Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Penned in the Margins

One of the things that the Books and Borrowing database allows us to do is find out which library holdings were heavily used in the period the project covers, determine whether books still remain in collections and then see if any evidence of use survives between their covers.  We’ve not yet had the chance to do this systematically, but for the recent Un/Disciplining Reading symposium organised by Porscha Fermanis and Sarah Comyn at University College Dublin, I had the chance to go through some photos I’d taken of popular books at St Andrews.  Below are a few examples of the kinds of marginalia such exploration can find: these are all drawn from eighteenth-century copies of David Hume’s History of England.  More of this to come once we have the database launched!

A student complains about the conditions in which the book has been left.


On this page, a student responds to Charles I’s plight with an excess of emotion that might potentially be a serious expression of sensibility, but seems more likely to be performative irony: ‘Poor man Charles I pity thee from my heart – I do – I do indeed I do see my Tears how they flow’.  Just below, another students advertises his hostility to one of his fellows, writing, ‘Gentlemen, Mr John McVen is one of the greatest and most detestable Snarlers I ever saw.’


Students were keen to correct Hume, showing themselves equal to challenging a perceived authority.  Here, a student writes that the name of the Black Prince came not from his armour but ‘From his name among the French ‘Le Prince Noir’, dating his addition 30 November 1782.


Grammar was a serious matter for St Andrews students. This is shown by this involved argument where one student has changed a ‘were’ to a ‘was’.  Another student has eliminated the correction and labelled the corrector a ‘fool’; a third has explained ‘‘were’ is right ‘if’ signifying contingency governs the subjunctive mode.’  Below, a fourth student has waded in, writing that ‘I am realy astonished that any person of comon sense would think that were is not [?grammar]’. Unfortunately, this student has spelled ‘really’ with one l, opening themselves up to a satirical rebuke.  Below, a fifth student adds ‘I am really astonished that you should spell that word “really” wrong Mr whoever you are that was astonished above’.  A sixth student adds a soft ‘Ha! indeed!’

A student fervently and disturbingly of Mary Queen of Scots’ party: ‘Had I lived in Mary’s time I would have rather lost my own life as end hers & would have endeavoured to punish that damned tyrant bitch Elizabeth for she should have been torn asunder inch by inch with dogs & cats & made up of gun powder to fire at the Crows’.


The most powerful venom in the St Andrews copies of Hume is reserved for Elizabeth I.  Here, an annotation state that she ‘deserves the blackest and hottest parts of all hell for putting to death Queen Mary.’  Further down on the same page, a different hand adds, ‘Damn Elizabeth for she was a cruel ugly whore for causing Mary to be executed & I think that she is now in hell for so doing.’


On this page, a remarkable series of exchanges with dates recontextualise comments on politicians’ conjectures in the light of the French Revolution.


Some comments are laconic; here, an annotator tersely notes the ‘Irony’ of the circumstances around Charles I’s attempt to levy ship money.


Not all comments on books relate to the author’s style or arguments – here, a student employs Hume’s generous margins for mathematics.