Medieval Marginalia – Not just pretty pictures

In dark, cavernous chambers, enclosed by cold stone walls with hundreds of candles flickering, the ‘quilled’ servants of God laboured for hour upon hour to produce wonderfully decorated illuminations. Undertaking page after page of text, they decorated the borders with enormous capital letters and fancy foliage. But what prompted the monks to design the lewd and outrageous pictures hidden within the greenery? In a society that was guided by its Church, was it not strange to find religious men drawing vulgarity?


Marginalia could be described as the thirteenth century experimentation with the design of the manuscript page, especially in psalters (a compendium of the 150 biblical psalms), which were being made in large numbers for an increasingly literate population. To the visual schemes already found in earlier scripts, illuminators added a new twist.


 At the most significant textual divisions, they began to extend the decoration of the large initial letters into the margins, enveloping them in creeping vines to create elaborate borders. Upon these vines sat various creatures, often mimicking the subject of the text. Perhaps this mimicry became mockery. Perhaps years of ink saturating the monks’ skin had an ill effect!

2B 2A

One particular fascination seemed to be the use a snail.

3 - 1

(From the British Library) – There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat.  As early as 1850, the magnificently-named bibliophile the Comte de Bastard theorised that a particular marginal image of a snail was intended to represent the Resurrection, since he discovered it in two manuscripts close to miniatures of the Raising of Lazarus.

In another survey of the subject, it was proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early Middle Ages for treasonous behaviour, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’  This interpretation accounts for why the snail is so frequently seen antagonising a knight in armour, but does not explain why the knight is often depicted on the losing end of this battle, or why this particular image became so popular in the margins of non-historical texts such as Psalters or Books of Hours.

3 - 0

In La Vie du Prince Noir, (The Life of the Black Prince) written in the later 14th century, the author includes snail-imitation among the frivolous forms of entertainment he condemns (Chandos Herald, La Vie du Prince Noir, ed. Diana B. Tyson [Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1975]):

For how much store men set
And how much more heed they take
Of a jangler or a false liar,
Of a jongleur or a jester
Who would willingly make a face
Or imitate a snail,
At which men can laugh,
As they’ll do without delay
Than of someone who knows how to speak well!
(ll. 15-24)

snail 6 snail 5 snail 4

Does this apparently hilarious snail-imitating relate to the combats in the marginalia?

snail 3 snail 2 snail 9

snail 8 snail 7 snail 1

Note – in the above picture, the snail is armed. Quite an achievement when he doesn’t have any!  The next two show the snail does not always win.

Other scholars have variously described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality.  Oh dear, then what do the rabbits mean?

rabbits killing knight 194xr10alc41jjpg bunnie revenge rabbit playing pipe organ

In these the rabbit is quite the warrior and seems to take revenge on man. In others he is making music!

dogs vs rabbits rabbit hangs dog rabbit riding snail fox vs monkey 13th c bible

The rabbit is not above warring with the other animals either, even going as far as to hang a hound!

But it wasn’t just rabbits. It was monkeys, dragons, boars, dogs, lions, cats, fish, demons and of course, just as lewd, humans.

knight slayind dragon naughty monkeys dog bishop monkeys1

Slaying of a dragon; Monkeys um … entertaining; and the hound dressed as a bishop preaching to a flock of geese must surely be a slur.

It would seem in this next depiction that the text referred to astrological ideals or events.  Above the marginalia is a picture where the woman is pointing to the celestial skies and below dancing on the foliage, a monkey with a pillar sundial, a fox with the celestial globe, a goat with an astrolabe and a bear and a ram using a sextant – all the tools required for astronomy.

star gazing 1     star gazing 2

Did some texts have some medical portent? Or perhaps the pictures were simple instructions in the margins for those who could not read? Certainly bodily functions played a part.

amputees enhanced-buzz-24301-1348847277-3 tMB7u0Z

It is possible these images could have meant all these things and more at one time or another. I have saved the most bizarre for last. Let’s see what you make of them.


  221389b117cd5580143d04710be3ef10 ass playing bagpipe ass trumpet

The middle picture depicts a ‘bottom’ playing a bagpipe and the owner’s neck is stretched! 

 194xacz0ag3hzjpg        194xagbdasviljpg  images(2)

They certainly had a fascination with sticking things into the rear cavity! 

ass trumpet real Monty Python

Monty Python did not have it wrong!


enhanced-buzz-24349-1348847801-8 enhanced-buzz-4056-1348805818-7 ass blowing 194xkpi1gfa7zjpg


  stabbing 3 Stabbing 2 Stabbing 1


ambidextrous hunting humans half humans

What are they carrying on that stick?


    headless 1 - headless people headless 2 - knights given a head by ladies devilry devilry 2

And perhaps the most bizarre, especially considering the first picture comes from a poem ‘Romance of the Rose’ mentioned in a previous blog


P1 - penis tree from romance of the rose             P2 - women on flying penis

Well, there you have it.  As to the true meaning of pictures penned more than 600 years ago, perhaps we shall never really know for sure but I do know that if today’s clergy were to sit around in dark rooms drawing such pictures, we would not look upon it so lightly!

Cathy T


2 thoughts on “Medieval Marginalia – Not just pretty pictures

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s