The Arts and Special Collections Research Center has opened their latest exhibit —
Pointing Out the (Not Always) Obvious:
Manicules Through History
- from Latin, manicula (little hand)
- a hand-drawn or typographic mark representing a hand with its index finger extending in a pointing gesture
Humans have used the image of a pointing hand for much longer than the invention of emojis (1997) or the Wingdings font (1990). The idea of the digital “point and click” that is so familiar to us seems to be a direct descendant of the manicule, an illustration which dates back as far as the 12th century.
Manicules can be found scribbled in the margins of some of the earliest books. An educated person reading a highly valued manuscript as early as the 12th century was likely to make notes in the margins, literally pointing out key phrases, ideas, or corrections for themselves and for subsequent readers. Their writing tools looked different than ours today, but the manicule was basically the medieval reader’s highlighter.
These medieval manicules often showed oddly-proportioned hands and sometimes elaborate sleeves. Their whimsical look suggests that doodling is a long-held human habit. It seems that each note-taker had his or her own style, and some examples can be rather imaginative.
And while readers were the first ones to point out key parts of books, printers eventually joined in on the notation, perpetuating the look of the pointing finger with a formal sleeve. In this way, the creator of the document could highlight some important words or phrases. By the 19th century, the use of the manicule was so common that it moved into advertisements and signage. Today in print, the manicule mostly has a vintage vibe to it, but we see pointing fingers on our electronic devices every day, and we actively point (and click) our way through the internet. (In fact, you can click twice through each image to enlarge them — there are small manicules to be found on each page!)
This evolution of the earliest readers’ scribbles into a printed and now digital cultural touchpoint makes the manicule a fascinating piece of literary history.
If you are interested in more information about the exhibit or our collections or if you would like to pay us a visit, please send us an email at RareCollections@baylor.edu.
Photos are from the Baylor University Libraries collections. Additional resources:
The First Post-It Note
Helping Hands on the Medieval Page
Toward a History of the Manicule
Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Keith Houston. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc. 2013.