Inventory of Syntactically-Glossed Manuscripts

What are syntactical glosses? Syntactical glosses (also known as construe marks) are symbols, codes, or prompts entered in a manuscript that help a reader to understand the structure of the text’s language. In western medieval manuscripts, the glossed text is normally Latin. Syntactical glossing may employ letters, dots, squiggles, or other symbols, or words either in Latin or in the vernacular.

Most published work on syntactical glosses has focused on manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany, and from Insular centres on the Continent, ranging in date from the ninth to the twelfth centuries. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a large body of glosses from other areas and from the later Middle Ages, and there may well be glosses earlier than those that have been documented so far. It has been suggested that the practice may originate in Greek or Syriac manuscript traditions, but our knowledge of the chronology and distribution of the practice is so limited that we cannot say with certainty where it began or how it spread. Anyone who has filled a Latin text with penciled arrows and brackets knows that it has not ended.

The Inventory project aims to expand our understanding of syntactical glossing beyond the observation of the phenomenon in individual manuscripts. We hope to identify a much larger number of syntactically-glossed manuscripts than has been studied heretofore, and thereby to be able to:

  • Establish a more complete typology of syntactical glossing
  • Define the chronological and geographical scope of the phenomenon
  • Date and localize the various types of glosses
  • Better understand the relationship between syntactical glossing and developments in grammar teaching and linguistics during the Middle Ages

The inventory’s wide-angle view of glossing practice across medieval Europe (and beyond) should enhance our understanding of the reception of Latin texts in particular times and places and tell us new things about practical applications of the development of syntactical doctrine in the Middle Ages. The taxonomy of glossing types to be used in and refined by the Inventory will be a tool that can be used in future to document the presence of syntactical glosses when describing or cataloguing manuscripts.

How you can help: That larger view of the phenomenon will be made possible by the new and constantly-growing accessibility of digitized manuscripts online, plus crowdsourced contributions from scholars working with manuscripts for other purposes. If you work with manuscripts, we hope that you will take a few moments to read about the types of syntactical glossing we know about and look at example images, so you can be alert to marks that might be syntactical glosses if you see them. If you do find something you think might be syntactical glosses, please report the manuscript to us. We will credit your contribution, analyze the glosses you report, and let you know how what you have found relates to the gloss types we have identified.

This project is focused on syntactical glossing in Latin manuscripts, but we are also eager to hear about glossed manuscripts from other traditions that may shed light on the origins or diffusion of the practice in the Latin West.