Old School, New School


Medieval maniculae in early printed books from the Elsevier Heritage Collection

Elsevier annotated book

In medieval times you couldn’t just go and underline the important parts of the manuscripts you were reading.

Well, yes, you could. Some manuscripts have strikethroughs that had the same function; other times, though, an underlined sentence in a medieval manuscript would indicate a part of text that needed correction (pretty much like a teacher would underline a mistake at school). But, anyways:

How could you indicate a part of the text you thought was important and wanted to remember, without ruining the scribes hard work?

There were many ways. Most famously: Nota Bene marks, Dignum Memoria, and…

A manicula in the margin of a printed book.
A manicula in the margin of a printed book.


Yep: you would simply draw a hand with a finger pointing towards the important part.

Maniculae are a fairly common find in medieval manuscripts and came in all forms: small hands, big hands, multiple hands. Dr. Erik Kwakkel posted a fine example of an “octopus manicula”:

Dr. Erik Kwakkel’s example of “octopus manicula”
Dr. Erik Kwakkel’s example of “octopus manicula”

Some maniculae are so particular that when you would see one, you might be able to identify the author of it! For example: If the reader would draw a particular six-fingered manicula all the time, that would give away his identity pretty quickly.

But did maniculae die with the death of manuscripts? Well, today very few people draw entire hands to point out an important section of a book (hipsters maybe do, I wouldn’t be surprised). Today we mostly underline or highlight, use an exclamation mark, or, sometimes, an arrow. But in the 1600- and 1700’s maniculae would still be used in printed books.
today very few people draw entire hands to point out an important section of a book

Maniculae in Printed Books

I had the privilege to browse through some of the books from the Elsevier Heritage Collection. I was particularly interested in a 1646 edition of the Opera Mathematica by François Viète (1540-1603), edited by Frans van Schooten (1615-1660).

Beside the fascinating mathematical annotations in the margin and on the binding, a small manicula caught my attention and got me thinking: “Fascinating. Still using a manicula!”.

As I kept browsing through the old paper pages I came across something even more interesting:

Manicula and Underlining in a printed book
Manicula and Underlining in a printed book

Manicula AND underlining. The ink of the lines and the manicula seemed the same; this passage must have been something particularly interesting for the reader!

To me, the presence of a manicula, the underlining and the printed letters is such a fascinating mix. This book seems like a bridge between the old school of manuscripts, and the new practices of printed books.

The Elsevier Heritage Collection

The Elsevier Heritage Collection in Amsterdam is home to over 2000+ fascinating books that were printed between 1580 and 1712. They are all preserved in museum quality, acclimatized display shelves.

They recently started a new Facebook page in which they share their treasures and interesting information. Worth a like!

Bonus picture:

Elzeviers’ French Bible (Amsterdam, 1669)
Elzeviers’ French Bible (Amsterdam, 1669)
Giulio Menna
Giulio is an MA graduate in Book and Digital Media Studies from Leiden University, the Netherlands. He is also system librarian at Leiden University Library. Founder and developer of Sexy Codicology and the DMMmaps Project; lover of medieval manuscripts and of all things digital.