Designing English and Linear B

Image: Bodleian Library

‘Designing English’ exhibition logo (image: Bodleian Library)

This weekend I went to visit an exhibition in the Bodleian Library in Oxford called ‘Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page‘ (on until April 22 2018, and free to visit) – a display of medieval manuscripts, but with the focus not on the content but the way that their writers and illustrators went about creating them. The layout of the text itself and any accompanying images, the use of different coloured inks in different parts of the text, the addition of marginalia, and even the physical format of the book or manuscript were all shown to be just as important to the writer – and the reader – as the actual words themselves.

Illustrations aided understanding (as in herbals, for instance, whose pictures were vital in showing which plants were being described, or in the chess manual which included diagrams of chess boards); key words or passages could be highlighted by the use of colour or through the spacing of the text to draw the reader’s attention (particularly important for texts intended to be read out loud, such as sermons); physical form could relate to function, e.g. in making a book small enough to fit in a pocket to carry around, or to ideology, as shown by the books of royal genealogies, designed to fold out into a single long sheet so as to present one unbroken line of inheritance.

One of my favourite cases in the exhibition showed manuscripts of poems, whose writers had all chosen different elaborate ways of making the poem’s structure and rhyme scheme visible to the reader, such as writing each rhyming element in a different colour. Another linked the past to the present through showing books where medieval readers had added marginalia – notes explaining the text or adding information, or elaborate drawings of hands pointing to key information – alongside screenshots from the ‘Oxford University Marginalia‘ Facebook group, in which users post particularly amusing examples of marginalia they’ve found in library books. In fact, the theme of linking medieval and modern readers’ and writers’ practices in creating texts ran all the way through this exhibition – as the Bodleian points out, every time you format a Word document, or write a birthday card, or even make a shopping list, you may be making similar choices about layout, colour, images, etc, to the ones made by medieval scribes.

This similarity doesn’t just extend to modern writing – it goes back to the ancient world, as well. In fact, one reason I particularly enjoyed the exhibition (as well as just liking medieval manuscripts) was that I’m currently thinking about the ways in which the scribes who wrote the Linear B documents I work on edited and changed their texts, and issues of formatting and layout are coming up a lot (on clay administrative tablets, of course, colours and illustrations aren’t options, but the shape and size of tablets, the formatting of ruled lines, and the size and positioning of signs and words can all be varied). We can often see on the tablets where scribes have erased signs or words they’d previously written – erasing on soft clay with the flat end of a stylus leaves a very characteristic set of traces behind – and if we’re lucky (and the scribe hasn’t erased very carefully) we can even read what was originally written before the erasure and rewriting. It’s this kind of situation that I’m particularly interested in, since if we can read the original text, we stand some chance of working out why the scribe might have decided to change what they’d written – whether because they’d made a mistake, or because new information had come in, or because they felt a different layout was more appropriate (better organised? easier to use for calculations? easier to read?) – and this might tell us something not just about the processes involved in creating these texts, but about how the scribes thought the texts themselves.

One particularly interesting tablet for this is also one of the most problematic tablets in the whole Linear B corpus. Known as PY Tn 316, this tablet, which has writing on both sides, records offerings to various gods made at sanctuaries near the palace of Pylos (in south-western Greece). Some are familiar from later Greek religion (e.g. Zeus, Hera, Hermes), others are not (e.g. Posidaeia and Diwiya, apparently female equivalents of Poseidon and Zeus). They receive offerings of vessels made of precious metals, and also of human beings – women for goddesses, men for gods. Earlier interpretations of this tablet tended to see this as dramatic confirmation of the palace’s desperate situation in the final days leading up to its destruction, with human sacrifices being offered in a vain attempt to placate the gods; a less sensational but more likely interpretation is that the people listed are attendants who will carry the vessels in procession to the gods’ sanctuaries. What’s particularly interesting for me, though, is that the tablet’s layout, as well as its content, has been crucial to every interpretation.


PY Tn 316 (drawing by E.L. Bennett, from

This tablet does have a unique layout – rather than simply a sequence of ruled lines going down the page, it’s divided up into sections, with each 3-4 line section being headed by the same word written in huge characters – this word is the name ‘Pylos’ itself, showing where the activities described are taking place. It’s also clear from traces of erased text and ruling that the scribe rearranged the structure of the tablet as they went along – and there are blank spaces on both sides where a section was ruled and headed but never filled in. This odd-looking structure formed part of the tablet’s original interpretation as being written in the final days of the palace – as John Chadwick put it,

“The easiest explanation of this muddle is that the writer was trying to record the decisions of an unusually stormy meeting. But why did [they] not subsequently make a fair copy for storage in the archives and consign this rough draft to oblivion? The most likely answer is that [they] had no time; and that would make sense if the tablet were written within the last few days, perhaps the last few hours, of the existence of the palace.” (J. Chadwick, The Mycenaean World, Cambridge 1976, p.90)

But another Mycenologist, Tom Palaima, has convincingly argued that the ‘messy’ features of this text are actually the result of the scribe working out, as they were writing the text, what would be the most efficient way of structuring it and organising the information it needed to contain: hence the erasures and the changes of formatting (T.G. Palaima, ‘Kn02 – Tn 316’, in Floreant Studia Mycenaea, ed. S. Deger-Jalkotzy et al., Vienna 1999, pp.437-62. This tablet was stored in the ‘Archives Complex’ of the palace just like the vast majority of other tablets from Pylos; there is nothing to suggest it was not considered ‘neat enough’ for filing there. Tn 316, then, shows us an example of a scribe laying out and reformatting their work on the go — and both this tablet and the Bodleian’s manuscripts provide a fascinating glimpse into the way in which the scribes of the past worked on the documents they produced.

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