Marginalia

by Nick

I have a slightly mixed attitude to graffiti in books. On the one hand, it drives me to distraction when I borrow a library book in which the text has been repeatedly underlined, highlighted or commented on. The worst is finding a book where every single sentence has been underlined. Here’s a good example from Marginalia and other crimes – a wonderful site run by the Cambridge University Library about the effects of water, coffee, children, students and other hazards on books:

What, oh what is the point of underlining everything?

But when buying second hand books, I really enjoy seeing what people have commented on. I suppose the difference is that second hand books were actually owned by the person who did the scribbling – unlike the books at the UL, which weren’t owned by those who have ripped out pages, dropped books into the bath, or even cut nude photos out of books.

There is a very good branch of Oxfam Books on Strutton Ground in Westminster, just up the road from my office. As well as supplying me with a steady stream of 1960s Penguin paperbacks, it’s also often got some interesting history books. I found a first edition of J.P. Kenyon’s The Stuart Constitution in there the other day, and as is often the way it’s fascinating as much for what’s scribbled in the margins as anything else.

The copy belonged to a student at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and was bought in 1967. Since it was only published in 1966, it looks very much like a case of a history undergraduate getting hold of the latest book to give them the edge in their degree.

Some of the marginalia are intriguing. Here’s a selection of ones that caught my eye:

Kenyon seems to say nothing of Stuart colonisation, what about 1625 Virginia Charter

A section on James I’s speech at the opening of Parliament in 1624 has:

Speech of a dying man

And, after James’s assertion that “I dare say, never king was better beloved of his people than I am”:

Only 20 years after Elizabeth’s “golden speech”

A section on Charles I’s answer to the Nineteen Propositions has:

After praising the constitution of England, Charles makes a strong personal plea for control of army as his part in the mixed constitution. Again by modern standards it seems fair enough.

Just as Kenyon’s book, through its structure and choice of sources, gives us a very particular narrative of the breakdown of the “ancient constitution”, so the marginalia give us part of the story of how readers were reacting to it. In this case, it seems to be a mixture of scepticism about Kenyon’s particular choice of sources, while still sharing his overall assumptions about the period.