day” who were “so mentally clouded that they openly dare to call themselves magicians” (210r). Next to this section, Beatus wrote down exactly who came to mind: Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, whose large library and specialized knowledge of the occult fed stories throughout the nascent republic of letters (Figure 4). One of the Paris teachers of Beatus, Charles de Bovelles, had been horrified when Trithemius showed him a manuscript of his Steganographia around 1503—after which Bovelles spread the darkest rumors of Trithemius’s occult preoccupations.



The problem with such claimants to esoteric knowledge was their overconfidence in human capacities. Significantly, Lefèvre’s most direct criticism of magicians and alchemists glossed Psalm 130. There the Psalmist professed that “my heart is not exalted, nor are my eyes lifted up; I have not walked in great deeds, nor among wonders above me.” The magician’s failure was one of erudition not knowing its place. The magician, assuming divine power, failed to humble himself before his maker.
Magic could not be quickly set aside. It simply represented the bigger problem that all learning could pose. The majority of Beatus’s annotations on Psalm 118 circle around the problem of intellectual pride. The psalm’s theme of faith in God’s law already set up the fundamental tension. On the one hand, the language of law suggests a regular rationale, readily explored and understood; on the other hand, the Psalmist emphasizes that this law is always beyond him. “Your hands made me and formed me … your word endures forever in the heavens, O Lord,” (verses 73, 89) and so the Psalmist professes his love for God’s law and implores God to teach him his commandments, that he may have true wisdom. As divine law, its infinite depths can sustain a lifetime of loving, searching desire for wisdom. Early in Psalm 118, Beatus scrawled an emphatic “Nota” beside Lefèvre’s gloss on the opening verses. There Lefèvre listed the ascending scale of liberal learning: grammar, rhetoric, logic, natural philosophy, music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and optics. Yet the sentiment that caught Beatus’s eye was humble. “Of all this, nothing can make one blessed, because they are not you, the End of ends, the End of all things.” The liberal arts instead lift one “from the traces of things” up to God, “aided by the pious and careful investigation of divine eloquence [i.e. scriptures]” (174v). In the margins of the next pages, Beatus noted the self-absorbed “proud” (superbi) who mistook such earthly goods for all goods. In fact, earthly things should be studied because they hint at spiritual goods (178v). The problem with intellectual pride is that it makes one think one’s knowledge is all there is. It thus makes one blind to the fact that one’s knowledge merely mirrors God’s original activity. 
Beatus thus sustains a tension in the Christian use of the liberal arts: before the vast wisdom of God’s law, knowledge should humble. Beatus rewrites the tension as a paradox: “knowledge is humility; ignorance is meekness” (scientia humilitas | ignorantia timiditas, 185v). Fideism is an imprecise and inadequate term for this expectant posture of humble desire. After all, its sources are deeply learned. Beatus knows well that Lefèvre delights in this paradox in part because it fits the apophatic theology of Dionysius the Areopagite (as Beatus notes on folio 96v). And throughout his notes, Beatus readily observes learned sources, such as places where Lefèvre has drawn on Aristotle’s psychology or Ethics to clarify the scriptural text. The point is not fideism, but rather that intellectual work must begin from a position of epistemic humility. The various disciplines are not ends in themselves, but serve a broader image of the human—the human as a copy of the divine image.

Learning from the Margins

For friends of the NDIAS, perhaps this short glimpse into the reading life of a Renaissance humanist par excellence offers a chance to reflect on our own approaches to scholarship. The most basic lesson is that evidence from the margins can dramatically reorient our perspective. For historians working with texts, marginalia push us to reimagine realities we thought we knew, by showing what actually preoccupied earlier readers. These marks pull us into a different world. Beatus’s notes in the margins of an early printed book, accidentally captured by Google’s scanner, shift our view of Renaissance humanists beyond an austere interest in ancient languages to the bubbling anxieties and tensions of the day. 
Beatus’s marginalia also bring into view a very different disciplinary landscape: philology, natural philosophy, and devotional life fit together in Beatus’s experience of erudition. Beatus’s preoccupation with humility as a virtue fundamental to real erudition suggests particular lessons for us, engaged in interdisciplinary scholarship of the kind the NDIAS supports. In the rush and roar of ambitious research, humility slips to the margins. Yet the very premise of interdisciplinary dialogue is that no one discipline has all the answers. Even apart from the theological sources of Beatus’s own thoughts, the tension between intellectual ambition and humility deserves a central focus in how we pursue work together.
Finally, Beatus’s scribbles urge us to reflect on digital scholarship. In the moment I recognized what I saw on the screen, my breath stopped and my hands trembled with an excitement as real as any I have found in a bricks and mortar archive. Without Google, how long would this copy have remained, unknown, in the Austrian National Library in Vienna? The digital promise is great, but I doubt; I doubt. How many other copies will not be read, their marginalia holding their secrets, because Beatus’s copy has been immortalized on a search engine? Certainly, the apparent bonanza of early material online deserves praise; even without an elite library, I can access a bounty of evidence now only rivaled by the British Library or the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Digital scholarship promises us an egalitarian research landscape. Anyone with a screen and internet access can study rare books. 
But we do not yet know the limits of this digital landscape. Scholarship in the age of Google will require humility about our digital tools. Digital evidence is flat, only in part because it literally puts the texture of a three-dimensional object on a single plane of pixels. That flatness extends much further. Our experience of older books—once read in many other editions than those we read online—is now funneled through one, two, or at most several available copies. We have had the chance to learn this lesson from Beatus’s own day. We now bemoan the thousands of ancient and medieval manuscripts that early printers destroyed as they scooped their contents to feed their presses. Today, lessons from countless other margins will be lost, as “extra” copies are trucked to landfills. This will twist our collective picture of the past. Through the screen, more of us can peer at the past—but, through the screen, fewer voices of the past will find their way to us.
Scholars working in digital humanities are also beginning to realize that good digital work first requires old-fashioned skills. I’m not sure I would have recognized Beatus’s writing had I not spent countless hours squinting at his other dusty tomes in Sélestat. Those hours still give me an imaginative framework in which to understand his books. And marginalia demand considerable “tacit” knowledge, gained only by handling books, seeing them in three dimensions—would I have recognized Beatus’s Quincuplex without “real” library experience?
This is no complaint. I won’t stop checking quotations online. Meanwhile, maybe the internet will make Beatus famous, since it is his copy of the Quincuplex Psalterium that Google has given posterity.
Richard Oosterhoff
Research Associate, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities
Faculty of History, University of Cambridge
2012-2013 NDIAS Graduate Student Fellow
1. Pierre Petitmengin and Hubert Meyer, “Ex libris Beati Rhenani. Les imprimés qui ont quitté la bibliothèque de Sélestat depuis le milieu du XVIII siècle,” Annuaire des Amis de la Bibliothèque Humanist de Sélestat 35 (1985): 123–33.
2. See the digital copy at <http://books.google.com/books?id=cH5HAAAAcAAJ>. The pastedown, which in this case Google scanned, indicates that the physical copy is in Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (ÖNB), shelfmark 2.R.3.
3. The innovative character of Henri Estienne’s typography during this period is analyzed by Frans Anton Janssen, Technique and Design in the History of Printing: 26 Essays (’TGoy-Houten, Netherlands: Hes & De Graaf, 2004), 75-99.
4. These annotations are discussed by Guy Bedouelle, Le Quincuplex Psalterium de Lefèvre d’Étaples: Un guide de lecture (Geneva: Droz, 1979), 223-243.
5. The only monograph in English on Beatus Rhenanus is John F. D’Amico, Theory and Practice in Renaissance Textual Criticism: Beatus Rhenanus Between Conjecture and History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988). For an entry into the large specialist literature, see the studies collected by François Heim and James Hirstein, eds., Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547): lecteur et éditeur des textes anciens (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000).







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