A look at another side of how documents were enlivened in the Middle Ages. Paul Hannah briefly discusses an under-appreciated art from, the Marginalia.

Medieval monasteries specialised in different occupations, some were
hospitals and some just did various liturgical duties to pass the
days. My favourite type of monks worked in scriptoriums where they
made books.

Bookmaking before printing presses was simply a matter of taking an
existing book, and copying it, by hand, many took months of detailed
and laborious work, some took years. Even the ‘paper’ they wrote on –
vellum took a day or so to prepare. Not to mention killing and
skinning the lamb too! As a result they were treasured and highly
valued objects, some were even chained to their bench, no borrowing in
that library!
Most people will have seen the beautiful images and designs decorating
the pages, delicate, real gold swirls and bright images of the subject
matter and incredibly ornate textual decoration. This decoration had a
function, as books were rare objects, many were used to memorise
passages and whole chapters. This tradition has been kept going in
Islam, where there is a class of person who has memorised the entire
Quran. The western adoption of printing technology made such
monumental efforts unnecessary. The images drawn on the page were
there ostensibly to glorify their god, but also to tie a visual image
to the text to be memorised.
Among the most interesting design features are the marginalia, little
drawings, often humorous, drawn on the margins of the book. They were
often on the margins of good taste as well. The monks were not above
the odd fart and poop joke, to brighten a reader’s day. One famous
writer, Matthew Paris, put a little drawing of himself, exhausted at
the end of the day. Marginalia often gives us a little window into
daily life, the costumes and activities of medieval people are
frequently included along with unicorns and fun images like jousting

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It has been argued that these were memory aids as well, but these
artists were people too, they liked a joke as we do and writing out
the bible, or some other heavy tome would get boring, so why wouldn’t
they brighten up their day with a little fun?
(c) Paul Hannah

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