Friday, August 26, 2022

Masters of Marginalia

Marginalia—comments, doodles, annotations, etc., made in the margin of a manuscript or book—came in many forms. Here we talked about the attempts at educating and clarifying by scholiasts.

Today we look at the less serious additions made by monks who were no doubt bored and decided to exercise their sense of humor.

There are so many web pages where you can find more in varying stages of frivolity and obscenity if you simply search "medieval marginalia" the you can send days of diversion that it would be pointless for me to try to give you more than just a bare minimum of representative figures.

These marginalia don't make much sense, in that they don't generally have anything to do with the text they accompany except in the most tenuous way. For instance, the bottom illustration in the collection I have included shows a fox as a bishop preaching to a flock of different birds, which would normally be his prey. Commentary by a monk on what he really thinks about bishops and their attitude toward their congregations? Or just an attempt at an ironic drawing of animals?

Snails actually show up frequently, often involving combat. The top right shows a snail with an animal's head. Below that is a snail fighting a knight. There is conjecture that the shell of the snail, since it resembled a kind of armor, was an appropriate foe for a knight.

Some additions are attractive additions, like the unicorn, although right above it is a curious animal-headed set of tentacles or vines. I would call that simply a doodle.

Then you have pictures that are far more irreverent than a fox preaching to birds, such as the monk sniffing the butt of an ... animal? Demon? Hard to say what it is in that top-left illustration. At least it is very attractively enclosed in the curves and points of its surrounding frame.

We should note that the making of marginalia was not that impulsive; that is, the manuscript copyist did not say to himself "I'll just out a goose playing a lute here." These were added by someone who was sitting with access to multiple colors of ink in front of him. He was the monk tasked with "prettying up" the manuscript in order to make it more valuable and less likely to bore the reader. Hundreds of years later, these colors remain on the vellum, which has got me thinking: where did colored inks/paints come from in the Middle Ages?

I will look into that question, and get back to you. See you tomorrow.

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