Lines and interlines

A 10th-century manuscript containing texts to be used in the monastic school, with interlinear glosses, words to make reading and understanding easier, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 242.

Each line of text is an adventure opened to the unknown. Words break at the end of the line so that the lines may preserve their integrity and reach their objective. Words sacrifice themselves for the sake of the line. There’s no doubt as to which of them comes first.

In the making of a medieval manuscript, lines came before words. The animal skin was made into parchment and then lined. The writing surface wasn’t ready until the lines had been drawn.

Lines of antiquity on the calf skin, lines of novelty on the ready-made vellum.

Scribes kept to their lines when writing. But they also pushed their luck outside. The main text of a manuscript book was almost always lined and as the centuries went by, it became neat and ‘paginated’. But not all text was lined. Scribes and readers added more text. The page may have been sacred from a bookmakers’ point of view, but it was a temple everyone was allowed to enter and hang their offerings.

Writing between the lines was as common in the Middle Ages as reading between the lines is common, as a figure of speech, today.

And it was a way of reading too. Writing between the lines as a reading aid.

Scribes and readers used the space between the lines of text to facilitate understanding and interpretation. As most medieval manuscripts were written in a language of acquisition, Latin, everyone could benefit from elucidations, explanations and translations of its rich but arcane vocabulary. So the interlinear space was filled with translated words, synonyms and other words and figures writers found useful to the understanding of the text.

The lines of text drive the reading forward. The space between the lines grounds the reading in understanding and helps steer in the right direction. One space creates the other, as the reader sets out on an adventure from which neither herself nor the text will be left untransformed.

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