Gloss effects

7th January 2015

Glosses, notes written in the margins of manuscripts and early printed books, can not only be integral to the text, they can be amusing or playful distractions from it says Wadham Fellow Jane Griffths in a new book.

  • Wadham Image - bookjanegriffiths_0

In her new book Diverting Authorities: Experimental Glossing Practices in Manuscript and Print, Wadham Fellow in English Jane Griffiths explores the use of playful glossing in texts ranging from the early fourteenth century to the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Jane explains: “The ‘glossing’ of the title refers to marginal glosses: very loosely speaking, the forerunners of our footnotes, which are common in the margins of manuscripts and early printed books. People have often assumed, when I’ve talked about what I’m working on, that these are annotations by readers – but in fact that’s not primarily what the book is about. I’ve focused instead on those glosses that can be shown to be an integral part of the text (again, like our footnotes). This is because I’m interested in the ways in which glosses both reflect and shape ideas about authorship in the period – and specifically, in how they shape the writers’ own views. Because they are both part of the text and slightly separate from it, they are fertile ground for experiment; they often quite literally make visible some of the assumptions that a writer has about what kind of authority he has as a writer, what kind of text he is writing, and how it should be read. Sometimes it even seems that the glosses prompt him (it always is a ‘him’) to reconsider those assumptions and alter the way he presents his text accordingly.”

The book, published by Oxford University Press, is the result of a long period of research and writing. Jane began planning it while a lecturer at Teddy Hall in 2005, and it went with her to lectureships at Edinburgh and Bristol, and back to Oxford in 2012.
Jane clarifies the pun in the book title: “Although the majority of glosses, both in manuscript and in print, are entirely sober, elucidating the text or citing sources for it, I’ve concentrated particularly on a surprisingly significant subset: the glosses that don’t make sense. I first came across these in the course of writing my previous book, on the Tudor poet John Skelton; several of his poems include glosses that are ostentatiously nonsensical. (For example, one of them translates from his original Latin as ‘Obscure sarcasm’, another as ‘Something badly put together on purpose’.) I characterized these as ‘diverting’ for the fairly obvious reason that they’re liable both to amuse and to distract; this book began with questions as to why such playful glossing is so common in sixteenth-century texts – and specifically with the question whether it might have something to do with the increasingly common use of print. The investigation led me back to the early 14th century and forward to the beginning of the 17th, taking in a wonderfully diverse range of writers who are seriously unserious, and who allowed me to link changing ideas about authorship to changing methods of book production.”

Diverting Authorities examines the glossing of a variety of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century texts by authors including Lydgate, Douglas, Chaloner, Baldwin, Bullein, Harington, and Nashe. It is concerned particularly with the use of glosses as a means for authors to reflect on the process of shaping a text, and with the emergence of the gloss as a self-consciously literary form. One of the main questions it addresses is to what extent the advent of print affects glossing practices.

  • Jane Griffiths

    Jane Griffiths