Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.


My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in an upcoming special edition of History of Education Quarterly and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast, both of which will be linked here once live.  

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd

[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).

The Art of Imprecise, Imperfect Interpretation: Using the Manuscript Annotations of Piers Plowman as Evidence for the History of Reading

In grade school, I was never one to resist the advice of a teacher. So, when told that successful study habits included taking notes, underlining, and starring right in the book itself, that is precisely what I did. Those teachers were right, of course, and I find myself often repeating the same advice to my own students despite their frequent resistance to marring the pristine pages of their soon to be resold copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. What I did not know in grade school, however, was that writing in my books meant participating in an ancient tradition of responding to and even interpreting texts, and that one day I would write an entire dissertation about how medieval readers read by studying the evidence left behind by the medieval and early modern readers of a famously unstable text called Piers Plowman by William Langland.

The truth is that people have pretty much always written in their books and, sometimes, books belonging to others as well—rubricating, annotating, bracketing, scribbling, doodling, and more. Whether those readers responded in sparse intervals, limiting their voice on the page to vague marks, or, in contrast, wrote intensely, vociferously inscribing their presence irrevocably onto the page and into the text itself, these voices often remain the best extant evidence available for scholars attempting to understand the reception history of an author whose earliest readers have long since passed.

One example of a vocal, reform-minded reader can be found in an early modern household manuscript copied by Sir Adrian Fortescue, a distant relative of Anne Boleyn executed by Henry VIII for some unknown act of treason.[1] His manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 145, contains a personalized, conflated copy of what we now call the A and C versions of Piers Plowman alongside a political treatise written by Adrian’s uncle, John Fortescue, called The Governance of England. Filled with annotations in the hands of at least three readers, this book documents a series of responses made over time by Adrian, his wife Anne (who signs her name in Latin!), and the unknown Hand B.[2] The conversations among these readers make this record of reader responses particularly special, but it is Hand B, the subject of this post, that becomes the most reactionary to some of Langland’s biting criticisms of the Church.[3]

Hand B’s responses become increasingly inflammatory in the poem’s apocalyptic final few Passūs. In fact, he goes so far as to conflate the pope and the Antichrist in two of his annotations. The first annotation appears next to a passage in which Langland criticizes the schismatic pope for his role in the spilling of Christian blood:

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 145, fol. 121v. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

þe poppa/                  And god amend the pope that pelith holy chirche

                                                   And claymyth before the kyng • to be kepar ouer crysten

                                         And countith not though cristen be kyllid & robbid

ô very Antechrist             And fyndith folk to fight & cristene blode to spylle.[4]

The annotation, “O Very Antichrist,” transforms Langland’s corrupt pope into the face of the Apocalypse itself, an even more extreme condemnation of immoral papal behavior than Langland’s. This annotation also lays the groundwork for his second conflation in which he identifies Langland’s Antichrist as the pope, writing “puppa [sic]” next to the line, “And a fals fend antecriste ouer al folke reynyd.”[5] Here Hand B reads the Antichrist’s extensive and increasing worldly authority as the same as that belonging to the pope. In both instances, the annotator melds the Antichrist and pope, two separate entities in the poem, into a single figure responsible for an eschatological catastrophe. In some ways, Hand B’s sixteenth-century reactions to this medieval poem make sense amidst a backdrop of increasing religious instability in Henry VIII’s England. Perhaps Hand B saw in the unstable papal seat produced by the Schism a parallel with the splintering of religious power between Rome and Henry leading up to and during the English Reformation.

Beyond these historical inferences, however, what exactly do Hand B’s strong, reform-minded reader responses teach us about the identity of this reader and his interpretation of the poem? In fact, it tells us both a lot and not very much at all. He clearly disagrees with the ecclesiastical corruption that he sees as trickling down from the Church’s highest seat of power, and he reacts strongly, even emotionally, as he inscribes his interpretive voice onto the page. Piers Plowman’s ending evokes a passionate, rather than objective, response from this reader, who adds his own polemical lament to Langland’s verse. This reader provides just one example of the strong personal investment that Langland’s early audiences felt when reading Piers.[6] He also demonstrates how reading and interpreting literature can aid in the formation and circulation of reformist ideas, especially in precarious times.

However, to what end Hand B voices his cry for reform remains unclear. Without knowing his identity, his exact purpose is impossible to discern because he could be either a Catholic hoping for ecclesiastical reform or a Reformation era Protestant. Adrian’s manuscript stayed in his family until Bodley eventually bought it, increasing the likelihood that Hand B was a family member, or at least a close affiliate. Moreover, the Fortescues maintained their Catholic identity throughout the period, but that does not mean that every single member of the family necessarily adopted the exact same religious practices and beliefs. Without word choices that obviously indicate one camp or the other, the greater social implications of Hand B’s readerly perspectives lead to fuzzy conclusions at best. The enigma of whether he desires institutional change or seeks an altogether new institution of faith must by necessity remain unsolved, at least for now. For this reason, scholars must, with care, entertain multiple possibilities, sometimes foregoing exactness and precision when faced with limited evidence for a text’s reception history. Hand B actually teaches us a great deal more about his reading of Piers than many other annotators, but, as is the case with so many historical records of literary readership, his reader responses still require a certain level of imprecise, imperfect, and even incomplete interpretation.[7]

Karrie Fuller, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

[1] For Adrian’s biography, see Richard Rex, “Blessed Adrian Fortescue: A Martyr without a Cause?,” Analecta Bollandiana 115 (1997): 307-53.

[2] On Anne Fortescue, see Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, “The Women Readers in Langland’s Earliest Audience: Some Codicological Evidence,” in Learning and Literacy in Medieval England and Abroad, ed. Sarah Rees-Jones (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002), 121-34. On the identification of Hand B, see Thorlac Turville-Petre, “Sir Adrian Fortescue and His Copy of Piers Plowman,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 14 (2000): 29-48.

[3] For my full analysis of these readers’ annotations, see Karrie Fuller, “Langland in the Early Modern Household: Piers Plowman in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 145, and Its Scribe-Annotator Dialogues,” in New Directions in Medieval Manuscript Studies and Reading Practices: Essays in Honor of Derek Pearsall, eds. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, John J. Thompson, and Sarah Baechle (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014), 324-341.

[4] Transcription mine, fol. 121v. The equivalent lines appear in C.XXI.446-449 in A.V.C. Schmidt, Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C, and Z Versions, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Kalamazoo: MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2011).

[5] Transcription mine, fol. 124r; C.22.64 in Schmidt.

[6] For another example, see Kathryn Kerby-Fulton’s transcription and discussion of the annotations in Bodleian Library MS Douce 104 in Iconography and the Professional Reader: The Politics of Book Production in the Douce “Piers Plowman” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[7] Examples of more terse annotations, which tend to be more characteristic of B-text manuscripts, can be found in David Benson and Lynne Blanchfield, The Manuscripts of Piers Plowman: The B-Version (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997).

Reading Between (and Around) the Lines: An Introduction to Glosses and Commentaries

When looking at medieval manuscripts for the first time, one might notice smaller words inserted between the lines of the primary text. Called interlinear glosses, this type of addition can be divided into two kinds: lexical and suppletive. The former typically provides explanations of difficult vocabulary, while the latter might explain a point of grammar. Unsurprisingly, they were useful for students who were learning Latin [i], as glosses might explain a challenging turn of phrase or a grammatical sticking point. Although many were added in Latin, they might be written in any number of other languages. The Lindisfarne Gospels, a famous manuscript from the early 8th century, has Old English glosses added by Aldred, provost of Chester-le-Street in the 10th century.

Latin Interlinear Gloss in The Psychomachia of Aurelius Prudentius, (BL Additional MS 24199, f.5r)

While interlinear glosses can provide information about the language mechanics of the primary text, they can also direct the reader’s attention and shape comprehension of the selection at hand. The introduction of definitions and sentence scaffolding can alter the reader’s experience, potentially producing a new understanding of the central text.

Glosses, as opposed to some instances of impulsive marginalia, were rarely spontaneous [ii], but were typically added to a volume and included in subsequent copies. On some occasions, the scribe copying the manuscript might mistake an interlinear gloss for part of the main text and reproduce it in the body of a new document [iii], an error which can even survive into subsequent translations [iv].

Interlinear Glosses and Commentary on Hosea. The differences in script size and color help guide the reader through the page. (BL Harley MS 1700, f. 2)

In addition to interlinear glosses, a text might share the page with a commentary, granting the reader access to critical interpretation as they progress. Commentaries were not limited by genre and could be composed for many different types of texts, from poetry to theology. Although early manuscripts may have been more simply formatted, by the Carolingian period, the page was being fashioned with one column for the primary text and a second for the commentary [v]. The side-by-side layout allowed readers to shift back and forth between the base text and the critical interpretation without having to retrieve other books (which may not have been readily available). By the twelfth century, the Glossa ordinaria by Nicholas of Lyra, which features an even further integrated format [vi], was becoming the authoritative biblical commentary [vii].

For the 21st century reader, the sheer amount of text might seem overwhelming at first, but following the hierarchy of scripts, one can sort out the interlinear glosses and commentary from the foundation text. In the example above from BL Harley MS 1700, the reader can start with the largest letter: an illuminated “U”. This introduces Uerbum (“word”) which becomes the first word of the verse and forms the beginning of the biblical passage. The widely spaced text allows the interlinear gloss to be written between the lines in a smaller hand. The large text blocks around the central section form the commentary and provide a close reading of the biblical text, proceeding line by line and word by word.

Interlinear Gloss and Commentary on Psalms 19 and 20 (BL Additional MS 37517, f.13)

Beyond providing close readings, detailed explanations, and citations for related materials, commentaries were enormously influential in the understanding and translation of texts into the vernacular. Their content even impacted the work of contemporaneous vernacular authors [viii]. By understanding that glosses and medieval commentaries were often integrated with a text, some of  the resources and habits of medieval readers come into focus. Attention to exegesis and the resulting proliferation of commentaries ensured that many readers would have encountered these critical tools and their impact on translation and interpretation was widely felt. The commentaries and glosses which survive in manuscripts (but are infrequently included in modern print editions) provide present-day scholars context that can shape how reception and reading cultures are understood. As noted by Alastair Minnis in his book Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages, “One might go so far as to say that it is the original text together with its accompanying commentary… that should be regarded as the source.”[ix]


Kristen Herdman
MA Student
Department of Classics
Case Western Reserve University



[i] F. A. C. Mantello and Arthur George Rigg. Medieval Latin: an Introduction and Bibliographical Guide. (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press,1999),  95.

[ii] Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 39.

[iii] Ibid., 39

[iv] Ralph Hanna, Tony Hunt, R.G. Keightley, Alastair Minnis, and Nigel Palmer, “Latin commentary tradition and vernacular literature” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Vol. 2, Vol. 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), 364.

[v] Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Paleography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 28.

[vi] Ibid., 217.

[vii] Rafey Habib. A History of Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to the Present. (Malden, Mass: Blackwell Pub, 2008), 176.

[viii] Alastair Minnis. Medieval theory of authorship: scholastic literary attitudes in the later Middle Ages. (London: Scolar Press, 1987), xxix.

[ix] Ibid., xxx.