Book 1.xxi.5-7 Marks of difference and disorder


Although we are not  concerned with the pre-medieval history of these marks, I might fairly mention Origen, a Christian commentator classically educated (as Isidore was) and who made a compilation, side by side, of six versions of the Hebrew religious texts: the law, the prophets and the writings. It is therefore known  as the Hexapla, though some sources believe he used eight sources, so perhaps it was actually an Octapla. 🙂

Origen used the signs of Aristarchus, adding to the margin of his fifth column the sort of notae called by the Greek term hupomnêmata –  and meaning more-or-less equivalent to a combined critical apparatus and commentary. Origin was familiar with the  asterisk, obelus, lemniscus, and  hypolemniscus etc., a couple of centuries before Isidore.

In this same connection – that is, Christian religious text and its commentary –  modern scholars have a far wider set of symbols to memorise.   In 1963, Erwin Nestle with the help of Kurt Aland set about devising a system by which textual critics might refer to the enormous number of fragments, papyri, and other sources, while adding critical notae to indicate variant forms, errors and so forth.  Today these signs are called  critical sigla, but still the Nestle-Aland set of critical marks includes some recognisably those maintained in the Etymologiae.

If this subject begins to intrigue you, I should repeat that in English there are only two widely-used texts for the history and development of Greco-Latin punctuation before the introduction of printing.

  • M.B. Parkes’ academic study Pause and Effect was the first concerted word on the subject and many believed it would become the final word.
  • Keith Houston’s  Shady Characters has a lighter tone and is meant to be a pleasure to read, and to own. The book has met with resounding success and seems actively to have stimulated interest in, and study of, this fairly arcane subject.  On this matter of researching the medieval practice, he says:


If  I knew who should have them, I’d send roses to UPenn, where someone was inspired to put up Parke’s own list of abbreviations and signs (Glossaries) as a pdf onlline. [HERE] Parkes’ glossaries don’t include all Isidore’s signs  (no ‘lemniscus’ or ‘antigraphus’) but here’s his entry for the “Obelus” [aka obolus ]. I’ve added the graphic.






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