‘If the Page satisfie not, inquire in the Margine’

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me tweet a poor image of this sentence a couple of times in the past, with the hashtag #JohnSelden, the seventeenth-century author whose work I have been studying over the past year. I started tweeting it a while back as a response to a couple of citations from John Selden that do the rounds on Twitter, apparently specifically among its droves of spam accounts. Facetiously, I claimed to aim to have the sentence picked up by the bots instead of, say, ‘While you are upon the earth, enjoy the good things that are here’:

While you areSo far, I failed in that aim, but people seem to like the ‘Margine’ tweet, and it usually attracts about ten retweets, and regularly a nice comment or two. This week, however, I went to the new Weston Library of the Bodleian, and because it was #MarginaliaMonday I took a new picture, which looks much, much nicer, and tweeted it:

In a day, it and two MTs based on it attracted a hundred retweets, which I thought was remarkable for a tweet that was meant to be part of a book historical running gag. It also made me realize, however, that perhaps it was time to get serious about the quote: what does it mean exactly?

The sentence comes from Poly-Olbion, a poem by Michael Drayton about the British landscape and British history, to which John Selden wrote a prose commentary, called, somewhat confusingly, ‘illustrations’. The work is now perhaps best known for its imaginative maps, samples of which can be seen on the Poly-Olbion Project website. It was first published, in 1612, as a series of eighteen songs about England and Wales (the northern part of England was to follow in 1622, a planned volume on Scotland never appeared). In 1613, this first volume of the work was re-issued with an additional title page, and with a selective index to subjects discussed in Selden’s commentary: ‘A table to the chiefest passages, in the Illustrations, which, worthiest of observation, are not directed unto by the course of the volume.’ It is in the margin to this final part of the sentence that we find the note.

With the phrase ‘directed unto by the course of the volume’, Selden points at the chorographical organization of the work: as the eighteen songs each deal with a specific geography within England and Wales, and each has a brief introduction to the geography treated in that particular song, the overall geographical organization of the work should suffice to guide interested readers to commentary to particular locations; the table was meant for those subjects that could not easily be located in that way, such as specific people (e.g., Arthur; Madoc), peoples (Saxons; Stuarts), and a myriad of other subjects (e.g., ‘Lipsius deceiv’d about Bearing the Dragon’; ‘Sheepe cloathed to save their wool’). Page numbers to each subject in the table direct the reader to the place where a subject can be found discussed in the ‘illustrations’. These prose commentaries, linked to specific verses in the poetry, are themselves accompanied by extensive notes in the margins, akin to our footnotes to academic writing, offering translations, source references, and occasionally additional explanations or digressions. The note ‘If the Page satisfie not, inquire in the Margine’, here, then, means: if you look for a subject indicated in the table, and you notice you can’t find it in the main text column, look at the notes in the margin to see if the subject is mentioned there.

In short, the meaning of the sentence is at the same time more prosaic, but perhaps also more interesting, than it seems at first sight: no, it does not mean that the margins are more exciting than the main text column; but within its context, it does bear witness to an early modern author’s preoccupation with how his work appeared on the page.

P.S. The sentence is also the title of a paper on the layout of the Poly-Olbion which I have recently submitted for publication to the Journal of Illustration Studies, which is open access, so with some luck I can update this post with a link to the published article in a couple of months.

P.P.S. There have been a number of interesting comments on twitter about this post, which made me think a little more about why exactly the image received so much attention; part of the explanation, I think, lies in the parallels between marginalia and twitter itself, which has been written about by Dorothy Kim. That made me wonder if we should be thinking through the implications of those parallels in relation to printed marginalia with reference to manipulated timelines (such as those of Facebook)?

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