Medieval Marginalia: Confounding Prejudice about Medievals

I have been posting a lot about marginalia for two reasons; first I love it and second, there is so much of it.  Marginalia is literally drawn or written in the margins of a book or text.  I do it to make notes or to express my discontent when I disagree with an author.  Sometimes it is very interesting to see what other people write in books.  I know that there is a book entirely about Ayn Rands marginalia.  There is a medieval scholar of whom we have none of his books but we do have his marginalia and from that, we can see that he was incredibly well read, I’ve forgotten his name but am sure I will be able to find it again.


I have an interest in the images in medieval books.  Above we can see an image of a joust.  A rabbit is carrying a dog whilst another rabbit rides a snail, on a spiky twig.  Now if someone tells you they know what this means I am sorry to say they are at best guessing.


And now I am going to join in with the guessing.   A few facts are clear.  First, these cost money.  The ink and the parchment were expensive, I assume.  As I write this I remember that I am not a medieval scholar and I assume that these were expensive commodities but maybe they weren’t.  Even if they were prohibitively expensive maybe the medievals thought that it was wicked to waste parchment that wasn’t written on and that is why they filled up the gaps!  A bit like a gothic cathedral covered in gargoyles.  I’ve been looking at St Michael’s in Coventry today and that is crawling with gargoyles.  Some are religious and others are … secular.


I think that there are two mistakes to make about the medievals.  The first is to assume that all their art had secret meanings and second that they were deadly serious all the time.  If we assume that the marginalia was intended to use up blank space then you need a lot of images without being repetitive.  I suggest that this is why we see creative images.  I suggest that when the medievals had to come up with images they used their imaginations and came up with the kinds of scenarios you would find in loony tunes.

I think this puts to bed the idea that the medievals were a dour lot who spent all their time in the mud dying of plague.  Clearly, medieval Europe was a very colourful place and that colour came out of their minds.




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Hello, I am the author of HistoryTalker, Jack Russell and a couple of others. I hope you enjoy my work.

5 replies on “Medieval Marginalia: Confounding Prejudice about Medievals”

I’ve only recently learned about marginalia and find the study of it fascinating. You’re completely correct, these hand-written and hand bound books were costly to produce and so having what equates to doodles in the margins seems odd at best. Most of the subjects, like the rabbits and snails were directly representing a real thing in the real world, different churches, leaders, and wealthy families were often pictured in code. Again, fascinating!

Hi Jodi,
Your blog post about the airships was great! I wanted to add a comment but couldnt see a button? I know a few stories about Coventry and Birmingham being raided in the First World War by Zeps!

As to Marginalia its great! Its vibrant, powerful and so funny. It gives us a view of them and their lives that isnt presented in the history books. I also like church carvings. One of the best I have seen is a man and his wife having a row with her pulling his beard!

Thanks for the comment! I went in and changed the commenting settings and it’s all fixed now. I’d love to hear about Zeps in WW1, until recently I had no idea just how many there were in that time period. Thanks for stopping by!

I really love this post – I think it really captures the idea of people within history. When many people talk about history, it’s names and facts and figures but I love a bit of speculation and humanisation! I love to think about creative people who thought wasting paper was an atrocious crime! (Like I do!)

Hi Amy,
I see you have an interest in geek culture! I think that the medievals had an equally vibrant geek and fantasy culture to our own. In fact in the stories the characters are always crossing over, having their own adventures and assembling for their climatic battles agaisnt​ evil! A good example is the Green Knight who has great fun tormenting Gawain and then joins the Round Table to ride against Mordred.

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