No marginal notes. Nowhere – Petrarca's psalms struggle for recognition

Ursula Kundert

Francesco Petrarca, Psalmi penitentionales, Marcus Brandis, Leipzig ca. 1485. Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, S 378. 8° Helmst., no page number.

The Book of Psalms is possibly the most frequently copied, printed, quoted, commented, translated, edited, and imitated work in history. In the Middle Ages, the psalms were worked on in independent texts, but very often also in the form of remarks added between the lines and in the margins. This topic is part of the special exhibition
“Gedanken am Rande. Marginalien in Bild und Text 800 –1800” (‘Thoughts on the Side. Marginalia in Images and Text, 800 –1800’) which opened on 3 May 2015 in the Bibliotheca Augusta in Wolfenbüttel.

Such an abundance of marginalia challenges both female and male scribes and printers. The inclusion of extensive marginal notes and titles becomes something of a hallmark for recognised works in the Middle Ages. The prevalence and high regard for the psalms makes them attractive to work on them. Judging from the marginal notes, we get a good idea of who was more successful at grabbing attention. Works presented as commentaries on the Psalms (Ludolf von Sachsen) generally had better chances than independent works written in the psalm style (Petrarca). And slight variations to the psalms (Marian psalter) were more likely to be accepted than a completely new combination of psalmodic elements (Petrarca).

Moderate interest in Petrarca

The volume Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, S 378. 8° Helmst. provides a good example of how the canonical status of works was negotiated in the margins. It contains, among other details, penitential psalms from the Bible, the ‘Psalterium beatae Mariae virginis’ from a (pseudo) Bonaventura and Petrarca’s ‘Psalmi poenitentiales’ in a print produced by Marcus Brandis in Leipzig around 1485. This volume once belonged to a collection owned by women. Apparently, it was privately owned in the beginning and then was added to the collection at the convent of the Augustinian Sisters in Steterburg (a part of Salzgitter today). This target group’s interest in Petrarca was moderate despite the fact that the printer’s arrangement of the texts raised the status of the ‘Psalmi poenitentiales’ by including them into the daily liturgy. However, he printed everything in black, and the red initials (lombards) had to be added by the female purchasers themselves. One can see that they exercised creative liberty in designing these.

The lombards in this volume may have been illustrated by the first owner, perhaps Agnete von Dötzum (near Gandersheim) or Dorothea von Landsberg (near Halle). She meticulously added such lombards to the texts about Mary, e.g. in the Marian psalter, but not to Petrarca’s psalms! It was probably Agnete who corrected the misprint on the page shown below, striking out “mara” and replacing it with “maria” in the margin. The biblical penitential psalms have also been thoroughly edited, whereas those by Francesco Petrarca contain no marginal notes whatsoever.


In contrast: The Marian form of the Athanasian Creed, in: (pseudo) Bonaventura, Psalterium beatae Mariae virginis, Marcus Brandis, Leipzig ca. 1485. Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, S 378. 8° Helmst., no page number.

Although Petrarca’s psalms are written in psalmodic style, they are absolutely his own creation. The author of the Marian psalter, on the other hand, produced a slightly modified version of the Biblical psalms, relating them to Mary who was highly venerated in the late Middle Ages. It couldn’t have hurt either that the Marian psalter was distributed under the name of the famous Franciscan monk and Doctor of the Church Bonaventura. Petrarca possessed minor orders and therefore was, as a writer, not an authority already officially recognised by the Church.