Teaching with AOR

Don’t just do as I say: The AOR platform offers a more flexible approach to learning.

Follow the Reader – Marginalia and the History of Reading

The Archaeology of Reading was created to advance and broaden the ways that scholars study early modern reading practices.  On a wider level, however, the transcriptions, translations, and images in the AOR environment provide ample opportunity for teachers as well as for scholars to explore the richness of early modern book culture and to engage with the core question of the project: what, exactly, did educated men and women in the Renaissance do with their books?

The history of reading is now in its early adulthood, but some of the central questions of the discipline are precisely those that AOR seeks to clarify. What exactly are these marks that we refer to as marginalia? What do they mean, and what do they have to do with the intake of information that we understand as reading? As the study of the circulation and reception of information becomes more widespread, we know that marginalia are both byproducts of knowledge perception and creation, and evidence of the larger processes that were practiced and learned in common by the thinkers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. We are less looking over the shoulder of an individual reader (or into his head) than we are eavesdropping on a fragmentary conversation between readers, their friends, and their books. In early modern Europe, that conversation could span continents, centuries, and generations, as books were circulated among friends and passed down to students and family members.

AOR in the Seminar Room

The following exercises and modules are intended for incorporation into syllabi and course plans. Some will make use of the translations and commentary to allow for a class to read, discuss and experiment with books and concepts that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. In fact, it may be said that if these exercises are used in connection with class discussion, they are not dissimilar to the marginal notations they take as their subjects. Many of the notes in these books were produced by communal, collaborative scholarly practices, and could generate new knowledge in addition to documenting or rehearsing the information that already was known. The modules below are designed to be incorporated into university-level seminars, and provide content and background information for an advanced undergraduate or graduate level audience. We hope that you and your students find this look into the wide world of early modern culture useful.

Lodovico Domenichi, Facetie (Venice, 1571), title page
Click to explore this page in the AOR viewer

Each of the three exercises contains an aspect that is open ended, and which takes advantage of the ability of the AOR viewer to export research findings, so that students can take the opportunity to record their own discoveries and notes and share them with the class, either by sharing links or by projection. In this way, we look to address one of the main problems with studying the history of reading – our tendency to relay impressions without their being easily reproduced. By putting the image and its text at the center of discussion, and adapting to its turns, AOR allows seminars to interact with a book, or a group of books, as fully as they are able.

Since our hope for the project is to aid in education at all levels, we have also put together a series of shorter exercises geared towards secondary school history classes. The transcriptions and translations in the AOR project afford students the opportunity to engage in primary source analysis on a key group of early modern material that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. The exercises aim to connect the information (printed and handwritten) within these books to the significant historical, intellectual, and cultural developments of the age. They also make good introductions to working in the AOR environment, as they provide focused introductions to key functions in the AOR viewer and topics in the AOR corpus. If there are other subjects that you would like to have us cover or ideas you wish to share with us, please contact us.

If puzzles are more of your thing, head down to our “Open Questions” section at the very bottom. These exercises are drawn from the pieces of notes, queries, and topics that left us collectively scratching our heads during the processes of transcription and translation. In the study of any individual or period, we are constantly reminded that what remains to us in written form is often only a small part of the context necessary to understand it. The phrase “I think I know what it says, but I have no clue what it means” has been common enough to us over the phases of transcription. But these seeming dead ends are one such way into a broader investigation of what habits of mind or particular reading practices were assumed by the annotators and are now invisible to us, and an invitation not to ignore them. In this way, fragmentary, mundane, or cryptic marginalia in books can be approached less as arcane minutiae to pursue individually than as opportunities to team up and fill in a puzzle left to us all.

Modules for the History of Reading

The following exercises are designed to support graduate or advanced undergraduate courses in the history of the book, the history of reading, and the intellectual culture of the Renaissance. Each contains suggested readings, discussion questions, and a methodology that can be done individually or in groups during a class session. To learn more about the modules or to design your own, please contact us.


Libraries without Walls


Print, Script, Image


Conversations with Books


For Secondary Schools

These exercises are topical and brief, and as such are intended to be used either as standalone assignments or as short in-class exercises. They would integrate well into the curriculum for European History and support its thematic learning objectives, particularly the third theme: Objective Knowledge and Subjective Visions (The current guidelines are available here). However, the exercises could be used for a range of other course work. If you have questions about a particular topic or would like to share one with us, please contact us.

The Printed, Handwritten Book


A Fantastic Voyage


John Dee meets Guacanagarix

Open Questions

These small puzzles, individual quirks of books caught our attention during the process of transcription, but we lacked either the time or the expertise to pursue them fully.

Think you’ve solved one? Contact us to have your answer posted.

1) Is there a Mathematician in the House?
On the flyleaves of his copy of Euclid, John Dee writes this lengthy passage on numbers in continual proportion. However, the sense of the passage remains unclear to us mostly because of the abbreviations used. We’re pretty sure that the abbreviation that usually denotes “rum” here stands for radix, but without a better working knowledge of the theory here we’re at a loss for the variations that accompany it in this passage.

As a further help, a digitized copy of the 1570 English translation of Euclid, which Dee would later be involved with, is available here via the Library of Congress.

2) Livy and Cicero and Sallust and Augustine?
In the frontmatter of his Livy, Harvey comments that he has compared the city of men with Augustine’s City of God, noting “The comparison was wonderfully successful and the contrast, both political and theological, very helpful. It was certainly an enviable parallel.” This Advanced Search contains many of the references to the City of God that exist on the first thirty pages of the Livy. What do you think that Harvey found “enviable” in the comparison?

3) An Uncertain Sign
John Dee’s copy of the commentary on Pliny the Elder contains two interpolations on the theme of Litteromancy, which Dee claims to have found in an old book. An inserted slip in the back preserves a version of this text in an older hand, along with the text of an exorcism. The third line of the hand isn’t legible to us, is it to you?