Riza Hussaini, our Digitisation Assistant, uncovers some magical marginalia in our medieval manuscripts.

The prevailing view of medieval illuminated manuscripts is that they contain purely sacred imagery.  It is true that the main illustrations accompanying the text are of saints and angels, the crucifixion and scenes from the Old Testament of the Bible.  They complement the religious messages. However the margins around the text reveal a world of surreal delight where comic life flourished.

Scribes had much more artistic licence in the margins and their imaginations often roamed free.  Weird and wonderful mythical beasts, hybrid monsters, animals behaving like humans and humour related to bodily functions were all fair game.  It was common for the illustrations to be added after the text was written.  This allowed the artists to scatter it with irreverent depictions.

Images of beasts
Clothed beasts from BC MS 1/55 and BC MS 1/63. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Although traditionally, reading and writing were the concerns of the church, by the late Middle Ages there was an increased desire among the laity to express devotion privately. The Book of Hours was the most common genre commissioned by clients.  The books ranged from the modest through to lavishly illuminated tomes purchased by the wealthy and aristocratic classes. It is the luxurious versions that hold the most elaborate illustrations.

Image of grotesques
Grotesques from BC MS 1/28. Image credit Leeds University Library.

There were recurring themes and imagery in the margins. The most striking are nuns and monks behaving curiously, anthropomorphic animals, dragons and snails. Plenty of illustrations give us an insight and clues into everyday medieval life. All the images in this post are from Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis (Book of Hours) and you can access digitised medieval manuscripts on the Special Collections catalogue.

Sadly, upon the arrival of movable type, marginalia in medieval manuscripts diminished.  The inclusion of marginalia on musical scores continued longer as modern music printing as we know it came about much later.  Doodling and writing notes in margins will never go out of favour as people add their own sketches and comments to texts.

Illustrating the margins of medieval manuscripts provided much more than a break from lethargy for the artisans, it brought levity.  Marginalia shows the modern reader that medieval life was just as complex as ours.