Records of Student Life in Early Modern Europe

by Madeline McMahon

Much of student life in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe revolved around writing in books. Unlike modern library copies of frequently assigned texts or even students’ personal copies (such as this outraged copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter in the Onion), however, many of these books were intended for annotation. The cover of Wynkyn de Worde’s publication of Virgil’s Bucolica (1514) shows students poring over the text as their teacher expounds upon it. But if the early English printer imagined his customers writing in the Bucolica, he did not leave them much space to do so. The lines of poetry are jammed against the accompanying commentary interspersed every few verses or so.

Title page of 1513 copy of Virgil's works. By permission of the New York Society Library.

Title page of a 1513 copy of Virgil’s works. By permission of the New York Society Library.

Yet at the same time, De Worde’s contemporaries on the continent were adapting their printed textbooks of classical works to student use. From about 1490 to 1520, publishers in German university towns churned out “lecture texts” that included interlinear spacing and wider margins to accommodate note-taking (Jürgen Leonhardt, “Classics as Textbooks: A study of the humanist lectures on Cicero at the University of Leipzig, ca. 1515” in Scholarly Knowledge, Textbooks in Early Modern Europe). Thousands of such books can be found, often with identical annotations—many hands recording the same series of lectures (Leonhardt, 90-1).

Annotations between the lines and in the margins of Virgil's Eclogues. This book will be displayed at the New York Society Library's upcoming exhibition, "Readers Make Their Mark," Feb. 5 - Aug. 15.

Annotations between the lines and in the margins of Virgil’s Eclogues. This book will be displayed at the New York Society Library’s upcoming exhibition, “Readers Make Their Mark,” Feb. 5 – Aug. 15.

The book shown here, a copy of Virgil’s poetic works printed in Leipzig in 1513 and now in the New York Society Library, is one of many such extant school texts. The anonymous student annotated the Eclogues the most heavily; while all of Virgil’s works were commonly assigned bestsellers in this period, the Eclogues were particularly popular (Leonhardt, 90, 107). He used the spaces between lines of Virgil’s text to add vocabulary notes, and wrote more advanced comments in the wide margins around the short commentary of Hermano Torrentino that punctuated the poetry. Yet in general, although this student underlined some of the printed commentary, his primary annotations were more or less transcripts of lectures, in which his teacher would paraphrase the poem’s meaning in easy-to-understand prose. Red-colored ink, much like the modern neon highlighter, helped important information leap off the page. This book shows the early sixteenth-century humanist classroom in action: this student learns how to annotate as he is taught how to read a classic.

Such annotations can help us to imagine the experience of attending early modern lectures—or not. A lecture text’s pristine pages can signal when a student failed to show up to class (Leonhardt, 104). Such absences remind us that student life was not confined to the lecture hall, then as now. We can glimpse the friendships formed at early modern universities from a different kind of book meant for writing as well as reading: the album amicorum, or register of friends. These small books of blank pages were also popular in German universities, although they were used across Europe (June Schlueter, “Michael van Meer’s Album Amicorum, with Illustrations of London, 1614-15,” 302). An owner would solicit entries from friends and acquaintances as well as the great. Filled with pithy quotations, flattering notes, coats of arms and illustrations, albums are valuable sources for the history of scholarly culture in addition to a range of other approaches—from the history of theater to that of politics. The album amicorum was like an early yearbook or proto-Facebook, keeping the memories of one’s college friends within reach. The Englishman Nathanael Carpenter (1589 – 1628) brought his album with him to Dublin, where he spent much of his career. The book (Trinity College Dublin MS 150) is full of notes in Latin, Greek, and French from an international group of friends Carpenter met during his time at the University of Oxford in the early 1610s. Flipping through the clever adages and colorful drawing of an astrologer in his album, Carpenter would have come across his friend Jonas Adelwertus’s note:

You desire, good friend, that my hand be read in this album; why should I deny?
I will inscribe not only my name but I will add a distich,
So that you may never not remember me.
I pray, good friend, that you may be well, flourish, and live as long as Nestor, and that you remain happy.

Ut mea conspicue manus, hoc cernatur in albo,
Optime Amice cupis; qua ratione negem?
Non tantum inscribam nomen, sed Distichon addam,
Ut nunquam possis, non memor esse mei.
Ut valeas, vigeas, vivasque in Nestoris annos,
Et maneas fielix, Optime Amice precor. (TCD MS 150, 86r)

Like Carpenter, we can still access early modern student life through annotations, the record of friendship as well as education.
 

Many thanks to Erin Schreiner, rare books librarian at the NYSL, for permission to show the images. The copy of Virgil shown here will be on display at “Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books at the New York Society Library.” My thanks to Will White for leading me to TCD MS 150.

4 comments

  1. Wonderful: these scribbled pages yield an amazingly vivid picture of the classroom at work, not to mention the hungover student. Do you think people wrote album amicorum entries straightforwardly? Or were they trying, as academics will, to one-up, guilt-trip and otherwise manipulate one another?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Tony, that’s a great question. From what I could see when handling Carpenter’s album, there seems to be a lot of play within the expectations of the genre. One small example: on a single page in Carpenter’s manuscript (5r), two people have written what seem to me to be smugly dissenting adages: “Tout par amour rien par force” and “Et litteris et armis.” I suspect the second writer had a sense of humor. It does seem that people would be keen to impress, even while ostensibly complimenting the owner of the album. This genre is still new to me, though–perhaps another post is in order to delve more deeply and look at more examples.

      Emily, your enthusiasm is much appreciated. I’m so glad your post on Sidgwick’s daily record follows this one–it’s great to see how notebooks became records of people’s lives, whether in the sixteenth- or nineteenth-centuries!

      Like

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