Marginalia Theory

In their introduction to Ma(r)king the Text: The presentation of meaning on the literary page, Joe Bray, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry point out that “to mark a text is also to make it; [and] features such as punctuation, footnotes, epigraphs, white space and marginalia, marks that traditionally have been ignored in literary criticism, can be examined for their contribution to a text’s meaning” (xvii).

The oldest-surviving manuscript of Popol Vuh was composed by a seventeenth-century Dominican missionary named Francisco Ximénez who incorporated it within a broader ecclesiastical treatise. Housed today at The Newberry Library, Ayer ms 1515 contains a great deal more material than one would expect after consulting a printed edition. This stealth marginalia can be used to coax its conservator’s authorial voice to the surface.

The formatting disparity between the original manuscript and printed editions is the consequence of decades of the manuscript’s inaccessibility. Without access to the original, editors and scholars were obliged to rely upon a particular nineteenth-century edition which barely (and dismissively) acknowledges the adjoining content. As part of a comprehensive conservation effort from 2007 to 2013, the manuscript’s disbinding made it possible to more fully explore the composer’s marginal annotations and physical features.

There are numerous titles and headings within the manuscript, four of which are significantly more prominent than the others as seen here:

Arte de las tres lengvas Tratado segvndo de todo lo qve deve saber vn mínístro para la bvena admínístraçión de estos natvrales Empiezan las historias del origen de los indíos de esta provinçia de Gvatemala Escolíos a las hístorías de El Orígen de Los Indíos

Various features suggest that the folio depicted in the third image was not originally part of the manuscript and was inserted by Ximénez at a later point. For example, where the first, second, and fourth headings begin with nouns, the third heading begins with a verb. This subtle semiotic inflection diminishes or perhaps even mutes the formality of the heading by transforming it from a rigid textual boundary to an advisory bookmark that merely denotes the commencement of specific content rather than the demarcation of a new treatise. Similarly, this third title page is also the first—and most conspicuous—instance of Ximénez’s credentials. He places these so closely to the title as if to assign his credentials equal significance as the title itself. The even more subtle implication is that Ximénez’s agency in presenting the content is of equal importance as the content itself. Alternately, the juxtaposition suggests that it is not sufficient for the content to exist in its own right, but that it must be authenticated and validated by, and through, a representative of the Church and of Western thought.

Additionally, these four prominent titles also feature accompanying prologues (the third one commencing on a separate page). These observations led early editors and scholars to regard the manuscript as four discrete treatises whose collation was purely an accident of time. Though Westerners generally conceive of prologues as forematter,  a closer reading reveals that Ximénez sustains a common discursive thread throughout the four, at times forecasting and at times recounting the relevance of the adjacent treatise(s).

When read as a whole, the four prologues give a clear indication of Ximénez’s particular and general intent behind each treatise. Prologue statements such as “a lo q’ mira este tratado segundo en q’ se contiene el confesionario, y chateçismo, [y] un tratado q’ le añado en la lengua quiche, y traduçido en la nuestra castellana” are strong evidence that Ximénez purposefully sequenced the items as they are currently seen. By extension, Ximénez’s voice is sustained beyond the leading and trailing discourse, into, and through the text-proper of “Popol Vuh”. The marginalia thus shows that Popol Vuh is not a free-standing treatise and that the narrative should be studied in the context of the entire work. This should not be taken as if to negate or nullify the narrative’s anthropological or literary value, but it does destabilize the long-held view of Popol Vuh as subversive indigenous auto-ethnography.

It is the nature of paratext to defy the rigor of its conjoined text and the very marginalia which stands to contribute meaning to the text resists accessible textual formulations. As Kate Bennett circumspectly observes, “to print an ‘unprintable’ text is a compromise, and much remains out of reach of the public domain which print represents.”

Rendering a manuscript in typeset, whether for page or for screen, obliges abundant compromise with respect to kerning, size, serifs, bold, italics, stray marks, indentation, alignment, line spacing, line breaks, and page breaks. While markup schemata such as HTML and XML greatly facilitate and reduce the degree of compromise, much is still lost in the subjective impressions of the transcriber. In Popol Vuh, for instance, it is impossible to determine whether a seemingly bold script reflects intended emphasis, a trimming of Ximénez’s quill, or some defect or irregularity of his iron-gall tinctures.

Much of my work is focused on raising awareness of Ximénez’s interaction with the Popol Vuh narrative as evidenced through his prologues and annotations. Prior to my scholarship, there was no single edited collection of the prologues and their inclusion as an appendix was a significant contribution of my doctoral dissertation.


Bennett, Kate. “Editing Aubrey.” Ma(r)king the text: the presentation of meaning on the literary page. Eds. Joe Bray, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry. Aldershot, Eng: Ashgate, 2000. 271-90. Print.

Bray, Joe, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry, eds. “Introduction.” Ma(r)king the Text: The presentation of meaning on the literary page. Aldershot, Eng: Ashgate, 2000. xvii-xxiv. Print.

Woodruff, John M. “Ma(r)king Popol Vuh.” Untying Tongues: Literatures in Minority or Minoritized Languages in Spain and Latin America. Spec. issue of Romance Notes. 51.1 (2011): 97-106. Print.