Scholia Seeking Understanding 

Stephen Carlson and Jonathan Zecher

Byzantine readers loved making notes in manuscripts. In many cases those notes, called “scholia,” were copied along with the main text and incorporated into the life of the text being read. We have examples of scholia on laws, on Aristophanes’ comedies and Euripides’ tragedies, on philosophical treatises, and on some theologians. Among these theologians, scholia were especially attracted to the writings of a shadowy figure who wrote just after the turn of the sixth century but who claimed to be a convert of the first-century Apostle Paul mentioned in the Book of Acts: Dionysios “the Areopagite,” that is, the man on the Areopagus in Athens where Paul preached on the “unknown god” (Acts 17:22-23).   

Dionysios was a Christian Neoplatonist who wrote dense, philosophical theology about the paradoxical God who is beyond all being and knowledge yet revealed in the Christian Trinity. His writings were—indeed, are!—as tantalizing as they are baffling, and his early readers responded to the challenge by writing hundreds of notes. These range from simple glosses defining obscure words to lengthy historical or theological expositions. Two early readers contributed most of these notes: John of Scythopolis (c. 540s) and later Maximos the Confessor (c. 620s).  Once their notes were added, they were included in every copy of the Areopagite, almost always as a “frame” around the main text: 

Every page then has both Dionysios and the commentary that helps explain him. It is a composite text.  

But that commentary presents a different challenge, as it is often written in smaller hand, using archaic styles and frequent abbreviations. How can the novice reader—the one most in need of these scholia—expect to read them?   

This is the question that puzzles us, and which we hope to answer in two ways. First, in close collaboration with the scientific team, we want to test readers’ experience of notes on the page—footnotes, sidenotes, differently sized or abbreviated.  How does the placement of notes impact both the aesthetic experience of the page and comprehension of it? That is, does it seem more impressive, or even beautiful? Does it help readers understand and remember what they’ve read?  Or does it frustrate and even impede understanding? Together, we are creating experimental setups to usefully measure experiences and intuitions that many of us have harboured.  

Second, we apply thorough historical and philological analyses of the Dionysian corpus to bring out those various paratextual features that have not been previously appreciated, let alone studied. Stephen Carlson brings experience as a cutting-edge text critic to exploring questions of transmission, while studying unnoticed but fascinating lexicographical features. Jonathan Zecher is a Byzantinist working to better understand the theological communities that so valued Dionysios. We are working together to use the scholia and other paratexts to better situate the Areopagite and his reception materially, cognitively, aesthetically, and theologically. And we want to share the insights we learn with the general public by enhancing museum displays. 

Between philological study and experimental data, we hope that this project will contribute to:

  1. A greater appreciation among scholars for the scholia to early Christian texts,
  2. Improved scholarly editions of these texts that visibly and prominently include the scholia, and
  3. New and more accessible approaches to displaying manuscripts in museums and galleries.

Images: BnF