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The Reader-Rubricator: A type not often found

Morgan E. Aronson has recently departed the Smithsonian Libraries but was previously the library technician at the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology.

The role of the rubricator in early printed texts is often curtailed to that of a useful book decorator, a person with red (and sometimes blue) ink who guides the book’s reader with helpful indicators like colored initials, paragraph marks, initial-strokes, and underlining. Each individual who undertook the responsibility of rubrication often interpreted their duty differently, leaving a unique canon of rubrication for scholars to interpret. Though traditional types of rubrication have been studied, this short analysis of one text will bring to light a rubricator engaging with the text beyond the rubricator’s traditional scope.

One aspect of rubrication upon which most scholars agree is that rubrication developed as an aid to the reader, as a way to articulate the text—creating a hierarchical system of signals within the book to reveal an otherwise buried textual structure. But what happens when we find a pattern of rubrication that doesn’t quite fit even this broad generalization of the role? The Smithsonian Libraries’ Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology holds a 1493 copy of Solinus’ De memora[bi]libus mundi. Though not a very rare text in itself, this copy features a rare style of “reader-rubrication” which stretches the boundaries of the traditional interpretation of the role to the point where the line between rubricator and reader becomes blurred.

Solinus’ Polyhistor

Solinus was a mid-third century compiler who used materials from many sources, including Pliny’s Natural History, when writing this, his most well-known work. De memora[bi]libus mundi, better known under its title of Polyhistor, is a collection of memorable things in world history, with sections related to geography, historical events, religion, customs, and even natural history. This copy was printed in 1493, meaning it can be categorized as an incunabulum (from the infancy of printing, prior to 1501). Rubrication in incunabula is less often studied than in manuscripts, but scholars like Margaret M. Smith have made great strides in developing an understanding of the function of rubrication during this chaotic time in the history of print. While manuscript scribes often left notes, in the form of annotations, to the rubricator in a book’s margin, that form of communication is less practical once the scribe is replaced by a printing press. There were attempts by early printers to also mechanize rubrication, and Smith explains this effort underlines the importance of rubrication even in the age of early print. But the cost and difficulty of mechanized rubrication meant that hand rubrication was still prioritized until the late 15th century. Still, in the early era of print, with punctuation and finding apparatus not always prioritized by the printer, there was still ample opportunity for scribal interpretive intervention.

Title page from De memora[bi]libus mundi (1493).
The Dibner copy of De memora[bi]libus mundi is a relatively late incunabula, from the time period when rubrication was occurring on an increasingly small proportion of books produced. Smith estimates that by the end of the 15th century, just around 50 years after Gutenberg’s invention, less than half of all incunabula were rubricated. Rather than exhibiting circumscribed use of red, however, the rubricator of this copy seems to have taken full advantage of this time period’s more fluid use of rubrication. Quite unusually, this copy has what appears to be rubrication that likely occurred after the book was first annotated (i.e. read), not before.

Traditional and Non-Traditional Rubrication

Smith identifies the principle manifestations of rubrication as enlarged initials, paragraph marks, initial-strokes, and underlining. Most of these are evident in De memora[bi]libus. Red paragraph marks are most common before chapter headings, but can also be seen within text blocks designating new sections. The initial-stroke, a line of red ink through a capital letter, is ubiquitous, appearing in large numbers of every page. These traditional uses of rubrication help us to identify the process of rubrication occurring beyond simply the use of red ink.

Page from De memora[bi]libus mundi, showing space where large illuminated initial would typically appear.
The traditional use of enlarged initials and underlining prompt the first rumblings of uncertainty around this rubricator’s work. Quite typically for this time period the printer of this text left room for larger initials to be drawn in by hand—normally by a rubricator or scribe. To aid in this effort, small director letters would be printed that help the rubricator confirm that they are drawing in the correct initial. In this copy, there were no enlarged manuscript initials in these empty blocks of space. Rather, when the printer didn’t include a director initial, oftentimes the rubricator wrote one in—an unusual, deliberate choice that was clearly entirely functional, quickly writing in a missing letter to ensure accurate reading of the text, rather than decorative.

In addition to the rubrication, this is a heavily annotated text. The active reader, or annotator, represented by the dark ink, should not be conflated with the rubricator. The annotator took on few of the traditional rubric functions, choosing to add to the text rather than explain its structure. The writing in dark ink appears both in the margins and in-between lines of text and mostly consists of larger heading-style words that relate to a point in the text, like a place name, and small notes underneath and within the text. It is clear that two distinct hands completed the two separate functions of annotating and rubricating. There are obvious stylistic differences in the hand, with the capital letter D an especially clear indication. With the identity of the rubricator now made distinctly separate from the annotator, it is possible to delve deeper into the unusual style of reader-rubrication seen in this text.

Annotations in De memora[bi]libus mundi.
The rubricator of this text did participate in the traditional underlining, paragraph marking, and initial-stroking that is normally assigned to the duties of the rubricator. Most interestingly, however, the rubricator applied these not only sections of text and titles but also to the annotations in the margin! This is an action more so within the realm of reader functions than rubricator. The annotations are thoroughly rubricated, from the margins to the leaf of annotations tipped in. The annotations feature both red initial-strokes in the capital letters and red underlining. The style of rubrication of the annotations and the text are very similar, with the initial stroke and the underline often formed in one stroke instead of two, creating a long “L” instead of a vertical stroke separate from the long horizon stroke. This indicates that the rubrication of the printed text and the annotations were done concurrently; supporting the suggestion that this is a rare case of the annotations being written prior to the primary text’s rubrication.

Page from De memora[bi]libus mundi showing annotations and page number, “A”.
Another indication of the unusual order of this book’s rubrication are the page numbers. Page numbers were not a permanent feature of the printed page during the incunabula period and were often added later, by a rubricator, reader, or even librarian or cataloger. In this case the book’s numbering (in letters beginning with A) was added by the rubricator in the same bright red ink. All of the letters appear above the first line of text on the right-hand page in a typical fashion called foliation, in which each leaf is counted, rather than pagination, when each page is counted. All of the letters appear in the position described save one, the “A”—the first numbered page of the book. Substantial annotations appear at the head of this page, making any attempt to place the page letter in it’s proper place difficult. Rather than choose to obscure any of the notes likely already in place, our rubricator chose to place the “A” between the chapter title and the first section of text. This unusual placement is never replicated, though there is evidence of the page letter position adjusted to fit in between top margin annotations on later pages. The rubricator was clearly accommodating annotations that existed prior to his work.

Manicules and Inclusive Marks

The evidence collected from this special incunabula creates a narrative of a very different type of rubricator than those typically discussed. This rubricator was a reader, and not this book’s first. The purpose of the rubrication was not solely to enable a better reading of the text, but also to facilitate understanding of even the annotations previously written within. The purpose of the rubrication in this case was certainly not decorative, nor solely guiding. The rubrication was neither performed by a professional scribe or rubricator before the purchase of the book’s pages, as can be seen from the rubricated tipped in leaf, nor was it absolutely necessary to the correct interpretation of the text, based on the older annotations. Even more compelling is the unique style of rubrication that reveals a very clear interaction with the text, the drawing of 45 manicules (pointing hands) in 102 pages, going far beyond the work of a useful book decorator to show a true engagement with the book’s content.

Page from De memora[bi]libus mundi showing manicules.
This “reader-rubricator” left behind a curious work. It is a rare example of the traditional rubrication work of text articulation completed after the book had been, for the most part, read and annotated at least once. It also presents a new way of looking at the rubricator. Not as a sterile component of a text’s production but as an engaged participant in the transmission of the work. Though by its nature this 1493 edition of De memora[bi]libus mundi is a rare book, it is this reader-rubricator’s unusual extensive efforts that make it special.

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