Back to top

Digitising the margins: a classification of Voltaire’s scribbles

Thursday, 12 November, 2020

The most famous squiggly lines relating to eighteenth-century writing are almost certainly to be found in Tristram Shandy. Sterne uses them to illustrate the non-linearity of stories (see about halfway down that page) and digressions from the main narrative, before reviving the device several volumes later to render graphically for his readers the movement of the stick brandished by the character Trim. But these squiggles from 1761-1762 are far from alone. Both before and after Sterne’s foray into wiggly line design, Voltaire was peppering the margins of his books with marginalia, which involved both verbal and non-verbal elements – that is, words and squiggles.

When a team of Russian scholars began to publish the marginalia from his library in the 1970s in the Corpus des notes marginales de Voltaire, they decided that a facsimile edition would be both too expensive and not sufficiently clear to read. They settled on a compromise editorial policy, which entailed transcribing Voltaire’s words and reproducing graphically any accompanying marks and lines (usually made in ink or lead pencil, but also comprising scratches or indentations in the paper, for example crosses scored with the thumb-nail). When the edition passed to the Voltaire Foundation, we adhered to the same principles for the remaining volumes, much to the chagrin of our typesetter, who nevertheless heroically drew hundreds of scribbles electronically to incorporate into the typeset file.

digitising the margins a classification of Voltaire's scribbles

Vauvenargues, p.90; OCV, vol.145, p.484.

The example above and those that follow are from books that Voltaire annotated with the intent of returning them to their authors with suggestions for improvement. In principle this should mean a greater likelihood that any shapes drawn should be intelligible and contribute to the meaning of the verbal marginalia. Indeed, in the first case, in a copy of Vauvenargues’s Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, we can see that the vertical wavy line in the margin brackets the passage generally, and is connected with the note ‘peu déve / lop[p]é’ (poorly developed), while the second + sign links ‘sage’ in the printed text to ‘fort’ in the margin, indicating that rather than referring to a wise person, the author should be talking about a strong person (in opposition to the weak person indicated by the first + sign higher up).

digitising the margins a classification of Voltaire's scribbles

Vauvenargues, p.48; OCV, vol.145, p.477.

Here Voltaire uses + signs again to flag the word ‘dans’ twice at the top of the page, and indicates by the curved line and a further ‘dans’ in the margin that Vauvenargues should be consistent in beginning each in the series of adverbial clauses with the same preposition. At the beginning of the new section lower down, he uses a sort of Greek gamma in the margin to show that an insertion should be made. All very clear for the addressee of the annotations. And between those two? The squiggly line in the margin is hard to interpret and may simply bear testament to his reading: did he stumble on this passage? Did he dislike it? Perhaps he wanted to write a criticism or a suggestion but couldn’t decide on what to say. At any rate, the squiggle draws our eye, nearly 300 years after it was penned, to a passage to which Voltaire must also have paid particular attention.

digitising the margins a classification of Voltaire's scribbles

Frederick, p.122; OCV, vol.145, p.156.

This final example is a bit different insofar as it is not actually in Voltaire’s hand, but is a careful copy made of an original that was subsequently destroyed in the bombing of Berlin during the Second World War. Slanted crosses, several with double verticals (reminiscent of the letter H), indicate lines of verse by Frederick, king of Prussia, with which Voltaire, preeminent poet of his day, was unhappy and which are commented in the margins. The ‘gamma’ again probably draws the king’s attention to the replacement word written over the line. Here, the limits of the typeset page become apparent as the slashing lines and crosses come so thick and fast that it becomes difficult to fit them all in. An apparatus of notes at the bottom of the page helps, but the effect at first glance is really not quite the same.

Digitising these volumes, as part the Voltaire Foundation’s new initiative Digital Enlightenment, poses new challenges, but can it also bring new solutions? On first analysis the infinitely flexible nature of Voltaire’s squiggles seems to be at odds with the ordered discipline inherent in our approach to digitising the Œuvres complètes. We soon decided that we were not going to scan every mark in the source volume and virtually paste it into the digital text – not only would madness likely that way lie, but also considerable expense, and it would be a distinctly inelegant way of solving the problem. The more you look at the corpus of squiggles, however, the more you see that although in strict terms you have a very large number of different marks, you have a much smaller number of different types of mark, and if we can successfully classify and label those types, we can use that classification and those labels when we digitise the content. Instead of the data saying ‘here’s a picture of a squiggle’, it will instead say ‘at this point there’s a mark of type X.’

How, then, to classify these marks? If you think of what makes up a mark or a squiggle, it will be one or more line-type marks, and where there is more than one line-type mark, they may meet or cross each other at a particular point. We call the line-type marks edges, and the points where they meet or cross nodes, and if you count the number of edges and nodes you find you have a ready-made way of classifying – and even sorting – your squiggles. For example:

digitising the margins a classification of Voltaire's scribbles  has one edge, and no nodes:


digitising the margins a classification of Voltaire's scribbles  has two edges, but still no nodes, and:


digitising the margins a classification of Voltaire's scribbles  has one edge and one node. If we turn these counts into parts of a label (e.g. n0e1) we can start to distil order out of infinite variety, and we can pretty soon have an easy lookup for our digitisers to use:

digitising the margins a classification of Voltaire's scribbles

digitising the margins a classification of Voltaire's scribbles

There is, of course, a degree of discretion involved here in grouping marks according to type – there is a slanted line 10º from the vertical and another 10º from the horizontal, but what if we find a line precisely 45º from both? Or a vertical line that wiggles not once or twice but… seven times? Well, we may then need to add a shape and a code, but the method allows that, and if there’s one thing this digitisation exercise has taught us, it’s that until you’ve marked up the final full stop, novelty may at any time appear before you. Expect, and accommodate, the unexpected.

Using this method, we will be able to allow readers to search for particular marks. Or, more correctly, for particular classifications of marks, e.g. for ‘a straight line slanting from bottom left to top right at an angle of inclination less than 45º from the horizontal’ rather than for a specific slanting line. But the classification should be sufficiently specific that a reader encountering a mark in one text, and wondering where else Voltaire has used it, should be able to see the other relevant instances.

How will we deal with squiggles that defy classification? We defy squiggles to defy this classification! Time will, of course, tell, but we’re confident that we can accommodate anything that Voltaire felt necessary to add to the texts he was reading, blissfully unaware of the coding system that awaited his scribbles.

– Gillian Pink and Dan Barker, dancan Ltd