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). My research applies marginalia theory to an eighteenth-century Spanish-American colonial text known as Popol Vuh in order to coax its conservator’s authorial/editorial voice to the forefront.

Popol Vuh

In the case of Popol Vuh, one will find a great deal more material in the manuscript than one would expect after consulting a printed edition. 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 only dismissively acknowledged the adjoining content. Now, however, the original manuscript has been digitally imaged and made available to the general public online.

The manuscript which contains Popol Vuh was composed by a seventeenth-century Dominican missionary named Francisco Ximénez who incorporated it within a broader ecclesiastical treatise. 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 Cakchiqvel, Qviche y Tzvtvhil Tratado segvndo de todo lo qve deve saber vn ministro Empiezan las historias del origen de los indios de esta provinçia Escolios a las historias de el origen de los indios

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, whereas the first, second, and fourth headings begin with nouns, the third one (introducing  “Popol Vuh”) begins with a verb. This subtle semiotic inflection diminishes or perhaps even mutes the formality of the heading by transforming it from a formal textual boundary to an advisory bookmark. Similarly, this third title is also the first instance—and a very prominent one at that—of Ximénez’s credentials. He places these so closely to title as if to equate them in significance with the title itself. The even more subtle implication is that Ximénez’s agency in presenting the content is equal in importance to the content itself. Alternately, the juxtaposition suggests that is not sufficient for the content to exist in its own right; 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.

Rendering Marginalia

By virtue of its nature as paratext, the very marginalia which stands to contribute meaning to the core text problematizes the creation of accessible textual formulations, which 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 manifold compromises 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. Prologue transcriptions are now also available on my companion website.

Further Resources

Further exploration of Popol Vuh and the contribution(s) of its prologues to its overall understanding can be found on my companion website http://www.PopolVuhInContext.com.