Hashtags in the margins

Today, I saw in the margins of a 1576 copy of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs a familiar sight:

I couldn’t be clear where the ink came from, whether it were a librarian’s annotation, an enthusiastic Victorian’s ink, or a genuine early modern annotation, possibly from a period shortly after printing.  Elizabeth Evenden, a fascinating writer on John Day, the printer of Book of Martyrs (or Actes and Monuments, to give it the original abbreviated title), and Thomas S. Freeman have discovered that Foxe himself annotated his manuscript papers with a ‘hash’, to indicate the places necessary for cutting, often underlining the word from which to begin editing.

It seems highly unlikely that this 1576 third-edition, which received little amendments from its 1570 predecessor (first publication in 1563), would have had Foxe’s own hand on it, but the hash was certainly a symbol of marginal annotation during the period.  Marking the ‘othe of the Clergie to the kyng’, as it does here, the second hashtag appears over the page, half-way through the oath:

Underlining several of the words in this ‘note’, something has clearly provoked this reader’s attention.  There is very little other marginalia throughout this particular text, making the two hashtags here especially odd.  Perhaps he or she was frustrated at the odd printed marginal comment, ‘a note’, which provides little explication and no navigational help. Whomever the reader, they had certainly marked the page for reference, either dissatisfied with the editorial practice or intrigued by content that tackles Henry VIII’s divorce.

Whenever the ink was laid and whatever the mark meant, it certainly piqued my curiosity on a boiling Monday morning in the library, especially considering the potential social space of the early modern margin (with no recourse to Facebook in a wireless-less medieval library).  In a book as large and public as Book of Martyrs, compulsory in churches from 1571, it is quite possible that the margins would be used to indicate certain signs to mass readers, making the parallel between Twitter and the penned hashtag explicit.  In this small and singular example, though, it seems the mark can only represent a personal prompt or reminder: one that looks teasingly editorial.  #libraryfun #oldbooks #confused


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