‘Marginalia’ is the term given to things which have been added to the margin of a book. That pencilled in ‘!’ or ‘No!’ you might have seen in a library book is, strictly speaking, an example. In practice, however, the word marginalia tends to mean things of interest on valuable works, and the ones I want to to talk about here are medieval ones.
Medieval marginalia present a vast array of scribblings, doodlings and beautifully executed illustrations around the edges of manuscripts. They were at their height from about 1100-1500, especially in England and the North of France. There are fart gags, poo jokes and any number of surreal scenarios: a nun gathering penises off a tree, for example, or an archer shooting arrows into an ogre’s bared arse. There is one which shows someone farting into a long trumpet, with an interested face at the other end. There are giant rabbits dressed in armour and snails engaged in combat with knights. Bear in mind that many of these are associated with religious houses – most medieval manuscripts were created by monks. The illustrations in the margin are more Python than prayer-book – and herein lies their interest: they bring us far closer to parts of the (to us) weird medieval mindset than any number of academic lectures could. These pictorial elements are also found in the popular literature of the time – romances, poems and works of travel – which is perhaps more understandable.
So obscure are some of the images that we don’t really know to this day exactly what they represent or why they were put in that particular part of the work: the references, once so understandable, are now lost to us – a bit like discovering a Spitting Image puppet in six hundred years’ time, after a complete change of culture, when the show and its creators (and all mention of them) might be long gone. What, for instance, do all the many depictions of snails mean? We would probably say slowness, or sliminess, but it’s impossible to deduce at this distance what they conveyed to a reader in the fifteenth century. They may, of course, just have been an individual scribe’s inspired response to a particular passage, or alternatively they may have had multiple meanings.
Some images are self-explanatory: they simply illustrate the appropriate part of the text next to them (a man distributing charity to a leper child in a wheelbarrow next to the wording of the Psalms, for example). Other pictures in margins are valuable for a different reason; their very ordinariness shows aspects of everyday life – ploughing, digging, or blacksmithing for instance – which let us see the typical peasant (= countryside dweller, worker on the land) going about his or her daily tasks. Not only that, portrayals of buildings in the background can tell us a lot about the architecture of the time. The accompanying flora and fauna are also beautifully and skilfully rendered.
The unexpected character of many of these drawings and paintings underlines how far removed from our typical stereotype of a monastery dweller these people’s minds actually were – or some of them, anyway. All we can do today is goggle at their artistic talent and vivid imaginations. Their creations were clearly appreciated by the aristocrats and the wealthy (not always the same thing) who were their target readership – those who commissioned, bought and preserved these works, which were expensive luxury items, and by all who kept them for centuries afterwards. It seems we are, and have always been, a rude lot.
© Foxoles 2019