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5 Characters from the Margins of Ancient Texts

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Keith Houston's new book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, Indiebound, and Powell's.

The margins of books have always been a playground for their readers’ notes, doodles, and questions. From the Library of Alexandria to Europe’s medieval monasteries, here are five ancient symbols that helped readers make sense of their books.

1. Paragraphos


Ménandre: Sicyoniens; MP 3 1308.1. inv. 2272 e. Image courtesy of Jean Gascou of the Institut de Papyrologie, Paris Sorbonne.

An ancient Greek of Homer’s time would have had their work cut out when it came to reading. Documents were written so that their text flowed from left to right and back again, like a farmer plowing a field, with no spaces between words, capital letters, or punctuation to help them find their way. The one glimmer in the darkness was provided by the paragraphos, a simple horizontal stroke drawn beside or just under a line of text. A paragraphos (from para-, “beside,” and graphein, “to write”) told the reader that there was something of interest in the associated text, though not what that thing was: It could be a change in speaker in a play, a new chapter, or anything else besides, and it was up to the reader to decipher its meaning.

2. Diple


Diples, an obelos, and paragraphoi in a reproduction of Homer. (“Book 12.” In Homeri Ilias Cum Scholiis. Codex Venetus A, Marcianus 454 Phototypice Editus, 161v. Lugduni Batavorum: A. W. Sijthoff, 1901.) Courtesy of Stoa.org.

Punctuation, from the Latin punctus, or “point,” first appeared at the library of Alexandria in Egypt during the third century BC. While the paragraphos was for writers, points were for readers: Texts were often read aloud, and readers would mark up their works with points placed at different heights (·, ., and ˙) to indicate pauses of increasing duration. Only a generation later, editors and copyeditors too were granted their own dedicated marks, beginning with the diple, or “double” (>, ⸖, or ·>). Made popular by Aristarchus, a scholar editing Homer’s epic poetry, the diple was like the paragraphos in that it was used to highlight a line containing some interesting feature. But where the paragraphos evolved into the pilcrow (¶), or paragraph mark, the diple instead gave rise to the inverted commas (“ ”) used to surround words quoted from other texts.

3. Asterisk

A bevy of asterisks in a reproduction of Homer. (“Book 1.” In Homeri Ilias Cum Scholiis. Codex Venetus A, Marcianus 454 Phototypice Editus, 33r. Lugduni Batavorum: A. W. Sijthoff, 1901.) Courtesy of Stoa.org.

Aristarchus, the ancient Greek scholar who popularized the diple, is famous for the palette of “Aristarchean” marks with which he edited texts: the diple, the asteriskos, and the obelos. The asteriskos, or “little star,” was placed alongside lines that had been mistakenly duplicated; mistakes were numerous because texts were copied by hand, and Homer’s ancient poetry was riddled with errors. The asteriskos (※), of course, became the modern asterisk (*), which can still be found in the margin (albeit at the bottom of the page) where it acts as a footnote reference. Nowadays the asterisk is often applied to the names of athletes or celebrities who have been somehow embarrassed or discredited, implying that their achievements come with an accusing footnote. Lance Armstrong, who doped his way to seven Tours de France, and George W. Bush, whose 2000 election victory was won in the courts, have both been criticized by journalists wielding asterisks.

4. Dagger

Daggers and double daggers, or dieses. Top row, left to right: Linotype Didot, Big Caslon (Carter & Cone Type), Hoefler Text (Apple), and Zapfino (Linotype); bottom row, left to right: Helvetica (Linotype), Skia (Apple), Courier New (Microsoft), and Museo Slab (Jos Buivenga). Image by the author.

The obelos, or “roasting spit,” was the third and last of Aristarchus’s marks. The dash-like obelos (—, though it was sometime decorated with a pair of dots to give ÷) was placed alongside lines to be deleted, with one seventh century writer explaining that “like an arrow, [the obelos] slays the superfluous and pierces the false.” Over the centuries the obelos morphed into the dagger (†), which has maintained its partnership with the asterisk through thick and thin. Both symbols are used to link footnotes to the main body of text, though in some European countries they have an extra meaning, telling readers when someone was born—“Herman Melville (*1819)”—or when they died—“(†1891).” The dagger is often now confused with the Christian cross, and many fonts include daggers that are simply crosses by another name.

5. Manicule

A very pious manicule drawn in the margin of an early printed book. Image courtesy of the Penn Provenance Project.

As writers started to borrow the punctuation and other marks (like the diple) that readers and editors had once used, readers found themselves without a standard way to highlight interesting text. Towards the end of the medieval period, when a new wave of secular scholarship swept across Europe, a new mark appeared that let readers do just that. The manicule, index, or pointing hand (☞) cropped up in the margins of Renaissance manuscripts wherever readers found a sentence or paragraph they wished to highlight for future reference. Some of these pointing hands were little more than bookmarks, while others came with voluminous sleeves on which their creators added their thoughts on the text. Manicules were not just for stuffy, academic notes, either: Instead of pointing hands, some readers chose to annotate their books with spidery octopuses or even little pointing penises.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Found: A Sunken German World War I-Era Submarine
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SMU Central University Libraries, Flickr/Public Domain

During World War I, one of Germany's most formidable weapons was the U-boat, an advanced military submarine with torpedoes that sank countless Allied merchant and cargo ships. But while deadly, these submersibles weren't invincible, as evidenced by the recent discovery of a sunken German U-boat in the North Sea.

As ABC News reports, researchers located the UB II-type dive boat—a smaller submarine that typically plagued coastal waters—off the coast of Belgium, around 82 to 98 feet below the North Sea. The 88-foot vessel appears to have struck a mine with its upper deck, judging by damage suffered to its front.

The submarine is remarkably intact. Two of its torpedo tubes were destroyed, but one of them is still in good condition. The ship itself remained sealed, and may serve as a watery grave for up to 23 crew members.

The U-boat's final resting place hasn't been announced, as to prevent looting or damage, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, Belgian officials have contacted the German ambassador to see how they should proceed with any potential remains.

This isn't the first time a World War I-era U-boat has been found in Belgian waters. Experts have catalogued 11 such discoveries so far, but this one is reported to be the best preserved. The Chicago Tribune reports that since 18 U-boats were stationed in Bruges between 1915 and 1918, and 13 of them were destroyed, there might be even more of these kinds of finds to come.

[h/t ABC News]

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Weird
The Long, Strange Story of Buffalo Bill's Corpse
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You probably know William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, as the long-haired Wild West icon who turned the frontier experience into rip-roarin’ entertainment. But the story of Buffalo Bill’s body and its many burials is almost as outrageous as the man himself.

When Cody died of kidney failure in January 1917, his body ended up on a mountain outside of Denver, Colorado—a counterintuitive choice given his close ties to the town in Wyoming that bore his last name. Cody, Wyoming was founded in the 1890s with help from Buffalo Bill, who employed many of its residents and was responsible for its tourism business. It might seem natural that he’d be buried in the place he’d invested so much in, but he wasn’t. And that’s where the controversy began.

Though Cody spent much of his time in the town named after him, he also loved Colorado. After leaving his family in Kansas when he was just 11 to work with wagon trains throughout the West, he headed to Colorado for the first time as a 13-year-old wannabe gold prospector. During his short time in the area, he chased the glittery fortunes promised by Colorado’s 1859 gold rush. Even after leaving the territory, his traveling vaudeville show, which brought a glamorous taste of Wild West life to people all over the United States, took him back often. Later in life, he frequently visited Denver, where his sister lived. He died there, too—after telling his wife he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain.

The mountain, located in Golden, Colorado, has a commanding view of the Great Plains, where Buffalo Bill experienced many of his Wild West adventures. It was also a place to contemplate the giant herds of buffalo that once roamed the West, and from whom Cody took his nickname. (Denver still maintains a small herd of buffalo—direct descendants of original American bison—near the mountain.)

But weather almost thwarted Cody’s burial plans. Since he died in January, the road to Lookout Mountain was impassable and his preferred burial site frozen solid. For a while, his body lay in state in the Colorado Capitol building. Governors and famous friends eulogized Cody in an elaborate funeral service. Then his body was placed in a carriage that moved solemnly through the streets of Denver, where thousands showed up to say goodbye. Afterwards, his body was kept in cold storage at a Denver mortuary while his family waited for the weather to change.

Meanwhile, Colorado and Wyoming started a heated feud over one of America’s most famous men. Wyoming claimed that Cody should be buried there, citing an early draft of his will that said he intended to be buried near Cody. Colorado cried foul, since Cody’s last will left the burial location up to his widow, who chose Lookout Mountain. Rumors even began to circulate that a delegation from Wyoming had stolen Cody’s body from the mortuary and replaced it with that of a local vagrant.

In part to stop the rumor mill, Cody was finally buried in an open casket on Lookout Mountain in June 1917. Twenty-five thousand people went to the mountaintop to bid him farewell before he was interred. To prevent theft, the bronze casket was sealed in another, tamper-proof case, then enclosed in concrete and iron.

Pennies on Buffalo Bill's grave
V.T. Polywoda, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Yet his rocky grave was anything but safe. In the 1920s, Cody’s niece, Mary Jester Allen, began to claim that Denver had conspired to tamper with Cody’s will. In response, Cody’s foster son, Johnny Baker, disinterred the body and had it reburied at the same site under tons of concrete to prevent potential theft [PDF]. (Allen also founded a museum in Wyoming to compete with a Colorado-based museum founded by Baker.)

The saga wasn’t over yet. In 1948, the Cody, Wyoming American Legion offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could disinter the body and return it to Wyoming. In response, the Colorado National Guard stationed officers to keep watch over the grave.

Since then, the tussle over the remains has calmed down. Despite a few ripples—like a jokey debate in the Wyoming legislature about stealing the body in 2006—Buffalo Bill still remains in the grave. If you believe the official story, that is. In Cody, Wyoming, rumor has it that he never made it into that cement-covered tomb after all—proponents claim he was buried on Cedar Mountain, where he originally asked to be interred.

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