The term marginalia has already come up a few times in this series, and each time, I’ve indicated that it’s one of the most interesting aspects of medieval manuscripts. Today, I’ll finally tell you why that is.
Marginalia refers to illustrations and other markings in manuscripts’ margins. It basically means anything that’s not part of the main cycle of images and text but instead exists around its edges. Marginalia doesn’t have to be original to the manuscript – doodles and text notations can be added at any point later on, just as we sometimes annotate our books today. However, the marginalia I’ve been referring to in earlier posts was created at the same time as the rest of the manuscript, and yet its relationship to the main text and image is generally unclear.
Typically featuring people, animals, grotesques, objects, plants, and other symbols, it would be easy to think of marginalia (also called marginal illustrations) as simple decoration. However, they’re often much too strange to write off so easily. In fact, they run the gamut from cute to creepy to crass, and that makes their presence in religious texts incredibly bizarre. At best, they seem childish and irreverent; at worst, they can seem downright sacrilegious. For example, the figures shown below are playing hockey just below a scene of the Holy Family. How does that make any sense? Although they rarely have any obvious connection to the main text and images, they often appear by the dozens or even hundreds in a single manuscript. Clearly, we’re missing something big here.
A wide world of marginal imagery
This phenomenon isn’t limited to illuminated manuscripts, since similar images also appear in other medieval art forms. In fact, gargoyles and grotesques on church buildings are basically architectural marginalia. What all these creatures have in common is that they exist on the perimeter of a larger, often religious object and they don’t seen to relate to the main event. They very often depict subject matter, namely people and animals, that’s lowbrow, bizarre, or disturbing in contrast to the elevated and pious subject matter that’s the main event.
In all cases, it’s not really clear why marginalia appears or what it’s meant to convey. Many scholars believe that these peasants, demons, grotesque beings, and other deviations from genteel medieval society are literally being marginalized and thus kept in check by the higher-status manuscript makers and owners. In fact, medievalist Michael Camille, a major proponent of this theory, wrote an entire book about it – Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. However, the meanings behind any and all forms of marginalia are still very much active areas of debate.
In my opinion, the seeming improbability of these clever, witty illustrations amidst medieval religious texts is a big part of marginalia’s appeal. Plus, there’s just the general abundance of them. The existence of marginalia gives us tons of images to enjoy and analyze. These illustrations can also provide surprising bits of information about ordinary life in the Middle Ages. We definitely shouldn’t think that marginalia objectively documented medieval life exactly as it was, but it can definitely give us glimpses that we don’t find elsewhere, like the hammock shown above of the hockey players further up this page.
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.
In one of my last posts, I promised that I would talk about non-architectural grotesques. So meet the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, a fourteenth-century illustrated French prayer book by Jean Pucelle. It now resides at the Cloisters in New York, and I highly recommend going to see it. It is certainly not the only medieval…
I loved medieval graffiti, and now I find out that there are medieval doodles, too! What more could a history nerd want? I just came across an article on Colossal (a very cool site, by the way, so be sure to follow it) about some work being done by Erik Kwakkel, a manuscript historian at Leiden University. Kwakkel is…