Looking at some texts and not sure what these symbols mean in these few cases. Wondering if one could just list off real quick what the purpose is of the symbols or patterns (like the spacing patterns), and if they can be removed or changed to something else.

  1. Purpose of spacing and lines here

     Verbum supernum prodiens,
       Nec Patris linquens dexteram,
     Ad opus suum exiens,
       Venit advitae vesperam.
  2. Meaning of », «, and <hor> in this, and angle brackets here too:

    <hor>nas byrnadh næfre.» Hleothrode dha hearogeong cyning: «Ne dhis ne dagadh eastan, ne her draca ne fleogedh, ne her dhisse healle hornas ne byrnadh. 5 Ac her forth beradh; fugelas singadh, gylledh græghama, gudhwudu hlynnedh, scyld scefte oncwydh. Nu scynedh thes mona wadhol under wolcnum. Nu arisadh weadæda dhe dhisne folces nidh fremman willadh. 10 Ac onwacnigeadh nu, wigend mine, habbadh eowre linda, hicgeath on ellen, winnadh on orde, wesadh onmode!»

  3. The meaning of the brackets [foo] in here and here:

    ...[b]et thuyhte th...[Th]o stod on old...

  4. Meaning of the angle brackets < and > here:

    ni < sterro > nohheinig noh sunna ni s c ,

  5. Meaning of the bars and spacing here (the indent to Kyrie and related, and the bars):

     U nsar trohtîn hât farsalt sancte pêtre giuualt,
     daz he mac ginerian |      ze imo dingênten man.
       Kyrie Eleyson. christe eleyson. |
  6. The bars here (maybe it means half-lines, not sure):

    De los sos ojos | tan fuerte mientre lorando

For (1), I'm wondering if the spacing needs to be like that (in addition to if it has a purpose). If the spacing doesn't need to be exactly like that, wondering if I could change it to be however I want (such as just flat left side, no odd/even indentation).

For the square brackets like [foo], wondering if they are inserting text into the document (the one who uploaded this text), or if that's something else.

Have no idea what the other types of brackets like < and » are for.

2 Answers 2


This question illustrates a perennial problem with manuscript transcription: there is no single book of standards that is universally applied! To quote from David L. Vander Meulen and G. Thomas Tanselle:

There has never been a single standard convention for the transcription of manuscript texts, and it is not likely that there will ever be one, given the great variety of textual complications that manuscripts - from all times and places - can present.

In general, particular institutions have their own standards for transcription. We just have to get used to them. For anyone who is fairly new to the subject, I would usually recommend reading every transcription manual they can get their hands on. These will often contain include rules and guidance that are very different from the standards we were taught, and give some insight into the variety that we encounter out in the 'real world'!

  1. This text is from a hymn, Verbum Supernum Prodiens by Thomas Aquinas

The indentation that you noted:

    Verbum supernum prodiens,
      Nec Patris linquens dexteram,
    Ad opus suum exiens,
      Venit advitae vesperam.

indicates that, for the purpose of the sequence, the 2nd and 4th lines are continuations of the 1st & 3rd respectively. Thus, lines 1 & 2 form a 'couplet', lines 3 & 4 form a 'couplet', etc.

This format is still occasionally used in modern English translations, thus for the verse above it would be:

    The Word of God proceeding forth,
      Yet leaving not the Father's side,
    And going to His work on earth,
      Had reached at length life's eventide.

  1. The double angle brackets, « and », simply indicate speech.

The single brackets on <hor> indicate that the first part of the word was missing, and that 'hornas' is the postulated reconstruction.

In the case of the Finnsburg Fragment, this is especially problematic since the original manuscript has since been lost, and all we have today is a transcription made in 1705. For more on this, you might find Finnsburh: Fragments of Fact, Fiction, and History by Kayse Schmucker of interest.

For a fully diacritically-marked text and translation, see the Finnsburh Fragment on Beowulf on Steorarume.

  1. Square brackets serve a number of functions when transcribing manuscripts. Here, they seem to be used refer to letters or words that have been inserted into the transcription. This can be for a variety of reasons, for example because a well-known abbreviation in the original has been expanded, or because it appears the original scribe missed out a letter.

For the Owl and Nightingale, if we look at the original manuscript text the reasons for the use of square brackets in this case become clear:

Owl and Nightingale manuscript

Ich was in one sumere dale,
in one suthe diyhele hale,
iherde ich holde grete tale
an hule and one niyhtingale.
That plait was stif & starc & strong,
sum wile softe & lud among;
an aither ayhen other sval,
& let that [vue]le mod ut al.
& either seide of otheres custe
that alre-worste that hi wuste:
& hure & hure of othere[s] songe

The first expands the abbreviation in the eighth line, and the second supplies the letter 's' that seems to have been omitted by the original scribe.

  1. This is from the Wessobrunn Prayer

Wessobrunn Prayer manuscript

As noted in the Wikipedia article, it appears from the context that the word 'sterro' ('star') was omitted by the scribe. The angle brackets are used here to indicate that the transcriber has corrected the (presumed) error by the scribe.

  1. The indentation in the Kyrie eleison indicates what we might term the 'chorus', which in modern liturgy might be in the form of a 'call and response'


Priest: Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy)
All: Christe eleison (Christ, have mercy)

The vertical bars in the transcription are used, correctly, to indicate the beginnings of the lines in the original manuscript (which can be seen above the transcription for that example). However, they seem to stray from the standard here in that they are not using a double vertical line to indicate the fifth line.

  1. This looks to be a really good example of where the transcribers have completely discarded the Leiden Conventions on transcription. The transcription is from the Cantar de Mio Cid.

The vertical bars do not indicate the start of a new line in the original manuscript, as we can see when we examine the original manuscript:

Cantar de Mio Cid manuscript

Comparing with the given transcription:

De los sos ojos | tan fuerte mientre lorando
tornava la cabeça | y estava los catando.
Vio puertas abiertas | e uços sin cañados,
alcandaras vazias | sin pielles e sin mantos
e sin falcones e sin adtores mudados.
Sospiro mio Çid | ca mucho avie grandes cuidados.
Ffablo mio Çid | bien e tan mesurado:
«¡Grado a ti, señor, | padre que estas en alto!
¡Esto me an buelto | mios enemigos malos!»

It appears that your surmise here is correct, and the vertical bars are being used in this case to indicate half-lines in the poem.

Many publications will include a brief explanation of the conventions adopted in transcribing manuscripts or papyri. Most will conform - to a greater or lesser degree - with the Leiden System, established in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, many transcriptions available online don't include any key to the symbols and conventions being used. In those cases you just have to use your best judgement. However, it will get easier as you gain more experience.

As regards changing the symbols and conventions being used, I would suggest:

  • If they already comply reasonably well with the Leiden System leave them as they are.
  • If they are significantly different from the Leiden System, consider modifying them so that they do comply with the Leiden System. After all, the goal is for others to read and understand your transcriptions, so conforming to a 'standard' system is highly desirable.

Most of the symbols you will encounter in that way are based on editing conventions more or less agreed upon through tradition in usage. Most of these will either follow the Leiden convention for symbols or have to be explained somewhere in the footnotes or glossaries of the editions you'll read. They are used almost universally for the transcription, description, critical editions or quotations of ancient, medieval or even modern texts, inscriptions and so on.

As @sempaiscuba covers the examples, here are some of the most important sigla for this system:

[ ]     Square brackets indicate that the bracketed section on the original inscription is damaged and no longer legible, or at least very difficult to read, and has been supplemented by the editor for the printed publication. The restored characters are reproductions of the unreadable original that have been classified as probable to a degree of probability bordering on certainty.
[...]   Dots on the line indicate the determinable number of non-reconstructible letters (in this case three).
[- -]   horizontal lines indicate an indeterminable number of non-reconstructible letters.
( )     Round brackets indicate that the bracketed part of a word was omitted in the original, i.e. that the term was abbreviated. The content enclosed in such brackets completes the abbreviation used.

        Example: P(ontifex) M(aximus) means that instead of the written Pontifex Maximus only PM can be found in the original inscription.
        Example for the use in a translation: Smikylion (son) of Eucalides. (In ancient inscriptions, the name of a person is often followed by the name of his father in the genitive and without a more precise explanation of the relationship, so this must be supplemented in the translation.
< >     angled brackets indicate that the editor has corrected an error in the original inscription (for example, inadvertently omitted letters, spelling mistakes, or an erroneous number).
        Sometimes the erroneous part of the text is simply replaced by the correction (i.e. "C<ae>sar", although the original erroneously says "Ceasar") - then a reference to the original spelling must be made in the commentary on the edition.
        Sometimes, however, both the wrong and the corrected spelling are indicated within the angle brackets, e.g. according to the format "C<ae=EA>sar".[12]
{ }     Curly brackets surround text that the editor deletes as superfluous (for example, words or parts of words that are accidentally written twice).
ạḅc̣     A dot below the letter indicates that the original letter is only partially preserved and that it is not clear from the still visible lines (even if it can be reconstructed with great certainty due to the preceding and/or following letters).
...     dots on the line indicate the number of assumed non-reconstructible letters (Greek and papyrological).
+++     plus signs on the line indicate the number of assumed non-reconstructible letters (Roman)
[[abc]] In the scientific nomenclature, the double clasping of a text section is referred to as shaving, which means that the clasped section was intentionally removed from an inscription in ancient times. The reasons for this are mostly politically motivated: for example, the Roman emperor Caracalla had the name of his brother and co-regent Geta erased from inscriptions after he had murdered him, which both named as equal rulers. This measure is called Damnatio memoriae.
        If, despite shaving, parts of a letter are still recognizable, a dot is placed under them: [[ạḅc̣]]
vacat   for "empty" indicates an unmarked position in the text witness. The size of the blank field can be indicated by the number of letters that could have been left there according to the font size.
        If the editor suspects an unmarked place, which however cannot be proved or cannot be proved with certainty due to the state of preservation of the original, this can be indicated by [vacat] or ṿ (i.e. by square brackets or a dot below the letter).
|       Vertical lines mark the beginning of a line if the text is not printed with the original line breaks.
||      Vertical double strokes mark the beginning of every fifth line for the sake of clarity.

...             Illegible letters, not restored by the editor (extent known or approximately known, one dot per letter). Above example: three illegible letters. Specific numbers between two dashes used for extended areas, instead of individual dots per letter. In the latter case, approximation, if any, may be expressed with plus-minus sign replacing the first dash.
[...]           Letters missing, not restored by the editor (extent known or approximately known, one dot per letter). Above example: three letters missing. Specific numbers between two dashes used for extended areas, instead of individual dots per letter. In the latter case, approximation, if any, may be expressed with plus-minus sign replacing the first dash.
[ or [ ] or ]   Letters missing, not restored by the editor, extent unknown.
[abc]           Letters missing, restored by the editor.
⟨ ⟩ or ***      Letters erroneously omitted by the text, not restored by the editor.
⟨abc⟩           Letters erroneously omitted by the text, restored by the editor.
a(bc)           Abbreviation in the text, expanded by the editor. Doubtful expansion should be expressed with a question mark before the closing parenthesis: a(bc?).
{abc}           Letters considered erroneous and superfluous by the editor. If illegible, an individual letter is expressed by a single dot each. Doubtful letters are marked by a subscript dot.
⟦abc⟧           Rasura: a deletion which can be restored. In this example, the letters abc were deleted, but are still legible or can be restored from context. Deletions may be specified in the apparatus as well.
\abc/           Interlinear addition of letters in the text itself. In this example, the letters abc were added between lines. These sigla are used when interlinear text is otherwise difficult to represent as such typographically.

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