Naughty Nuns, Flatulent Monks, and Other Surprises of Sacred Medieval Manuscripts

Before the printing press, books were copied by hand, often by monks who worked for years on one volume. Those original manuscripts are rare now, and hard to read, but for the diligent student, they have a bonus. The illustrations, decorations, and marginalia often have nothing to do with the text, and are often much weirder and more vulgar than anything else in the book. These artworks are a study all their own, and have became quite popular as a glimpse into the medieval mind.

Kaitlin Manning, an associate at B & L Rootenberg Rare Books and Manuscripts, says part of the reason why modern viewers are so captivated by marginalia is because we expect this era to be so conservative. For example, few Monty Python fans realize that the comedy group’s silly animations are direct references to artwork in illuminated manuscripts. (Illuminated simply means decorated with gold or silver foil.) “I think it’s such a shock when you have this idea in your head of what medieval society was like,” says Manning, “and then you see these bizarre images that make you question your assumptions.” The wild mixture of illustrations is a challenge to our contemporary desire to compartmentalize topics like sex, religion, humor, and mythology.

Manning was first drawn to marginalia while studying at the Courtauld Institute in London, where she was able to work with some of the most significant illuminated-manuscript collections in the world, including those at the British Library. “I loved the idea that marginalia was such an overlooked part of the medieval experience,” says Manning, “so much that up until 20 or 30 years ago, scholars were completely uninterested and wrote it off as trivial or not meaning anything.”

Though the meaning of specific images is still hotly debated, scholars conjecture that marginalia allowed artists to highlight important passages (or insert text that was accidentally left out), to poke fun at the religious establishment, or to make pop-culture references medieval readers could relate to. We’ll probably never understand all the symbolism used in marginalia, but what have we learned about medieval life through these absurd images?

Manning tells us what we now know about strange medieval marginalia and what it means at Collectors Weekly. A couple of the illustrations might possibly be NSFW. 

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