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  • Marginalia
  • Marcia D. Nichols

Charles Miegs, College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Elizabeth Nihell, gender, marginalia, material texts, medicine, man-midwifery, obstetrics, physician, reader’s marks

During a recent semester, I panicked a little when I thought I had lost my teaching copy of Angels in America, not because of any intrinsic value of the book itself, but because of the several years’ accretion of my notes—my marginalia. This cheap, and one might say defaced, paperback suddenly became invaluable to me, and when I found it, relief washed over me. Thankfully, I would not have to try to re-create my notes. Clearly, marginalia can have deep personal meaning, but do marginalia have value in their own right? Most material text scholars agree that historical marginalia can be at the very least a delightful curiosity. But what about the modern-day variety? Everybody’s bought a used book and been disappointed by somebody’s ill-use of it, marking it up in ink and highlighter willy-nilly. If it is in a library, that book has been defaced. Yet when we find a similarly treated book in special collections, frequently our hearts thrill at such exuberant evidence of use by often unknown former readers. If the author is known, even famous, our joy is greater still—have we found a new insight into the mind of this person? But, maybe, those marks tell us nothing at all.

Although marginalia can refer to printed notes at the side of the page,1 here I am limiting my discussion to a second definition of marginalia—readers’ marks—that is, manuscript notes and extra illustration on the fly-leaves and margins of a printed book. This second type of marginalia poses a challenging scholarly question, especially to those interested in material texts. For the most part, marginalia are unique to a single copy of a book—highlighting the very materiality of that book. Yet that uniqueness can make it difficult to use marginalia as compelling evidence in literary and historical arguments, especially if the writer is unknown. Can this one response tell us anything about the ideological or sociocultural significance of the book? [End Page 702] About readers and reading? About gender or race or identity in that era? About anything at all? Marginalia pose other difficulties as well. How does one identify their writer if they are not signed or we have no handwriting samples with which to compare? How does one date them? Are they contemporary with the book itself, or were they added by readers at later dates? If our interest is in the history of reading, does the temporality of marginalia matter at all?

Following the work of Roger Stoddard and Robert Darnton, both of whom argued for a greater attention to marginalia, scholars of the last thirty years have begun considering marginalia as a source of evidence for the history of reading. Many studies have been done on the marginalia of a prolific and famous few—John Dee, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Horace Walpole, for example—all of whom wrote extensively in their (and others’) books, and whose significance to history no one doubts. H. J. Jackson is perhaps the leading scholar on marginalia, with her books Marginalia and Romantic Readers.2 In Used Books, William Sherman makes a fascinating, extensive study of early modern marginalia and manuscript books.3 One of the most striking revelations of Sherman’s account is how little annotation practices have changed since the Renaissance.

The “humanist educational theory” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries encouraged what we might today call active reading—for the student or reader to mark his book to note important passages, to include needed glosses, to comment, and so on—and many readers continued this early training long out of the schoolroom.4 For example, many books held in professional society libraries bear evidence that students and professors actively marked the communally held books. In one such book, at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the white spaces become the location of a drama of embattled masculinity. There several mid-nineteenth-century physicians came together to deride Elizabeth Nihell on the pages of a 1771 French edition...


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pp. 702-707
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