Medieval Marginalia Pt. 2


Hello everyone—today something unrelated to everything: Volume II of medieval marginalia. You can read the whole first issue is here, but I'm republishing the bulk of it because, why not. (Although crucially I am not including the section on sex badges, so definitely check out the first one.)

Here’s what I wrote last year for some context:

I was going to say that this marginalia interlude is wholly unrelated to my supposed, current newsletter theme of “where did that art come from” but alas, what is more “where did this art come from?” then delving into early book-making, reminding ourselves how many invisible hands are part of any book, how the multiplicity of many hands are collapsed—now, not then—behind the fallacy of a single, notable creator? It is never so simple, and never so solitary, but we like to think of individuals as being Solitary Geniuses, rather than people with collaborators. Spoiler, everyone needs help, individuals are never working alone. Etc. etc.

I have long been fixated on marginalia (like many of us readers and writers) for how visceral a reminder it is of texts being alive. It’s an undeniably twee truth that we can’t get enough of the palimpsests others have left for us, basking in the delicious potential of being able to add ourselves into the margins, too. Is this…immortality?

Ok but: Marginalia is, broadly speaking, anything written or drawn in the margins of a text. Let’s see some medieval marg stat:

ID: A grotesque image of an ogre shooting an arrow into another creature’s rear from the Rutland Psalter, c. 1260. (British Library Royal MS 62925, f. 87v.). Taken from this article.

In the blog post roundup version articles about these images, i.e. SEO friendly headline bout a slideshow of old dicks, they seem to ascribe most of this marginalia to the whims of bored monks, complaining to each other in the margins as they had to painstakingly copy texts by hand.

I did find that there were bored monks basically kvetching back and forth to each other via marginalia, which is incredible. This Books Tell You Why blogpost (yes, here I am, on the interwebs) categorizes such marginalia into “complaints” and “curses.” But while there are a few broken links around to translations of the outright complaining and/or curses, it seems a great deal more of the illustrations were either designed to subvert the text (and commissioner) more artfully, or were designed to accompany the text itself. (One blog I found suggested early explanations for all marginalia could be chalked up to “horror vaccui” - a fear of emptiness which “presumably required them to fill empty pages at random.” I love this. What a profound metaphor for our time.)

But as my favorite blog discovered during this search Got Medieval fervently articulates after being erroneously described in the New Yorker blog as archiving “marginalia doodles” (gasp) the author clarifies that one does not SIMPLY doodle with GOLD LEAF???? Our dude here makes a great case for the differences between reader-added doodle and/or musing, and what are clearly larger mechanizations between those working on the book and those commissioning the book. 

This Atlas Obscura piece talks in great detail about a medical text with what are clearly intentional illustrations. Thus still technically marginalia, but very distinct from the overarching narrative of “ a bored monk was here.” 

So if these weren’t bored doodles, what are we to make of all the, uh, erotic imagery? In what are often religious texts? Again on the medieval manuscripts blog, the author writes that while there was likely criticism of the images at the time—that they were too profane, what is this penis doing with a cap—most patrons found value in them. “The margins may have been a safe place for subversion against cultural norms, a sort of carnival on the page. They might serve as demonstrations of artistic skill, or as creative parody, intended to evoke the laughter that they still succeed in drawing from us today.  Many kinds of marginalia also functioned as additional commentary on the text that they surround, or as anti-examples, moral guides about what not to do.” 


ID: a orange creature with a tail and beak runs away from another creature, this one with a more human face but with a animal behind, blows wind into the orange creature butthole

Some awesome Instagram accounts on theme to further your explorations:

A post shared by @_medievalart

With love and dreams of making mischief in the margins,
Shelby + Clem