DRAW Blog

Exploring weather and all it entails

Marginalia in the Ledgers

Rachel Black, April 10th 2019

Welcome to the third installment of the DRAW Blog! This week we will be discussing Marginalia and the incidences of marginalia which we have found in our own ledgers.


Have you ever encountered a book in which someone wrote in the margins? Or did you ever draw or doodle in the margins of your class notes as a student or while in a meeting? If you have, you have either encountered or created marginalia.

Marginalia are marks that are made as additions to an existing book or document. Specifically marginalia can be drawings, scribbles, comments or critiques which appear in the margins (or sometimes between the lines of the actual text too!). These marks can be placed by a reader after the fact (like if you wrote in notes regarding the text content in order to help organize your thoughts) but can also be created by the author or publisher during the documents’ creation. This can be seen in many biblical manuscripts through liturgical notes in the margins and even in popular fiction, like in the case of 16-18th century copies of Reynard the Fox where moralistic notes are placed in the margins for readers to muse on.

A good example, and one of the better known ones is the marginalia found in medieval manuscripts. Scribes would test their pens on the outer leaves of the manuscripts, and later books, to ensure their strokes would be consistent. These marks could be as random as scribbles or be the full alphabet, musical notation, or drawings. In one case, even a cat added marginalia to the manuscript, leaving paw prints on the pages! You will also see instances of marginalia in archival documents, such as personal papers. McGill University Archives holds private fonds from individuals and some contain marginalia, like the Ross Family Fonds which contains doodles in the student notes of Dorothy Ross - she drew her professors during class!

But why does marginalia matter?

Marginalia can provide a different layer of understanding to the document for modern day readers as information about the construction of the document and who was doing the writing is not usually recorded. As a result, these random doodles can tell us about trends (styles of writing in different parts of Europe for example) or even about the people involved. Marginalia is incredibly important to historians and archivists - even Citizen Scientists too!

We were surprised and excited then that while digitizing the ledgers for transcription that we found marginalia in the pages. Highlighted today are 8 images from ledger pages dating from 1902,and 1904-1906. The marginalia found in our ledgers are interesting; they appear to be something possibly to pass the time as they are not notes or commentary or pen tests - they are specifically portraits of people.

marginalia people

man's proflie

profile full body of a man

Our observers have drawn several people they likely knew in profile view, replicating not only several men (with impressive facial hair) but also several women with fancy up-dos and details such as dress ruffles and hair accessories.

woman's profile

woman's profile under writing

We honestly don’t know too much about these doodles as of yet - a few of the men have names scrawled underneath them and one of the portraits is initialed. We will have to research further into who these people might be or who could have drawn the portraits - all which could provide context to the observatory at the time and who was involved!

woman profile under writing

woman profile with hairdo

woman profile

If you are interested in reading more about marginalia check out the following:

Marginalia as note taking
The Marginal Obsession with Marginalia (New Yorker)
Doodles in Medieval Manuscripts
Strange Medieval Doodles

Or, if you would like to see the marginalia featured here up close, contact the McGill University Archives here.

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