I'm reading "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour" by Joshua Ferris, and the narrator/author talks about looking over the shoulder of someone studying the Bible on the subway, and noticing that there are "notes in a friar's hand" written in it, along with highlighting and underlining. The text seems to intimate that the studier did the highlighting, so I'm assuming they also made the notes.

I don't think I've encountered that phrase before, and googling it returns excerpts from this book or Shakespeare snippets with 'friar' in them.

What does this mean? Is it a misprint? I'm guessing it means careful penmanship or something like that.

  • Perhaps the narrator is confusing monks and friars. Before printing presses, some monks would painstakingly transcribe books with beautiful calligraphy and illumination.
    – Qaz
    Jul 17, 2014 at 2:59
  • Sure, but wouldn't an editor have caught such a mistake?
    – user1359
    Jul 17, 2014 at 3:00
  • 1
    Remember that this is a work of literature, and that novelists can take liberties with the English language that journalists or academic writers cannot (or at least should not). Think of a phrase like this not as a "mistake", but as artistic license.
    – MT_Head
    Jul 17, 2014 at 5:19
  • I doubt that enough people nowadays know the actual distinction between friars and monks for this to qualify as a mistake.
    – oerkelens
    Jul 17, 2014 at 9:04

3 Answers 3


Friars (members of the mendicant orders) were sometimes scribes as well.

Among the Franciscans Friar William of Nottingham copied a set of five volumes containing the Postills of Nicholas Gorran for the Order at the expense of Sir Hugh of Nottingham... Other friars copied sermon materials.

I imagine the friars, knowing that their books and sermons (with notes) were going to be passed around and read by many (as told in many books on the Grey Friars in Oxford) wrote carefully and legibly in a studied hand. It is said that

Friar William of Nottingham copied at Oxford with "tedious solicitude" and "laborious diligence"...

I would take the sentence in question as meaning the notes in the margins indicated a careful and perhaps thoughtful scholar at work, perhaps metaphorically equating the Bible reader with a friar.


I am currently translating this book to Croatian and have understood this phrase as crammed notes in the margins as I also haven't found any other references that fit the context...

  • If you are an official translator, couldn't you ask the publisher what it means?
    – user1359
    Apr 17, 2015 at 20:19

It means in the handwriting of a friar.

  • I got that part, but what does "friar" mean here? That the guy studying the Bible wrote his notes carefully, or that the notes were literally written by a Friar? I'm assuming it's some sort of phrase, because I don't know how the narrator could be thought to know that a friar had written the notes.
    – user1359
    Jul 17, 2014 at 2:31
  • 1
    It doesn't seem to be a phrase. I'd guess it just means a very cramped but careful writing style that someone who habitually and heavily annotates their bible by writing in the margins (like an imagined friar) might employ.
    – Neil W
    Jul 17, 2014 at 4:44
  • It's not a set phrase, AFAIK. What made the person think that it was written by a friar? Who knows, out of context? Maybe the margin notes said things that indicated this ("Last night, when I was eating my friar supper, before brushing my friar teeth,..."). At this point, this is no longer a question about English -- unless someone finds that this is in fact a set phrase and can tell you what it means.
    – Drew
    Jul 17, 2014 at 14:04
  • And yes, I would guess the same thing as @medica: that friar handwriting was known to be careful and neat, so the message here is that this handwriting was careful and neat - like a friar's would be. But who knows whether what was meant was that the handwriting was actually that of a friar, without more context to help decide?
    – Drew
    Jul 17, 2014 at 14:07

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