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5 Characters from the Margins of Ancient Texts

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Keith Houston's new book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, Indiebound, and Powell's.

The margins of books have always been a playground for their readers’ notes, doodles, and questions. From the Library of Alexandria to Europe’s medieval monasteries, here are five ancient symbols that helped readers make sense of their books.

1. Paragraphos


Ménandre: Sicyoniens; MP 3 1308.1. inv. 2272 e. Image courtesy of Jean Gascou of the Institut de Papyrologie, Paris Sorbonne.

An ancient Greek of Homer’s time would have had their work cut out when it came to reading. Documents were written so that their text flowed from left to right and back again, like a farmer plowing a field, with no spaces between words, capital letters, or punctuation to help them find their way. The one glimmer in the darkness was provided by the paragraphos, a simple horizontal stroke drawn beside or just under a line of text. A paragraphos (from para-, “beside,” and graphein, “to write”) told the reader that there was something of interest in the associated text, though not what that thing was: It could be a change in speaker in a play, a new chapter, or anything else besides, and it was up to the reader to decipher its meaning.

2. Diple


Diples, an obelos, and paragraphoi in a reproduction of Homer. (“Book 12.” In Homeri Ilias Cum Scholiis. Codex Venetus A, Marcianus 454 Phototypice Editus, 161v. Lugduni Batavorum: A. W. Sijthoff, 1901.) Courtesy of Stoa.org.

Punctuation, from the Latin punctus, or “point,” first appeared at the library of Alexandria in Egypt during the third century BC. While the paragraphos was for writers, points were for readers: Texts were often read aloud, and readers would mark up their works with points placed at different heights (·, ., and ˙) to indicate pauses of increasing duration. Only a generation later, editors and copyeditors too were granted their own dedicated marks, beginning with the diple, or “double” (>, ⸖, or ·>). Made popular by Aristarchus, a scholar editing Homer’s epic poetry, the diple was like the paragraphos in that it was used to highlight a line containing some interesting feature. But where the paragraphos evolved into the pilcrow (¶), or paragraph mark, the diple instead gave rise to the inverted commas (“ ”) used to surround words quoted from other texts.

3. Asterisk

A bevy of asterisks in a reproduction of Homer. (“Book 1.” In Homeri Ilias Cum Scholiis. Codex Venetus A, Marcianus 454 Phototypice Editus, 33r. Lugduni Batavorum: A. W. Sijthoff, 1901.) Courtesy of Stoa.org.

Aristarchus, the ancient Greek scholar who popularized the diple, is famous for the palette of “Aristarchean” marks with which he edited texts: the diple, the asteriskos, and the obelos. The asteriskos, or “little star,” was placed alongside lines that had been mistakenly duplicated; mistakes were numerous because texts were copied by hand, and Homer’s ancient poetry was riddled with errors. The asteriskos (※), of course, became the modern asterisk (*), which can still be found in the margin (albeit at the bottom of the page) where it acts as a footnote reference. Nowadays the asterisk is often applied to the names of athletes or celebrities who have been somehow embarrassed or discredited, implying that their achievements come with an accusing footnote. Lance Armstrong, who doped his way to seven Tours de France, and George W. Bush, whose 2000 election victory was won in the courts, have both been criticized by journalists wielding asterisks.

4. Dagger

Daggers and double daggers, or dieses. Top row, left to right: Linotype Didot, Big Caslon (Carter & Cone Type), Hoefler Text (Apple), and Zapfino (Linotype); bottom row, left to right: Helvetica (Linotype), Skia (Apple), Courier New (Microsoft), and Museo Slab (Jos Buivenga). Image by the author.

The obelos, or “roasting spit,” was the third and last of Aristarchus’s marks. The dash-like obelos (—, though it was sometime decorated with a pair of dots to give ÷) was placed alongside lines to be deleted, with one seventh century writer explaining that “like an arrow, [the obelos] slays the superfluous and pierces the false.” Over the centuries the obelos morphed into the dagger (†), which has maintained its partnership with the asterisk through thick and thin. Both symbols are used to link footnotes to the main body of text, though in some European countries they have an extra meaning, telling readers when someone was born—“Herman Melville (*1819)”—or when they died—“(†1891).” The dagger is often now confused with the Christian cross, and many fonts include daggers that are simply crosses by another name.

5. Manicule

A very pious manicule drawn in the margin of an early printed book. Image courtesy of the Penn Provenance Project.

As writers started to borrow the punctuation and other marks (like the diple) that readers and editors had once used, readers found themselves without a standard way to highlight interesting text. Towards the end of the medieval period, when a new wave of secular scholarship swept across Europe, a new mark appeared that let readers do just that. The manicule, index, or pointing hand (☞) cropped up in the margins of Renaissance manuscripts wherever readers found a sentence or paragraph they wished to highlight for future reference. Some of these pointing hands were little more than bookmarks, while others came with voluminous sleeves on which their creators added their thoughts on the text. Manicules were not just for stuffy, academic notes, either: Instead of pointing hands, some readers chose to annotate their books with spidery octopuses or even little pointing penises.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

via GIPHY

This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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