31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts

Marginalia (Marginal Illustration) – Day Eleven of Medieval Manuscripts

Initial ‘B'(eatus) at the beginning of Psalm 1, with David harping, David and Goliath, and in the margins, a dog chasing a rabbit, and dragon. Psalter, including a calendar, canticles France, Central (Paris?); last quarter of the 13th century. (BL. Yates Thompson Ms. 18 f.9) Photo from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

The term “marginalia” refers to the little illustrations or other markings in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. We’ve already seen marginalia in many of the manuscripts we’ve looked at during the past ten days, and in my opinion, marginal illustration is easily the most fascinating aspect of medieval manuscripts. The little people, animals, objects, plants, and other symbols depicted in these images run the gamut from cute to creepy to crass, and their reasons for appearing where they do are frequently unclear.

People and animals in the margins of the Luttrell Psalter (BL Add. MS. 42130 f.31). Photo from The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

I’m particularly interested in the grotesque marginalia that seems related to gargoyles and is equally opaque in meaning. The little dragon-like creature shown below is a perfect example. Who or what is he, and what is he doing on the pages of an academic text? In this case, he might have been a later addition – possibly the doodle of a bored student. In other manuscripts, where the marginalia is unquestionably contemporary to the rest of the book, the mystery is even greater.

Detail of a pen-drawing of a hybrid creature in the lower margin of the folio. Remi of Auxerre and others, In Donatum minorem commentarius, and other commentaries on grammatical texts England; 1st half of the 14th century (BL. Ms. Burney 315 f.13). Photo from The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

If you’re interested in marginalia, I would highly recommend visiting medievalbooks.nl, a wonderful website run by manuscript scholar Erik Kwakkel. He does a lot of work on marginalia, doodles, and other such topics; every one of his articles is well worth a read.

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