Research & Outputs

Motivation for the project

Note-taking plays an essential role in how we record, understand and process data. On a larger scale, it affects the manner in which culture is produced and disseminated. Students who attend lectures jot down what is being said in class, scientists log their empirical observations, travelers keep journals, authors of all kinds file their impressions. When notes are to be preserved and are not just ephemeral scribblings, they are organized, usually in notebooks, and these personal and, at the same time, objective carriers of ideas are valued by their owners and respected by their editors. Philip Roth, in the novel I Married a Communist, takes the time to describe his political diary in surprising detail. The editor of Virginia Woolf’s journal does the same in his introduction to the work that he was publishing for the very first time, even insisting on how the quires had been bound: like any good editor who is lucky enough to work with unpublished material, Leonard Woolf understood that the materiality itself says something about the content of the notebook.

These remarks illustrate two things: that notebooks are extremely personal and that, when it comes to note-taking, there is a tight connection between the material aspects and the ideas recorded. Keeping this in mind, project NOTA will study how the practice of taking notes was established, how it evolved and what it brought about in terms of the circulation of ideas in the Middle Ages. The methodology employed is innovative and unconventional: it creates a new object of study for the field of medieval studies – the scholarly notebook – by employing a set of criteria that were developed during the PI’s preliminary research. They help distinguish between actual notebooks and other composite manuscripts. These criteria have already proven very successful, allowing the PI to establish an initial corpus of 75 notebooks that stem from the medieval university. These work instruments offer privileged access into the medieval classroom as well as into the private life of their owners.

In order to provide a better classification of the material, note-taking will be divided into two categories: (a) note-taking as amassing information from books read or from empirical observations and (b) note-taking as summarizing oral lectures. Although these categories are not completely exclusive, they do rely on different techniques and must be studied with different instruments. On the other hand, even though it is common to find amassing and summarizing together in medieval witnesses, the case is different for Modernity. As a consequence, the secondary literature, which is mostly dedicated to Early Modern notetaking, unconsciously abides by this distinction.


Method for selecting corpus. For feasibility and analytical depth, there are three criteria for restricting and regulating the extent of the corpus of manuscripts that are to constitute the subject of our enquiry, based on provenance, chronology and genre.

♦ The first criterion, regarding provenance, narrows the search to the Faculties of Theology, as these constitute the ideal laboratory in which we can investigate how knowledge was formed and disseminated by means of note-taking. It was one of the superior faculties, meaning that the note-takers had reached intellectual maturity, offering notes of better quality than those of students in the liberal arts. This also means that the students themselves were more likely to hold on to these particular notes, giving us much needed empirical data.

♦ The second criterion, regarding date of composition, targets the 14th  and the 15th  centuries as ideal timeframes for the study of such notebooks. The use of paper had been generalized, lecturing on the four books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard had been well established as a practice, and the young universities of Central and Eastern Europe were beginning their own textual traditions. Paper is essential for the type of notes that interest us, given that, prior to its widespread use, notes were mainly written on the margins of books, because writing materials, mainly parchment, were expensive and hard to come by. Paper not only allowed for more diligent and systematic note-taking, but also led to a better circulation of ideas: students took their notebooks with them when they travelled and this meant that notes became a crucial part of disseminating ideas from the university towards society in general, by means of those who studied there and then went on to be preachers or teachers at other kinds of institutions. Furthermore, the 14th  and 15th centuries saw the rising popularity of personal libraries and their byproducts, such as lists of books owned by an individual and wills, making these notebooks highly traceable.

♦ The third criterion differentiates between a notebook and other types of composite texts, such as miscellanies, florilegia, or even medieval encyclopedias. First of all, notebooks are characterized by heterogeneity. They contain multiple texts and fragments of text, a large variety of notes, or even a longer continuous lecture jotted down over an entire academic year. The fact of the matter is that they bear witness to how an individual understood a lecture and the events surrounding it, thus offering researchers a better grasp of the pedagogical practice at medieval universities. We must, however, keep in mind that it is the reduced length of the fragments that helps us differentiate between a simple miscellany and a notebook. Secondly, notebooks tend to be personal, reserved for personal use, not for publication, nor for simple collection within a library. So, they will be either autographs, partial autographs, or texts copied for an author. The only condition is that their main purpose is not that of enriching somebody’s library, but that of helping a scholar with some university work. Even in cases where the notebooks are written by a secretary, the individual interested in them usually intervenes by making corrections or adding marginal notes. Thirdly, the page of the manuscript is divided into zones: allowing for lengthy remarks, additions and even counterarguments to what is being said in the main body of text. Finally, they show signs of being produced in the classroom, or of being a byproduct of studying.

Not all of these conditions are necessary at the same time and from the same perspective, but we can say that a manuscript is a notebook and can be included in the corpus if it fulfils at least three of these conditions.

Methodological risks and the “high gain” factor

The manner of constructing this corpus is where the high risk aspect of the project factors in: the criteria are based on hypotheses and preliminary research, so we risk overlooking important elements by not including texts that would be essential for the outcome of the project, or, on the contrary, by including texts that should not have been included. However, the potential gain of such an endeavor is worth it, given that it provides unique insights into the medieval classroom and its practices in a systematic manner. In order to best ensure the success of this endeavor, we have decided that these criteria are not set in stone, the empirical research taking precedence over them: a criterion might be excluded, or another included, depending on where the data takes us. It is through this flexible methodology, which is characterized by hermeneutic availability, that the NOTA project will address any potential difficulties that it will encounter.

The best is yet to come. Stay tuned for the outputs!