Introducing Marginalia

Marginalia is any content existing within the margins of a book. In more modern books, marginalia is generally the notes an owner has scribbled to himself. Books with the marginalia of famous thinkers can become quite valuable.

In the Middle Ages, however, marginalia was an art form. It was planned out as part of the page design. Some of it is abstract decoration. But a lot of it is composed of people, animals and monsters often behaving quite oddly, often rudely.

Keep in mind that most documents in the Middle Ages were religious in nature. As such, bibles, gospel books, books of liturgy, psalters and more are adorned with all manner of rather unchristian behavior.

Marginalia - Invalids Fighting
The Romance of Alexander (MS Bodl. 264), 14th century (Got Medieval

The first rule of amputee fight club is to not talk about amputee fight club.

Marginalia - Rabbits Hunting People
The Romance of Alexander (MS Bodl. 264), 14th century

Here rabbits are successfully hunting humans, displaying a complete upending of the natural order of things.  And it’s not just one image.  There’s a whole series of these images in one manuscript.  Besides treeing and bagging humans, the rabbits also capture a hunting dog, put it on trial, and execute it.  Another dog then unburies the criminal and runs off with a bone.

Marginalia - Butt Trumpet
Rothschild Canticles. Flanders, early 14th century. (Discarding Images)
Or view the entire book here

For butt marginalia, this is actually pretty tame.  There are all sorts of things stuck into people’s butts in marginalia.  Arguably this is just against his butt, the same way one normally places a trumpet against the lips.  Still…

Fart trumpet.

In a book of meditations and prayers.

Marginalia - Arrow in Butt
Rutland Psalter c. 1260

Now we’re getting a little more violent.  Here, someone’s trying to be a smart-ass, no pun intended.  The word from which the arrow descends is conspectu, meaning to see or visually penetrate.

This is from a psalter, which is a book containing the Book of Psalms from the Old Testament.  So, again, rude things in holy texts.

Bible Marginalia
Bible c.1320

Marginalia doesn’t merely exist around blocks of text.  These odd little critters will also harass other perfectly well-meaning illustrations.

For example, to the right is an illustration of the martyrdom of Isaiah.  It’s in a 14th century Bible, although the martyrdom story isn’t actually told there.  Martyrdom stories are commonly horrifically bizarre in their own right, and symbols of their deaths commonly accompany some of their images, such as:

  • St. Catherine of Alexandria was to be tortured on a spiked wheel.  She is the patron saint of wheelwrights and mechanics.
  • St. Lawrence slowly roasted on an iron grill.  His story includes his supposed exclamation of “I’m well done. Turn me over!”  He is now the patron saint of chefs.  I am not making that up.
  • St. Bartholomew flayed alive.
  • St. Simon the Zealot sawed to death.

Here is the Old Testament prophet Isaiah being sawed in half in all of its gruesomeness.

Here we also have a sort of dragon snail sodomizing a monkey.  Considering what monkeys commonly do in marginalia – made goatse poses, crap onto plates, stab bishops in the ass, crap onto the text, rape one another, vomit, crap on each other, shove fish up their butts, etc. – it was probably deserved.  It might have even been invited.  He doesn’t seem overly concerned about his situation.

Marginalia - King with Bagpipe in Butt
“Vows of the Peacock,” 1312.  Pierpont Morgan Library’s MS G24. (Got Medieval)

I can’t explain the next image better than the writer at Got Medieval:

I’m beginning to feel bad for the poor souls who have to tag the scans of medieval manuscripts for online collections. How can you be sure you’ve accurately captured every point of interest a potential search might be after, especially with a manuscript illuminator as mind-bogglingly weird as the one responsible for MS G24? This particular image bears the catalogue description

“In left margin, hybrid animal, with crowned human head and serpentine body, plays bagpipe through anus.”

That’s a pretty good start, but it fails to mention that 1) the man’s anus is wearing a hood and 2) the entire creature is growing out of a foliate border, making it not an animal at all, but rather some sort of strange fruit.

All I can add is that I so want this version of “Amazing Grace” played at my funeral.

Why Do This?

The explanation of motives behind these sorts of marginalia is probably complex.  But according to Michael Camille in Images on the Edge, much of the purpose of these images may have to do with literally marginalizing these examples of inappropriate and unnatural behavior.  While the text is likely concerned with moral, spiritual or legal order in the world, it is surrounded by chaotic forces that threaten the rightful order that attempts to keep the chaos at bay

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