This is post #13 of #BlogchatterA2Z.
This includes blogging every day in April for 26 days, except on Sundays. What’s special about it is that every day’s post will be corresponding to each letter of the alphabet.
All my #BlogchatterA2Z posts 2021 can be found here.
Do you write in the margins of your books? Or underline text? Or (the horror!) highlight important lines?
[You’ve probably guessed what my stand is on scribbling in books. At best, I can use a pencil to underline or make notes in the margins, but I hate it when ink or highlighters are used. It feels like disrespecting the book by defacement. ]
Anyway, it turns out that there’s a whole line of study devoted to notes in the margins of texts, called marginalia, especially devotional medieval illustrated manuscripts handwritten before the invention of the printing press.
Weirdly, they’re full of imagery around mythical beasts, hybrid creatures, poop humor and sexually explicit satire. If you’re easily offended, you probably cannot peruse such texts.
Before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press (12th -14th century), scribes in monasteries copied books by hand, usually for churches or rich patrons. Each book cost as much as a house.
Patrons directed the scribes to fill the margins with cheeky illustrations and grotesque hybrid creatures–but we’re not quite sure why.
Modern scholars are probably driven to study these texts because they assume that medieval European society was conservative and to find lurid illustrations in religious texts is intriguing.
Definition of Marginalia
Marginalia refers to anything written or drawn in the margins of a book. It could be in the form of scribbles, doodles, illustrations, or glosses.
According to a scholar called Michael Camille, marginalia may have originated from glossing, which is a way of providing explanatory notes about a term or a difficult passage in the margin of the book.
Medieval marginalia is known for its obscenity and grotesqueness.
Imagine coming across a disembodied penis or a naked person shooting an arrow into the butt of another person in the margins of a religious text!
Examples of marginalia can be found in most of Europe, but Northern France and England were prolific in producing such art.
There are three theories for such obscene marginalia –
- The scribes had a fear of empty space or horror vacui. So they filled the margins with meaningless doodles. This theory does not explain why the doodles are of an obscene nature.
- Only the rich could afford to buy books, thus marginalia were created by owners as a private experience or inside joke. There’s a counter-theory to this as well–that owners defaced or erased illustrations that they found offensive or not in line with their beliefs.
- The third theory is that margins were a safe space to lodge a protest against the Church and the establishment. Marginalia could have been intended to provoke the reader into subverting the natural order.
Categories of Medieval Marginalia
The study of medieval marginalia helps us understand that period in history, the creators of these manuscripts, and the readers who read the books.
There are different types of marginalia:
Illumination means decorating a manuscript with color, which includes using gold and silver leaf.
Such marginalia are intended to be a part of the original book and surround the text block with decorated initials and figures and scenes in the margins.
E.g. Statues of the Realm, a 14th century legal manuscript
Drollery involves depicting funny scenes, usually of the “world upside down” or “monde renversé” type.
These scenes may have humans, animals, or hybrid figures called grotesques.
The rabbit was a popular marginal figure representing fertility, innocence, and purity.
To draw attention to key pieces of the text, a disembodied pointing finger called a manicule was used. In Latin, “manicule” means “little hand.”
Wordplay and visual jokes were also used by some authors to highlight important passages.
E.g. John of Arderne’s Medical Treatises
Since scribes copied manuscripts by hand, there were bound to be mistakes – spelling errors, missed lines, repeated paragraphs.
So the scribes (or later users) added glosses (explanatory notes) to the text to correct these errors or translate the text.
A famous example of gloss work was done by the Tremulous Hand of Worcester in Pope Gregory I’s Pastoral Care. The scribe had an essential tremor, hence the name.
The most famous example of children’s doodles can be found in a 15th century copy of Life of Our Lady, a poem by Lydgate.
Nearly every page has pen trial marks, annotations, and doodles in the margins. This shows that the book changed hands through generations.
The name of its users, the Golding family of Essex, are named in the annotations.
The marginalia shows the changing value of the book–from being closely read to being freely accessible to younger members of the household.
Take a look at Dr. Johanna Green‘s Instagram page, where she showcases fascinating pieces of medieval marginalia: