Ancient Marginalia: Return of The Bishop’s Fist

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.


Keeping content from getting out of hand since 1100 AD.

There is a form of marginalia that was popular for 600 years.  That’s a long time for any sociocultural activity to persist. How long is 600 years? Columbus sailed the ocean blue 600 years ago – that’s how long.  This must’ve been one solid form of marking up one’s reading.

It has been out of favor for over 200 years. That’s also a long time.  However, historical observation persistently evokes that folksy bit of Cylon wisdom – all of this has happened before and will happen again.  In other words, this handy practice never really went away and, in fact, deserves a solid return to its rightful place in our #postbook reading practices.

We are referring to the hand drawn pointing-finger symbols one finds in ancient manuscripts, dusty scrolls, and nearly three hundred years of printed books from the 12th century to the 18th centuries.  Referred to as a manicule, index, digit, or most elaborately, as ‘the bishop’s fist’, this mark “…may be the most common symbol produced both for and by readers…“.  Why?  And where did it go?handofgod

In was indeed a very helpful practice on several levels. The manicule provided readers (and later printers and publishers) with a means of creating personalized wayfinding and (literal) indexing.  Certainly, many of us do this now with little squiggles and checkmarks.  The ancients, however, spent more energy on their marginalia.  Elaborate manicules sported long nails and frilly cuffs. And everyone had their own style. The function here is more than wayfinding – it is personalization.  This form of ‘handwriting’ allowed one’s marginalia to be identifiable.


Photo by Nick Sherman

The manicule was at once a user-generated avatar and wayfinding marker on a social reading platform.  As such, it persisted and flourished for hundreds of years. Those relatively sparse scrolls and early books were passed along and passed down more fluidly than in the later book era, when books became ubiquitous and isolated. It was this isolation that eventually banished the manicule. Abundant and isolated texts do not require personalized margins.

The manicule did not just go away.  The bishop’s fist was co-opted by early printers as a skeuomorph (how ironic is a printer’s stamp of a manicule?) and by sign painters (look here!).  The Fist returns again with early GUI, albeit in a robot glove, masking individuality.  The GUI manicule unveiled in 1980 is an everyman’s fist – literal signage of the Digital Revolution’s earliest days. GUI_manicule

As the behavior and sociology of #postbook reading evolve, there’s opportunity for a return of a bishop’s fist. Clearly, personalized shared marginalia was central to reading for long while. Now that reading platforms are social again (and this time abundant too), we can put the digit back in digital and continue the experiment abandoned 200 years ago.

Expert Publishing Blog
Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

About Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

Corey is an anthropologist, futurist, author, and speaker. He is busy imagining and enacting our digital future as Director of Experience Strategy at Neologic, a Portland-based agency and imagination lab. A Fellow of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, Corey regularly publishes and presents on the past, present, and future of media. He recently contributed the closing chapter to the book Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture.

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