The Best Margin Illustrations Came From Bored Monk Scribes

“Isn’t history ultimately the result of our fear of boredom?” —Emile Cioran, Histoire et utopie

In A Nutshell

We’ve all seen beautifully illustrated medieval manuscripts, but next time you see one, take a closer look. Monks who were bored, aching, and sore from long hours copying manuscripts word for word often doodled in the margins of the books they were working on. This marginalia provides an epic, humorous look into the lives of those who were caught in the most dreary of 9-to-5 medieval office jobs.

The Whole Bushel

Before the invention of movable type and the printing press, the only way to make copies of books was by hand—and there was no care for proper lighting or ergonomic desks then, either. One of the less desirable things about being a monk was the potential to spend hours and hours every day, painstakingly copying pages and pages of text and manuscript illuminations. From sunrise to sunset, by candlelight, copying the words of others.

Mindlessly boring wouldn’t even begin to describe it, so it’s not surprising that many monks took some liberties with what they were copying.

Countless books and manuscripts from medieval Europe have a little extra something found in the margins and hidden in some of the pictures. And some of them are absolutely epic.

Some of it is, of course, scrawled complaints about the conditions the monks were working in, about the aches and pains that went along with hours and days of copying manuscripts, about how long they were working on the same book. Some lament that the book they’re creating will last longer than they will, others appeal to the saints to bring on the darkness and a momentary pause to the work. Others simply want ink that’s a better quality, and one monk in particular isn’t happy about how hairy his parchment is.

Other marginalia are simply doodles in the margins. There are walking fish, animals playing instruments, and people with arrows stuck in them. And there are some themes that, strangely, keep showing up in manuscript after manuscript.

Monkeys are often found, doing what monkeys do best—pooping. They poop on the text, they poop on other illustrations and on other animals, and, in some, they poop on dinner plates. And (showing that humor really has stayed the same over the centuries) there are also a lot of disembodied body parts, and . . . other body parts growing on trees.

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They’re penis trees, all right? Penis trees. And there are a lot of them.

One thing that shows up with bizarre frequency are illustrations of medieval knights jousting with or fighting snails. It was so common, in fact, that the British Library started looking into just why snails were such a common opponent for the knights. And, why in many of the illustrations, the snails are winning.

There have been a number of theories about what the snails might represent, from the poor to the feminine to some sort of religious figure. But no one explanation has successfully addressed the widespread use of snails and the battle prowess they’re given.

The tedious office job is nothing new, and neither is the escapism that leads to the brilliantly done messages and illustrations that the books’ original authors absolutely never intended. Maps get decorated with little naked people, women sleep with dragons, people get shot in the butt with arrows and cats play the bagpipes. Illustrated monks pull faces at those who look at the text, cats chase mice, and people chase each other with knives.

The marginalia is often inspired, not only for the creativity and the sheer hilarious, imaginative illustrations, but because the monks trapped in their long days of drudgery still found a way to live on.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Bizarre and vulgar illustrations from illuminated medieval manuscripts Medieval monks complained about their jobs in the margins of ancient manuscripts
British Library: Knight v Snail

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