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Medieval colophons: A variety of scribal annotations
By Óskar Völundarson
TXT, Vol.1 (2016)
Introduction: Take a walk around any city or urban area and chances are you will see a fair amount of graffiti on the walls, often imaginative and colourful, though not always pretty. These are signs of people marking their territory, putting a personal stamp on their environment. Similarly, go to the movies and stay through the end credits to see every single lighting assistant and coffee-provider enumerated. Very few read the credits, yet everyone has to be listed. There is a sense of the crew wanting to have their work acknowledged in some way.
This impulse is not exclusive to modern society. The people who had the means to leave a written mark back in the Middle Ages, principally the medieval scribes, in some cases did exactly that. The annotations left by these professional copyists in medieval manuscripts are called colophons. Though the colophons are not as anarchic as street graffiti tends to be, both can be seen as personal marks. They are examples of people making a note of their existence. It is important to note that colophons are only found in a relatively small number of manuscripts. They were not a standard practice and are therefore often, or so it seems, down to the whim of the scribe.
The colophons vary greatly in their content, but can include both formal information such as dates, place names and the name of a scribe, as well as personal messages from the scribe to the reader, or even to the heavens. Although this information can give a lot of insight into the circumstances of book production and the origin of manuscripts, the medieval scribe is not a completely reliable authority. Like other historical sources, a single colophon‘s authority has to be evaluated in the context of what we know to be true of colophon writing in general. This article examines both the variety of the colophons and the uncertainty regarding some of their content.