Organize your book! Foliation as annotation.

We know relatively much about how authors structured their books (or not). But how did readers engage with books? Much has been said about commentaries and glosses, reading, ownership and endowment notes. Even the colophon has recently received two conferences.{1} What these approaches have in common is their concentration on text. Even if it is paratext, they all focus on signs that are easily read. In this post, I will look at annotation via numbers, namely foliation.

My guiding question is, how did people organize knowledge present in a book so that they could access it more easily. This question is even more pertinent when a book contained more than one text. In the manuscript age, such compilations were very common as they allowed their owner to assemble a personalized set of works, excerpts, chapters, as well as their own notes. If such books were assembled from previously written pages, they are commonly called composite manuscripts.

If, however, a book was produced by just one scribe in more or less one go, it is called a multiple-text manuscript (MTM). Even though its sources may come from divergent places and times and authors, the resulting book is a new product, which—ideally—can be located in one specific time and place.

On a side note, MTMs muddle the categories of reader and writer; the people who made them could, in modern parlor, be defined as wreaders, combining both activities in one textual interaction long before online comment sections.

In contrast to monographs, the texts in an MTM are not connected by one shared structure explained in the introduction. An MTM can thus appear like a mystery box. There are several ways of remedying this state if one wants to navigate its contents. Intermittent blank pages, title pages for the individual works, marginal titles—usualy placed in the upper left corner of their first page of a work— can be seen as tools to do just that. On another level, tables of contents, with or without page numbers, also serve this purpose (and I have another post planned on those). 


Yet, there is one other way to allow the navigation of MTMs: foliation. Instead of referring to a page, manuscript catalogues most frequently refer to a folio, the leaf of paper which contains two pages of text (front: recto; back: verso). In order to get an idea of a manuscript’s size, foliation is usually applied from the first to the last folio. Today it is best practice to include every folio, no matter whether it contains text or not, but there have been variations in past cataloguing endeavors. Most often, foliation often started on the first folio containing text of a work.

Used in this way, foliation refers to the manuscript as a whole. So how does that help someone to navigate its contents? For this, we will look at the Chester Beatty manuscript MS 4463. The volume contains several works, all of which are written in the same hand. It is an MTM of 110 folios which once belonged to one Ḥasan al-Jabartī. His ownership note and stamp can be found throughout the volume (see below). 

Manuscript from the Chester Beatty, Dublin: MS 4463, fol. 1a.

This is, in fact, the first page of the book. However, the Arabic foliation at the top tells us that this MTM might once have been larger than it is now. As it starts on folio 41, a full forty folios could be missing from an earlier compilation which contained the works in this MTM. This is corroborated by the quire count in the upper right corner which states that this is supposed to be the first page of the fifth quire (see below).

Manuscript from the Chester Beatty, Dublin: MS 4463, fol. 1a (detail).

This is exciting enough, I believe, but I don’t want it to distract us from another aspect of this MTM. It does not only contain one foliation. This is easy to overlook, exactly because it is the first page of the existing MTM—and the first page belonging to the first work it contains.

Double Foliation

Right of the quire count, you can see the second foliation, which shows here only a mere “1”. Its position close to the upper, outer corner might have been chosen for the same reason why marginal titles were placed in this spot: it served a reader’s navigation within the book.

We do not know who made either foliation, but it is clear that each served a different function. The general foliation for the whole volume served (unsuccessfully) to assure the volume’s integrity. Admittedly, this can be said also of the quire count but I reckon that this was done during the book’s production, whereas the foliation might have been added by a later owner, perhaps even by Ḥasan al-Jabartī.

Manuscript from the Chester Beatty, Dublin: MS 4463, fol. 101b-102a.

The second foliation only ever regarded one work contained within the volume. This might have been deemed necessary because this MTM does not separate its contents by blank pages or title pages. One work begins where the former left off. While a careful reader would gather his moving from one work to the next from the red title statements and the typical shape of the colophon right above it, a cursory reader might just miss this page and thus combine texts in their mind which should be understood as separate textual entities.

The second foliation helps to avoid such misunderstandings. If you look closely, folio 102a actually bears three Arabic foliations (as well as the newer one in Arabic numerals). This is not the norm within the manuscript, but it is telling of this foliation’s function. The “8” refers to the work which ends on this page, and the “1” to the next one starting here.

In contrast to other manuscripts, Chester Beatty MS 4463 does not contain marginal glosses or comments to speak of. The most frequent marginal addition is Ḥasan al-Jabartī’s ownership note and/or stamp. However, this does not necessarily mean that this book was not “well-loved”, as Nadirah Mansour has put it recently.{2}

Ḥasan’s statements of ownership are a case in point. He placed them at the beginning of every work contained in the volume. It is also visible in the double foliation which might have been added by him as well (my paleographic skills regarding numerals are not good enough to say for certain). The foliation indicates that someone wanted to read this book and possibly wanted others to read it to. Finally, someone else must have loved parts of this book enough to take those parts with them, destroying, to an extent, the object earlier loved by Ḥasan al-Jabartī.

Cite this blog post
Torsten Wollina (2021, February 28). Organize your book! Foliation as annotation. Damascus Anecdotes. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from

  1. One was organized by Christopher D. Bahl and Stefan Hanß, another by Sabine Schmidtke—its proceedings have recently been published []
  2. N.  A. Mansour, “How to read a Dream Book, or, rather, Anxieties about History,” ArabLit Quarterly, Vol. 3/Issue 4: Dreams, Winter 2020, 120-125, here 124. []

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