The forgotten history of the dog-ear [lecture]

Great Pulteney Street

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February 13, 2019 @ 6:15 pm – 7:15 pm [followed by reception]


The folded corner of a page—the ‘dog-ear’ in English, ‘la corne’ in French, ‘das Eselsohr’ in German—evokes differing, and often strong, emotions among contemporary readers. For some, it is the sign of a much-loved book; for many others, it is evidence of neglect if not abuse. No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary appears to condemn the practice: to dog-ear is ‘to damage or disfigure’, the consequence of ‘rough’ and ‘careless’ use. Yet, for many centuries dog-earing was not only condoned, it was actively encouraged: it was the standard means of bookmarking, a scholarly tool, a sign of piety, and the source of many rich metaphors. Only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century did sensibilities changed, and our ambivalence towards the folded corner begin.

The material history of the dog-ear, though, is hard to recover. Dog-eared leaves are rarely recorded in library catalogues and in many cases, those folded corners were literally smoothed away. Instead, it is in the text of the early printed book rather than at the edges of its pages that the story of the dog-ear is to be found.

This talk will trace the history of dog-earing practices in England from the 16th-century onwards to reveal a hitherto unexplored area of readerly engagement. It will argue that, rather than being dismissed as a symbol of misuse, the dog-ear ought to be understood as an emblem of active, meaningful use. Marginalia and manicules have had their histories told; the dog-ear should have its day.

Ian Gadd is Professor in English Literature at Bath Spa University, specialising in the literature and history of the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

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