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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M = Marginalia

Today's letter for the A to Z challenge (link below this post)  is 'M', and in the spirit of the literary alphabet, I am discussing a term for illuminated manuscripts I had not heard before:  Marginalia.

Wikipedia, gives this definition:
Marginalia or apostil) are scribbles, comments and illuminations in the margins of a book.
Another way of describing Marginalia is that they are sketches, notations, doodles, scribbles and paintings that are found in the margins of a medieval text or document, generally having very little to do with the main text itself.

They can be fanciful scenes, like this knight jousting against a snail.  This is a little work of art, from the colors of the flowers behind the knight to the curve of the branch and the blue tendril twining downward.  (And note the shadow of the writing on the other side of the vellum

Or a peasant riding his noble steed, a duck, webbed feet and all.  I see that the saddle is exactly like those used by knights, with a high back, and it is equipped with stirrups.  The position of the saddle and the rider's legs would make it hard for the duck to fly.  I'd be curious to see how well the bit works.

Musical deer would be fun to watch.  this one has a rather Christmas-y feel to him.  I do think he's reading a book of music, and I've seen medieval music manuscripts that were identifiable as sheet music, though rather more decorative than the ones we're used to.
       This fellow is beautifully done, from the execution of the folds of his pink robe to the glittering blue flower to the right of the doodle...

To the left, we have another man doing battle with a snail.  He is wielding a sword and carrying a shield.  Surely there are better ways to exterminate snails, but I may be thinking out of period.  I always thought them pests, and in the age before pesticides and whatever else you use to get rid of snails, I could see that they might be viewed as a terrible evil.  I love the colored flowers in among the tendrils, and the gilding on the shield and the snail's shell.  The scarlet lining of the man's long blue sleeves is also attractive paired with the spring green hose, shoes and sleeves.

Speaking seriously, I do need to caution readers here, especially if children are hovering by the monitor: these are the amusing and pretty ones that I was able to find.  It took a while.  I warn those who see these and grab their keyboards, thinking, "Gosh, how charming!  I must rush out and have a look myself!" that the marginalia brought up by a google image search are notable for their crude raunchiness.  I had to work very hard to find ones that were G-rated.  In fact, I had to delete one just now that I had planned to use because I noticed, for the first time, a distinctly scatological bent in one of the characters which seemed, on closer scrutiny, to be a monkey. 

And the next time I watch a movie set in medieval-type times, and they have a line of trumpeters blowing a fanfare on their long trumpets with the banners attached, I will probably give in to a fit of mirth that has nothing to do with the sound of the music but only the way that I saw the trumpets being blown in the marginalia. It will ruin the fight scene in the castle between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn.

No, I won't get into detail, but simply say that from my reading of The Canterbury Tales, I would not be at all surprised to know that Geoffrey Chaucer probably consulted some of the more...vigorous depictions for ideas for his stories.  Consider yourself warned. 


  1. Marginalia is fascinating! I recently studied 16th-Century women medicinal writers and the notes in the marginalia were often the most telling of all of the text. Much different marginalia than the images you are discussing here, but so very fascinating!

  2. Hi Diana .. they can be amazing can't they and of course they were 'code' back then .. the only way to get their ideas out there .. and I'm sure you're right about Chaucer and other bawdy story tellers .. cheers Hilary

  3. I always liked the "Marginal Humor" of Sergio Aragones in MAD Magazine. Not quite as classy as what you've featured, but still funny.

    I used to create my own marginalia in textbooks when I was in high school and college. I'd scribble notes there and on semi-blank pages in the book.

    John Holton
    Blogging from A to Z 2015 Cohost
    The Sound of One Hand Typing

  4. That's funny you mentioned the crude figures you may encounter. Every time I pull up images of illuminated pages, I'll miss one image that might not be totally kid friendly. Every stinking time, ha ha.

    The human side of these artistic works fascinate me, too. Like when there is a personal message scrawled in the margin. Have you seen the images of Anne Boleyn's prayer book? Henry VIII and Anne wrote messages in the margins.

    Great post, Diana!!