What is Medieval Paratext?

What is Medieval Paratext?

By Charlotte E. Cooper

Marginalia, the Journal of the Medieval Reading Group at the University of Cambridge, Vol.19 (2015)

Christine de Pizan, Cent Balades – Paris, BnF fr. 835, f. 1r

Introduction: Over the last few years, perhaps as a result of the increasing digitisation of medieval manuscripts, research into medieval literature has begun to focus not just on the texts contained in a manuscript, but also on the margins of that text, and on the physical manuscript that contains it. As such, the word paratext has steadily begun to appear in our discussions of these works. This term now frequently appears in scholarship – to name but a few, the works of Cynthia J. Brown, Tania Van Hemelryck, and Sylvia Huot. That these scholars tend to use this term unproblematically suggests that its meaning is fixed, or agreed upon. However, the implications of taking an idea that was created with printed books in mind, and applying it to manuscript culture have only just begun to be explored. The lack of definition surrounding this concept has sometimes led either to a misunderstanding of what the paratextual apparatus of a manuscript might be, to a confusion of the terms associated with it, or to its being understood very broadly.

Although recent critical attention has shown the various ways in which reading the paratext can add to our understanding of a text, the implication of the term, paratext, suggests that its elements are somehow secondary to the text: they surround it, are found beside or adjacent to it; the connotation is that paratext is marginal, and therefore less important.

But using the term paratext in discussions of medieval texts can downplay the differences between medieval manuscript and modern book production: if, for us, an element in a modern, printed book is viewed as paratextual, does it follow that the medieval mind considered it likewise, and should we see their counterpart elements in manuscript form as ‘marginal’? To put it another way, we might simply ask: when considering medieval manuscripts, what is marginal, and what is not?

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