MS Annotations in a 17c Polyglot Dialogue Book

Frontispiece engraving, Colloqvia et Dictionariolvm octo Linguarum (Antwerp, 1662). Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, 413 D554, Northwestern University.

Thanks partly to a growing body of Protestant refugees in London, the sixteenth century in England witnessed a significant increase in the production of printed aids for vernacular language-learning. During the seventeenth century, it seems that trade and travel amplified the importance of these books. I’ve been assessing the development of this niche in the print marketplace across the Italian, Spanish, and French languages thus far, and I’m beginning to turn my attention to Dutch, German, and polyglot books as well, both in England and on the continent.

In fact, this past summer, I spent several weeks training around the Chicago/Central Illinois area to dig around in the archive to see what I could find. Institutions I visited included Northwestern University, Loyola University Chicago, the University of Chicago, the Newberry Library, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Overall, I looked at 76 books (50 for learning Italian, 12 for French, 7 for Spanish, and 7 polyglots). I’d already been keeping record of the physical dimensions of language-learning guides and dictionaries in other libraries, so I took measurements of each of these copies. I also looked at both sides of every leaf in every book. It was tedious work sometimes, but I found a number of very interesting manuscript inscriptions throughout these books, inscriptions that I view as material traces of early modern language study.

To give an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s one example from my home institution’s Special Collections library. This is a 1662 edition of the Antwerp language teacher Noel van Berlaimont’s Colloqvia et Dictionariolvm octo Linguarum. As the title suggests, this oblong octavo volume features seven dialogues in eight languages arranged horizontally and in different typefaces. It also includes guides to practical letter-writing, treatises on proper pronunciation and conjugation, and a brief dictionary in the back. First published in 1530, it was issued from the press of most major European cities and saw nearly 150 editions throughout the handpress period. Susan Phillips has called it an “international best seller” (see note below for this comment’s location).

As you can see in the image at the top of this post, this edition includes a frontispiece engraving in which two groups of four men converse with and greet each other. An art historian with a finer 17c fashion sense than me would be able to explicate the clothing of these individuals in light of the book’s eight languages/nationalities.Berlaimont02

The eight-language apparatus in the oblong octavo Colloqvia (with a handy snake). Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, 413 D554, Northwestern University.

If you open this book, you unfold an apparatus of eight languages printed long-ways upon octavo sheets. The printer deployed three typefaces here, perhaps not merely for the purposes of R.B. McKerrow’s “differentiation type,” but also to make use of the associations between typeface and language that are common in many other language-learning books. Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese appear in roman; French and Italian, in Latin; and “Neder-duyts,” “Hoogh-duyts,” and English are in black-letter.

A closer look at six leaves in the first dialogue, which concerns a banquet (“A dinder [sic] of ten persons”) reveals a significant amount of manuscript annotations in the Italian language column. The annotations are in French, and often underline and translate certain words or phrases, using the corresponding words in the French column on the opposing page.

Berlaimont03French annotations in the Italian column, first dialogue, Colloqvia, C8r. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, 413 D554, Northwestern University.

Beside “& poi per tutto,” the reader has inscribed “et puis per tout.” “Ici” is written beside the printed word “qui,” which is underlined, and a similar annotation for “qui” appears at the bottom of the column. In another line, “minestra” is accompanied by the manuscript annotation “pottage,” and the final annotation here glosses “mentre” as “tandis.” I’m really no expert in paleography, but the hand seems to me to date back to the late seventeenth century, or perhaps the early eighteenth.

As William Sherman and others have made clear, it is often impossible to derive stable conclusions about reading habits from marginalia in printed books. Indeed, we have no indication in this volume of who our annotator is, where he or she was from, or exactly what he or she needed the book for. However, this edition of the Berlaimont dialogues do showcase how readers could put their language-learning books to productive use through their own manuscript additions, and how the facing-page, polyglot apparatus could support a process of reading, copying, and marking in the interest of language study.


For further reading on books like this one, see Susan Phillips, “Schoolmasters, Seduction, and Slavery: Polyglot Dictionaries in Pre-Modern England,” Medievalia et Humanistica 34 (2009): 129-58; quoted at 130.