Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter M

Mis for manicule (hand emroidered by Mary Addison)

After a wonderful weekend almost entirely taken up with celebrating the life of a friend no longer with us, we’ve returned home to find that spring may be here – I know 3 days of sun do not spring make, but they do lift the spirit. In fact a weekend which could have been miserable turned out to be wonderful. Kind people put us up in a beautiful York town house and over dinner on Friday evening we began to find out about our friend’s life in a city he’d made his own. The memorial service, like the curate’s egg, was good in parts, in the main because there were so many people in the chapel – far more than seats available – that the standing bodies in their thick winter wear soaked up falling cadences of the spoken voices and muffled delicate musical passages. The small person beside me coped well with what he might have thought were interminable longeurs. Of course, with music you can always whisper “can you hear the flute?” or ask what instrument he thinks is now playing but the greatest spur to ensuring he sat still was to point out that the lady sitting in front of him had brought with her two plates full of the very best chocolate brownies. (Meanwhile the small person’s sister, after a little bit of balletic arm stretching and a couple of thankfully quiet choruses of “Happy birthday to you” had been withdrawn to dance with the memorial angels in the churchyard outside.)  Fortunately, someone has recorded the service, so the contingent overseeing the graveyard nymph should be able to see what they were missing. Hooray for modern technology. More eating, and identifying people not seen for 40 years, continued in a couple of venues across York during the evening and I have come away from sadness, happy – with email and website addresses for both old and new friends.

M is for manicule (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

This M is for manicule, from the Latin for little hand. It is almost unique among typographical marks in that it has remained practically unchanged since it first appeared in the margins of hand written manuscripts where is was used to literally direct the reader’s notice to a bit of text. Manicules tend to be very personal emendations and were not really intended for the general reader – indeed it can often be difficult to fathom why they point to what they do. As someone once said, “one reader’s manicule is another reader’s nuisance”, which is true of most marginalia in books made by people other than oneself – something almost borne out by that most famous of marginalia, Fermat’s Last Theorem (1637)  until, that is Andrew Wiles recently solved it to the satisfaction of the Mathematics fraternity.

Sketch for M is for manicule

Manicules come in all sorts of styles and seem to reveal something about the character of the writer. Medieval manuscripts have all sorts of pointy hands. Petrarch is notable for giving his hand 5 fingers and a thumb. Medieval manuscripts often have wiggly fingers extending to encompass whole paragraphs if necessary and sometimes individual fingers can be seen to ramble over entire pages in a manner anatomically impossible. From time to time animals are used instead – a C14th copy of Cicero has a 5 limbed octopus doing the job. Usually, manicules end at the wrist, but some opt for fancy cuffs or even flowing sleeves (Petrarch again). Victorian ones go for crisp shirt cuffs – sometime with their own notes – and even cuff links. A C17th treatise on the medical properties of plants amusingly goes in for something quite different and various little penises pop up in the margin to draw the reader’s attention to passages relating to male genitalia.   Modern printing has no truck with manicules and on the personal note-making level, most of us would just annotate our books with a simple line in the margin or at the most an arrow. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Pottery mosaic of hand by Cleo Mussi

My manicule was inspired by Cleo Mussi’s pottery mosaics.

Looking at my sketch, I now see various shortcomings to bear in mind should I embroider another one.  The pointing finger should have been longer and overall my hand overall is podgy rather than elegant. In fact, it looks like the embroidery has turned hand into glove.  Hey ho!


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  1. Posted March 3, 2020 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    But such a beautifully embellished glove!

    • Mary Addison
      Posted March 6, 2020 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Very kind, Rachel.

  2. ceci
    Posted March 3, 2020 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Maybe because of the knuckle lines I don’t see glove at all. But what an interesting thing to learn about,, manicules. My poorly educated editor wants it to be manicure instead.


    • Mary Addison
      Posted March 6, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Thank you Ceci. You can get into such fights with computer self correcting, especially when it aways tries to correct my granddaughter’s name!

  3. Amara Bray
    Posted March 6, 2020 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I learned something completely new in this post. Thank you!

    • Mary Addison
      Posted March 6, 2020 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      I do like picking up little snippets of information, so I’m very glad you enjoy hearing about them, Amara.

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