An otiose stroke in the world of medieval scribal practice is a mark added to a letter that has no linguistic signification – these marks are common in English manuscripts of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, and are reproduced even in early English printed books. They have long been explained as mere decorative flourishes. This talk searches for a fuller explanation using the tools of palaeography, historical linguistics, and the study of medieval reading. Analysis of the deployment of these strokes in the vernacular production of the Carthusian scribe William Darker (working c.1481-1512) reveals semantic behaviours and patterns of use that suggest the marks had significant meaning: they appear to have performed a surprisingly robust range of linguistic functions. While these “otiose” strokes remain resistant to full explication, the patterns here uncovered suggest a scribal intention to encode detailed linguistic information via the conscious placement of calligraphic marks. Close examination of their deployment by scribes like Darker, and by the printer William Caxton, makes possible a reappraisal of scribal method across the late medieval period, the reading practices these methods imply, and the role of the scribe and printer in the creation of textual meaning.
Dr. Anya Adair is Assistant Professor in Law and Humanities at The University of Hong Kong.