Commenting on Historical Writings in Medieval Latin Europe: A Reconnaissance

Jakub Kujawiński



Modern scholarship seems to undervalue medieval commentaries on historical writings. This article intends to bring this phenomenon to scholars’ attention by providing a preliminary overview of the forms and subjects of such commentaries. It examines various types of evidence including not only a few commentaries proper (Nicolas Trevet’s on Livy and John of Dąbrówka’s on Vincent of Cracow), but also different apparatus consisting of more or less systematic interlinear and marginal glosses and commentary-like additions to vernacular translations, mostly of Italian and French origin. It begins by considering various consultation-related signs and annotations, such as cross-references. Then, it studies the text-like features of sets of glosses (ascertained authorship and manuscript tradition) and briefly discusses some of their patterns of display as found in single manuscripts. Turning to the contents of commentaries, the article first touches upon introductions to the authors (accessus) and comments on the historians’ lives and the history of their writings. The article then discusses comments on different levels of meaning: first, explanations of grammatical forms, figures of speech, semantics of single words and entire fragments, then, different ways of exploring, or imposing, the inner senses of historical narration, mostly of an ethical nature. Finally, the text argues that among the different ways of expounding an historical account, comments on subject matter are especially worthy of attention from the perspective of the history of historical scholarship. Explanations of technical terms and place names often led to erudite digressions and revealed tensions between continuity and change. Expounding historical contents of entire fragments might include some elements of source criticism or tend towards a new historical synthesis. Medieval commentators were also able to read historical information beyond the factual account, often introducing subjects proper to antiquarian writings.


medieval historiography; medieval commentaries; glosses; antiquarism; medieval vernacular translations; history of scholarship

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Primary sources


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