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Doodling in Latin was once a thing in the 15th century, as Bryn Mawr rare books show

A small exhibition at Bryn Mawr College highlights the doodles and comments that mark 15th century Latin grammars and other medieval books.

Kate Barnes, a Latin and Classic scholar, outside the New York Public Library. She is working on her PhD at Bryn Mawr College and has curated an exhibit there of Latin doodles and marginalia in ancient books.
Kate Barnes, a Latin and Classic scholar, outside the New York Public Library. She is working on her PhD at Bryn Mawr College and has curated an exhibit there of Latin doodles and marginalia in ancient books.Read moreJennifer S. Altman

Back in the day when every schoolchild knew the horrors of Latin syntax, verb conjugation was not something to be trifled with.

Tenses and their moods were part of the anxiety-inducing stress of Latin, a dead language known to rise up from the grave and throttle many a laboring student.

“Veni, vidi, vici.” Perfect. Indicative. Active. What could possibly go wrong? There is no conceivable way it could be anything other than “I came. I saw. I conquered.”

But a slight error in verb endings could transform that perfect trifecta into a nightmare of the subjunctive: “I may have come and if I did, I could have seen that which I might have subdued before” — and this last bit is implied — “it subdued me.”

Such irksome difficulties are vividly brought to mind by an exhibit on view through Dec. 17 in the rare-book room of the Canaday Library at Bryn Mawr College.

Put together by classics scholar and Bryn Mawr doctoral candidate Kate Barnes with assistance from her adviser Catherine Conybeare, professor of classical studies, “Private Lives of Old Books” is a small exhibition that speaks to the continuity of human sentiment over millennia (at least with regard to the study of Latin grammar).

It shows off 13 extraordinary 14th-, 15th- and 16th-century volumes from the Bryn Mawr collection — a feast for a classicist like Barnes, who will lead a tour of the exhibit on Friday at noon.

“As much as I am in classics because I love texts, it’s really fun to see and engage with history through these material objects, and I got really, really into it,” recalled Barnes, who currently teaches Latin at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y.

She decided that the exhibit amounted to “a great excuse for me to go and say, ‘Special Collections. I want to look at, literally every manuscript you have that is in Latin that has any sort of record in the catalog of having marginalia at all.’”

What she found were books with notes jotted in various languages in the margins. She found passages underlined. She found volumes filled with doodled monks’ heads and sketched-in arrows and drawn fingers pointing at particular lines. She found colored-in illustrations, caricatures, sassy talk-back, vernacular whining, mildly randy jokes, wormholes, and all manner of other indignities suffered by volumes printed half a millennia ago that have somehow endured it all.

And if there is any doubt that frustration and boredom have accrued over long periods of time among students of Latin, these volumes simply speak for themselves.

Conybeare chuckled over one particular Latin grammar by Aelius Donatus that was copied by an unknown scribe in Florence in 1474.

Apparently the Donatus, as it is known, was seen by hoards of monks and aspiring scholars as presenting a kind of Iron Man competition in Latin studies. Getting through it amounted to a feared and perhaps insurmountable challenge, a mission impossible with no high-tech gadgets and no turning back.

“All over the end page, it seems a number of people are so exuberant to work their way to the end, that they’ve written ‘finis’ in Latin and ‘telos‘ in Greek and made absolutely clear that they’re done with this,” said Conybeare.

In an essay in the show’s catalog, she noted that “instead of an idealized bastion of Latin-ness designed to repel the unworthy, we are showing the encounter of individual people with individual pieces of Latin. They struggle; they try harder; they mark passages; they gather little bits of erudition; they give up altogether and doodle or scribble or color in the pictures.”

What emerges over centuries is “a conversation” between readers of all kinds who scribble and doodle and by so doing insert “themselves into an ongoing story about their past and their present.”

Evidence of this can be found everywhere in the exhibition.

The Donatus grammar, for instance, said to have belonged to the grandmother of Jacopo da Pontormo, the Mannerist painter, contains some comments in Italian that could be the work of the young painter. In the margin, in a very childlike hand, Conybeare said, someone has written in Italian, “io sono in seniato,” a misspelling of “io sono insegnato” — “I am being taught.”

“And it’s a translation of the Latin in the text right there,” she said. “But it’s also a comment on what’s happening right now. There’s no other place where he translates the Latin into Italian in the margin like that. And best of all, he writes this thing saying, “I’m being taught.” And it’s misspelled.”

These books also reveal what Barnes called “the community of doodlers,” those makers of little drawings on page after page that demonstrate not contempt for the book or the subject but rather love and interest. She said this is clearly demonstrated in the 15th-century copy of Lucan’s Pharsalia, an epic poem that chronicles the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.

“The poem itself is brutal and bloody and absolutely beautiful,” Barnes said, noting that every line of poetry in this “beautifully laid out” 10-book epic begins with a capital letter. Within the capitals, multiple people have added drawings. “Some of them are beautifully, exquisitely done,” she said. The drawings extend throughout the book and even seem to “pick up steam” toward the end.

“I just love that reminder of books as fun and books as play and reading as fun and reading as play,” she said. “And then also, I love this sort of like community of doodling, that happens, where you’re reading this and someone else starts doodling in the capitals and that kind of gives you allowance to doodle the figures into the capital. And then you know someone else sees and they’re like, ‘Oh I guess I can do this, too.’ And then more and more people.

“There’s lovely interactions in the margins as well,” Barnes continued. “There’s someone who wrote, ‘Amo nos et non alios,’ which is ‘I love us ‘— probably a royal we — ‘I love us, not anyone else.’” And then someone responds to this and says ‘perde,’ which is roughly ‘Go to hell.’ This kind of writing between readers, this kind of moody, edgy, maybe a little angry, maybe a little teenager-y vibe in the margins, every time I look at it, I just can’t help but laugh and smile.”

The exhibition is open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and by appointment in the Rare Book Room, First Floor, Canaday Library. The in-person tour led by Barnes on Oct. 8 is free.