• That Was Genius Team

Episode 104 - A 30-Year Genital Drawing Apprenticeship (Cartoon Week)

Tom's Notes:


Cartoons week


Medieval marginalia


That Was Genius – we are to history podcasts what Bridgerton is to period drama.


Audience feedback – just a few ‘thank you’s to a couple of new patrons. Welcome to the Order of the Bathroom – don’t forget to get those verrucas treated and the hot water taps can get very hot.


Anyone who has visited out wonderful website (www.thatwasgeniuspodcast.com) will have seen some peculiar medieval marginalia, namely, two naked men putting their fingers up their bottoms. Anyone who has every followed our Facebook page during the periods when we bother to post anything will have seen strange depictions of knights fighting snails, princesses fawning over ugly green dogs and naked men putting their fingers up their bottoms. We really should get some more professional photos Sam.


So why are there so many strange little doodles in the corners of medieval manuscripts, ‘marginalia’ if you will. Well, thank you for asking such a pertinent question, hopefully by the end of the episode I will have answered it, or more precisely, suggested some answers, for marginalia are mysterious things and seem to have been drawn for a variety of reasons.


Let’s start with some examples:


The Gorleston Psalter, so a book of Psalms from the Old Testament, Psalms being songs and poems designed to be sung or recited, is a goody. It’s from around 1310 and is from Norfolk. The marginalia are so rude that some of them were actually rubbed out. Let’s describe a few. A group of rabbits arranging a funeral pyre – we don’t know who for. A rabbit playing a musical instrument much like an organ with the help of a creature that looks a bit like a dog. A knight on horseback encountering a monkey pulling it’s butt cheeks apart to reveal it’s anus. Some strange hybrid creatures, one with the face of a lady rimming the other. A man with a big cock and balls pulling apart his butt cheeks to reveal his anus. A naked bishop telling off a monk for farting. A monkey-lion hybrid sawing a book in half and a man paying a prostitute.


They were clearly rude to contemporaries. 12th century Bernard of Clairvaux, also known as Saint Bernard because he drooled lots and often walked around on all fours with a small barrel of booze around his neck. There’s actually no direct connection between the dogs and this Saint. The dogs are named after a Swiss traveller’s hospice that bred them for rescue work in the early modern period. Anyway, Saint Bernard was a Burgundian Abbot who wrote a bit. He denounced the naughty images in manuscripts as rude, silly and distracting from the word of god. But then Bernard was a pious twat who went around France and the Near East telling people they were heretics for having ideas based on nonsense that were different to his ideas based on nonsense. He was a driving force behind the Second Crusade.


Some others I like:

• Two men prance around having chopped their own heads of with swords. Summer volume of the Breviary of Renaud and Marguerite de Bar, 1302-1305.

• A goblin/ogre firing an arrow up the arse of a weird looking man with flippers doing a backwards roll. Rutland Psalter, c. 1260.

• Nun plucking nobs off a nob tree. Roman de la Rose, c. 1325-1353


Let’s now talk about some more recurring imagery, starting with knights fighting snails and Lilian Randall’s seminal work on the topic from 1962. Speculum, Vol. 37, No. 3.


Randall look at over 70 doodles of this nature from around 1290 to 1325 in manuscripts from northern France and England. The majority of these images are of combat between a knight and a snail. Occasionally the knight is replaced by a weird animal, such as a monkey. Frequently the knight is kneeling in front of the snail vanquished. Sometimes the knight has a maiden beside him begging him not to attack the terrible foe. “He’s not worth it Galahad!” “Hold me back Shazza! Hold me back! I’m going to salt the fucker, I tell you, salt!” “Don’t do it Galahad! You’re on patrole and little Wayne, Shane and Chelsea needs you around!”


There are a small number of examples of the knight and snail in cahoots. One such image has a knight riding a snail hunting a stag, another has a golden snail seeing an ape doctor.


Do these images mock human cowardice? Or were the snails causing havoc in vineyards and generally being bastards? Does the snail represent the working classes? Randall comes to the interesting conclusion that snails represented cowardice in France before the proliferation of the manuscript doodles. There are plenty of literary examples of this. More specifically, the Lombards were frequently referred to as cowardly snails. Randall traces this back to them not putting up much of a fight when Charlemagne, the successful Frankish king, conquered the Italian Peninsular in 774. Randal goes onto the explain the rapid proliferation of the marginalia as being a result of Lombards dominating the businesses of usury and pawn brokering through the 13th century across Northern Europe. In fact, ‘usurer’ and ‘Lombard’ were used interchangeably in documents from this period. They would have been hugely unpopular with clergymen because of their role in collecting revenue for the Pope throughout Christendom. So quite possibly, these images are popular little jingoistic digs at the Lombards, who no one likes so everyone was happy to mock.


Rabbits are also very common. They appear to simply be an example of turning the world upside down. Rabbits are seen doing the hunting. There are pictures of them decapitating tied up humans with swords, carry humans tied up on their backs, lynching hunting dogs. In Manchester Cathedral, is a misericords (wood carvings on choir stalls) depicting rabbits spit roasting a human and boiling his hunting dogs. I wonder if this widespread imagery was a trope, the meaning of which we have lost. Much like the snail and knights could have been an old trope about Lombards being cowards.


What makes understanding these marginalia so tricky is that we cannot fully comprehend the iconography of the period. The snails representing Lombards is a cracking example. We can use some modern tropes that would not be obvious to someone from the Middle Ages – for example, sheep being associated with the Welsh and frogs legs with the French.


I read somewhere that in the 13th and 14th centuries, production of these manuscripts began to shift from monks in monasteries to workshops in cities employing numerous artisans working on a document. So the doodler (limner) was quite possibly different to the person copying out the writing. There are certainly examples of doodlers taking the piss out of the scribes. There are a number of examples of scribes copying a document and missing a section. The section is then added a page later. The artist has then got creative and drawn a man lassoing the missing passage in an attempt to pull it back to the correct place. Prior to this separation of roles, the monks would have done the scribing and the drawing. The scribing was probably very boring so the illustrations could have been the monks’ opportunity to have some fun. That said, everything in the Middle Ages was boring, so I think the monks would have been used to it.


Some marginalia are mnemonic devices in a time when books were expensive and would have been read and memorised. Certainly many manuscripts have things called manicules, which are just little hands with pointing fingers drawing the reader’s attention to somewhere in particular. As with all these marginalia, these manicules are often very surreal. More generally, silly doodles in the right place could have acted as memory aides. “Ah yes, nun harvesting dick, Jesus heals the sick. Rabbits playing an organ, remember the Temple of Solomon. Man showing his tush, Moses and the burning bush.”


I’m being silly, here’s a good example of marginalia as a memory aide: Glasgow University Library has a cracking manuscript called Mirror of Phlebotomy & Practice of Surgery by John of Arderne. He was an English surgeon from the 14th century. This document has some wonderful pictures, like one of a naked patient with what looks like bellows up his arse. There’s also a cock and balls in a bowl and a cross-eyed King Edward III. One particularly interesting image of an owl is next to a passage about rectal cancer. Why is this interesting? Because a rectal cancer could come with a swelling known as a bubo (as in bubonic plague) and the Latin word for owl is bubo. Clever word play! On other occasions in this document, a penis just points at a particularly important point.


We can get much more complex with our interpretation of these images. They can, much like strange monster on Medieval maps, represent the opposite of reality. An upside-down world which helps people to understand their world – we know what we are by knowing what we are not. Hence the obvious stupidity of a knight being vanquished by a snail, or a bishop doing something unholy, or a rabbit hunting a human, or a head emerging out of a floral design, or just a bloody odd hybrid creature. The fact that these images occupy the margins of serious religious texts is also noteworthy if we follow on with this thread. This rudeness, oddness and contradictions serve to focus attention on the central, religious goodness of the text. Again, a parallel can be drawn with Medieval maps where the odd shit is always on the edge of the world. We can be very confident that these Medieval Maps weren’t meant to be geographically accurate in the sense we expect of a map. They were pictorial representations of medieval thought and knowledge. Alternatively, people could have just been laughing at cocks, farting, rimming and silly monsters. You pays your money and you takes your choice.


So to summarise and offer and opinion, I’m inclined to believe that they were designed to be humorous and a bit of light relief from the more serious Biblical writings. I suspect that some of the repeat imagery/iconography would have made more sense to people in the Middle Ages that to us. I’m less taken by the more complicated interpretations of what the marginalia represented.




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