“Almost like a cartoon in the margins”

In conversation with literary scholar William H. Sherman

William H. Sherman opened the conference “Biographies of the book” with his lecture “The Reader´s Eye: Between Annotation and Illustration” at the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel. In this interview, Sherman, who is the Head of Research at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of York, talks about why it was common for renaissance readers to immortalize themselves through depictions and drawings in their books, what motives were particularly popular and why reading a book can be compared to cultivating a beautiful garden.

Notes and drawings by the Florentine politician Bernardo Bembo (1433–1519) in a book written by the Roman writer Pliny the Younger. Courtesy to Stanford University Library.

The interview was conducted by Nicole Alexander.

Mr. Sherman, when was the first time you saw visual annotations in a Renaissance book?

That was many years ago. Thirty years back as a student in New York I spent a semester in Cambridge. There I stumbled upon some books from the library of a man named John Dee. John Dee was a very colorful figure. He was a sort of magician and wizard, a kind of Merlin at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. But it turned out he had a big library and a very serious habit of using his books for his work. I started to see his annotations in the margins, and they included in certain areas – in alchemy and in travel in particular – lots of pictures. So if he is reading about a voyage he’ll draw a ship, if he is reading about a particular alchemical operation he’ll show the vessel and the flame and so on. So I started with examples of visual marginalia of a reader who used words and images in his response. But it took twenty-some years till I realized the significance of this phenomenon.

How did that come about?

Well, in 2008 I published “Used books”, my big book about verbal annotations. It was barely published when I started to remember the pictures and drawings with which many renaissance readers immortalized themselves in their books. At first I thought, that’s different, that’s illustration, not annotation. But then I recognized that it is a culture that is very visual, very engaged with the image and the word together. So, often in my career I have thought about a kind of theory or speculation where I turn something upside down, just to see what it looks like. And in this case I thought: What if we think of reading as visual instead of verbal?

That sounds like an epistemological question.

It is an epistemological question. Again it goes all the way back to the ancient world, to Aristotle in particular, who basically says: To think is to see. You cannot think without an image, a mental representation. There isn’t just some abstract numbers and letters. It is very much about sensual input. The word “imagination” in English and in Romance languages has the word “image” in it. Another very important word is “fantasy”. The idea of “fantasy” now is that it is something you make up. But in Greek a “phantasma” is a visual impression of a thought, something that produces cognition. Again there is a very strong idea from the ancient world to the medieval period that to process the world and to think about it requires at least an inner image of it.

Do you have any explanation for why scholarship, to this day, has treated marks exclusively as a verbal practice?

Well, I should explain that if I was a medievalist, this would all be a very different conversation. Because people who work on books which predate the invention of printing and in particular on medieval devotional books, prayer books and religious materials are absolutely used to thinking in terms of word and image together. It’s a very standard approach in medieval studies. But I work on early print culture, which entails books which were created up to 200 years after the invention of printing. And the kind of received wisdom or tradition is that as we move from the Middle Ages to Renaissance, from manuscript to print, as we move through the Protestant reformation, from South to North, from religion to science, from sacred to secular, all of those involve in some way a mistrust of the eye. There is in all kinds of ways a shift from image to word in those cultures and in those moves. That’s probably one of the two main reasons why people haven’t really looked for these images in the margins.

And what is the other reason?  

The other reason – and I think, this is a very important one – is a disciplinary one. Most scholars working on marginalia or annotations come from either literature, philology or from intellectual history. Those three fields are fundamentally interested in the word, whereas art history, architecture, science even, are very interested in the image, but they don’t tend to be the originators of the work on the margins of books. So that’s the problem. We tend to operate with a particular disciplinary lens or glasses, and in this case I came like many people from a philological and literary background with a little bit of cultural and intellectual history, and so I just was not used to paying attention to images.

Might another reason be that drawing in books usually is regarded as a sign of inattention?

Well, attention is historically specific and it raises questions that are difficult to answer. Doodles in school books by a child might usually be a sign of distraction. So when we see sketches in a book we tend to think of somebody who isn’t paying attention. But it could be the complete opposite. It could be that they thought it was worth making a picture to come back to, a kind of translation or a sight for the eye to focus on. So what looks like a distraction may in fact be a much deeper meditation or engagement with what was read.

Is there a reader whose drawings have impressed you in particular?      

In fact, there are two. The first is Bernardo Bembo who was a prominent ambassador and civil servant of the republic of Venice. This is somebody who even when he is not looking at or drawing pictures is thinking visually. And so I started to look at his handwriting, at the place where he puts his notes on the page, at the layout on the page. And then I thought, well, he is immersed in art, he has ancient world all around him, he is very heavily influenced by these kinds of things. And of course his son Pietro Bembo who became a very famous renaissance scholar and cardinal was very heavily influenced by him. Bernardo Bembo was the first where I really started to think, this is a visual, a fundamentally visual reader.

"A visual, a fundamentally visual reader": The Florentine politician Bernardo Bembo (1433–1519) tended to add drawings in his books, as here in a work written by the Roman writer Pliny the Younger (Epistolarum libri IX, Treviso: Ioannes Vercelius, 1483, Stanford Library). Courtesy of Stanford University Library. 


And who is the other one?

The other one is Sir Thomas Smith who was a Secretary at the court of Queen Elizabeth I and a Greek scholar at Queens’ College in Cambridge. When you go through Smith’s books, you realize that in two fields in particular – law and history – he thinks visually and responds visually. In his chronicles or historical books whenever there is an important figure he’ll draw the head in the margin and almost every time there is a battle or a movement he’ll draw a map in the margin. He is always representing these things visually in the margins. That’s very interesting, because again he is a Protestant and he is in a nonvisual job, a nonvisual environment, and so it is very surprising to see. At first glance it looks almost funny because they are like cartoons. It’s like turning the serious heavy book into a cartoon, but actually it is a serious cartoon.

What do you think was the purpose of drawings in books?

It served multiple purposes. In some cases the reader is drawing to make the book more beautiful for himself or his children, who inherited them. Books from this period are incredibly durable objects. They look like they were made yesterday. Most of the books we buy today won’t last. They are in many cases almost disposable. So it’s hard for us to imagine that when a Renaissance reader picked up a book he knew he had something that would last. And so there is a lot of writing for posterity, for future readers. There is also I would say writing for yourself in the future. When you make a note it can be for the present, but it’s almost always for the future. And the idea in making any kind of note is for you to find it again and more quickly than reading the whole book again, figure out or remember what is was you wanted from this book. Of course you can have a whole long note in the margin, but if you have an image that captures your response and what you find useful there is no better way for your memory to grab on to it quickly and recognize.

Could you just give an example for that? 

Sure. The already mentioned Thomas Smith for example, especially in his books on law, had a system. So if there is a political treaty in the margin, he has a particular symbol or scrawl and if there is a particular thing about the church he’ll have a cross. I think people had – as we do now – a personal system of short hand or of symbols.

Did you find a kind of typology in readers’ drawings? Are some motifs used more often than others?

Yes, absolutely. I suppose the most common one is the pointing hand. Sometimes you get other parts, you get a lot of faces, a lot of heads; occasionally you get other parts of the body or a whole body. And the other is in general what we get from the medieval illumination: some kind of vegetation, plants, leafs, all of those. And again we tend to think of them as decoration, that they just make it look nice. But actually they do more than that. The idea again from the humanist is that these are flowers to be picked – it’s like harvesting. To read and process a book is like making a nice garden.

Is the phenomenon of the drawing reader more common in the Renaissance than before or afterwards?

Yes, but there are a couple of factors that come into play. One is that the ownership and use of books is more common in the period of print than it is in the period of manuscript. So of course in medieval monasteries there is a much lower level of access to books, much less literacy. One of the reasons why I work on the beginning of print is that you have what the medieval period had which was quite an active sense that the reader can engage with the book, but you have a much more widespread access to books. So on that level, yes, the drawing reader is more common in the Renaissance period. And the education in particularly verbal and visual arts is much more widespread in the Renaissance than it is in the Middle Ages. You have a different school system, different kinds of training. Again it’s important that in the Renaissance it gets very strongly associated with the revival and reception of the ancient world, of Latin and Greek approaches to things. It’s so striking that a lot of these examples come in books by authors from the ancient world.

What about the time after the Renaissance?

Well, in the 17th, 18th and 19th century you get two different things. One is you get books that include more of the visual material the reader wants. And you get a much more heavily illustrated form of mass production of books. That’s why the reader has less work to do and there is less need for him to make annotations himself. But also other kinds of practices come into play like cutting and pasting. What you get in the 18th and 19th century in particular is a phenomenon sometimes called with the funny English word “grangerizing”. A grangerized book is a book where a reader has taken material from other texts, cut them out and pasted them into the book. So that’s a form of visual response, but it’s not them drawing. That becomes very common for about 200 years.

What does your research tell us about Renaissance readers compared to contemporary readers?

That they are probably more willing to write in books and probably in many cases are better at drawing. But also Renaissance readers had fewer books and more time, which means that they had to spend more time on a smaller number of books.

Where do you look for books containing visual annotations?

Everywhere. I have been looking everywhere I go as much as I can. I have now probably spent 25 years of just looking around libraries. 

And how do you find them?

It’s very difficult, because there isn´t any established vocabulary. Usually there is a very set terminology or lexicon that the cataloguers are supposed to use. But as for uses of books and marks in books, I find in general – and this has been true for all of my work on words as well – that it isn’t clear what the word the cataloguer is supposed to use is. So you have to imagine many different possible words. In the case of visual responses we have some established terms like “illustration”, “sketch” or “doodle”. But “doodle” for example is quite a negative word. So one of the problems is there is no neutral term. A lot of them are negative terms, meaning something is unfinished or bad or distracting. So part of the problem is just the lack of an established vocabulary. The other part of the problem is that the searching vocabulary for visuals tends to be associated with the production of the book, something that is made for the reader rather than by the reader. And I think libraries could make this material easier to find. 

Are there any efforts to do so?

There are some, indeed. The American Library Association now has an established vocabulary for cataloguing for readers’ marks, for marginalia. But they are not so good on the visual, they are better on the verbal. That’s why I just look at everything I can find. And if I am lucky I find something. But that is true of almost everything. There is so little you can do by planning. I think most of the best research happens by chance.

William H. Sherman is Head of Research at the Victoria & Albert Museum and Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of York.

The conference "Biographies of the Book", which was opened by William H. Sherman with his lecture “The Reader´s Eye: Between Annotation and Illustration” was held between the 5th and 8th of April at the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel.