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Hyperlinks to antiquity

September 14, 2016
Leiden, Universiteit
Until the 18th century, Latin annotations of well-known classical texts were an important source of scientific knowledge, but over the course of time the texts lost their authority. Now a classical scholar re-examines the annotations of Virgil's Aeneid.

Until the 18th century, Latin annotations of well-known classical texts were an important source of scientific knowledge, but over the course of time the texts lost their authority. Classical scholar Maarten Jansen re-examines the annotations of Virgil's Aeneid, with a PhD defense on September 20.

Traditional knowledge organization

For centuries, annotations on classical texts were part of the traditional knowledge organization. In the Early Modern period (15-17th century), an annotation was a kind of extract of all the scientific knowledge that could be derived from a particular work. The idea was that classical texts were sources of knowledge on all kinds of fields, from rhetoric, history and astronomy to geography and botany. In a time without encyclopaedias and scientific journals, it was the way to organize knowledge, certainly after the invention of book printing (ca. 1450), when there was an enormous increase in the dissemination of the annotations.

Emerging natural sciences

In the course of the 17th century friction started to arise between tradition and modernity. The success of the emerging natural sciences meant that knowledge acquired from books was taken less seriously than knowledge gained from experiments. Classical authors lost their authority because they were often proved wrong by new scientific developments. Fifteen hundred years of tradition came to an end; only the literary qualities of the major classical texts remained intact.

Standard work

Classical scholar Maarten Jansen describes this development on the basis of Latin annotations made in the Early Modern period of the Aeneid, the monumental work from classical antiquity by Virgil (70 -- 19 BC). Jansen: 'The Aeneid was a standard work in the Early Modern period, an undisputed source of knowledge for school pupils as well as for scholars.'


A page of annotations generally consisted of a few lines from the original text, with comments on the text. Jansen: 'Words that were in bold, like toga, for example, were explained in detail on the same page. You can compare the system to a modern index, or an internet text full of hyperlinks that you can click on to find out more. That's in fact how people worked: if you wanted to know about the moon, you would look up a comment on a line of verse by Virgil that talked about the moon.'

Digital revolution

For Jansen it was surprising to see how quickly an established way of thinking could lose status as a result of developments in society. 'You can compare it to the past three decades, in which the advent of the internet and the digital revolution have made us look at things very differently. In the Early Modern period, things happened just as quickly. The scientific world became more sharply divided. Whereas previously people sometimes had the illusion that it was possible to know everything, in the Early Modern time it became clear that the humanities and the natural sciences were separate areas. This research shows the importance of innovation and at the same time reveals material that offers a view of the fascinating intellectual life of Early Modern Europe.'

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