Marginalia in Medieval Manuscripts

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Marginalia in Medieval Manuscripts

Marginalia are illustrations or notations in the margins of manuscripts. In medieval illuminated manuscripts figurative marginalia provide a rich terrain of artistic expression, with distinctive characteristics according to period, locus of production, and school or scriptorium. Marginalia could reflect, mirror, or expand the main illustration of a text page, as has been the case for some works, such as the late-fourteenth-century allegorical poem the Romance of the Rose (Waters 1992). Medieval scholar Lilian Randall's Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts (1966) is largely responsible for calling the attention of many medievalists, beyond manuscript specialists, to these remarkable marginal illustrations.

Medievalists have argued for a tight interfacing of text and image in many manuscripts where full-fledged illustration provide a kind of wordless commentary on the work; and this can be a model for reading a relationship between text and marginalia as well. However, marginalia often graced the margins of the manuscript independently from the text and expressed a content that seemed fairly remote from it.

According to art historian Michael Camille, medieval books of hours are filled with "visual noise"situating the pious believer at the edge of the profane and sacred that coexist on the manuscript page (Camille 1992, p. 12). In these marginalia he sees nothing surrealistic or surreal, or even fantastic, as comparative art historian Jurgis Baltrusaitis (1903–1988) would have. Further, Camille refuses the term grotesque, "a negatively loaded term coined in the sixteenth century to describe antique wall painting." Instead, Camille suggests, the marginalia were conscious creations and, in the terminology appropriate to the time, they might have been called fabula or curiositates. From these terms he moves semantically to "babuini, babewyns" (baboons or monkeys), and by association, to "monkey-business," the French word "singe"(monkey), thus "becoming the dubious status of representation itself, being the anagram for signe"(sign) (p. 13).


Medieval marginalia are an important reflection of the imaginary, inflected, in particular, by attitudes towards sex and gender. They may simply represent scenes of daily life that are precious indications of how the culture perceived work, divisions of labor, domestic environments, violence between the sexes, and more, thus providing glimpses of the place and gendered vision of women in vernacular culture.

Many marginalia boldly and unassumedly portray scenes with a flagrant and transgressive sexual content, often by displacing forbidden human behaviors onto animals or hybrid creatures that combine several animal and/or human features. These marginalia skirt obscene and/or erotic art and are about the only place available for such representation in medieval painting until the fifteenth century. Yet these categories are modern ones, and the evidence is that such representations are far from being reserved to special books: on the contrary they are just as likely to be found in the margins of books of hours and psalters as in secular literature. For instance a folio of the Ormesby Psalter shows a man blowing a trumpet into the anus of a two-legged, horse-headed boy, and the Rutland Psalter contains an image of a naked man flaunting his posterior as a simian figure, armed with lance and shield and mounted on an ostrich or goose, charges right at him. In a book of hours from Trinity College at Cambridge, England, a man is seen defecating in a toilet-like basin as a servant carries a basket-full of the apple-shaped product to his lady.

A look at one entire manuscript might shed light on the ways these illustrations may have blended in with the work's aims. The 190 folio Hours of Mary of Burgundy, executed in the 1470s in Flanders, contain many marginalia realized by a number of established artists who contributed to the work and who were by no means insignificant in their artistic inventiveness. Among these, playful or transgressive, images are recognizably gendered and often sexually explicit. Thus, a female monkey, its sex indicated by the presence of a spinning tool called a distaff, instructs a fuzzy infant, as does a spinning sow. A woman armed with the identifying distaff chases after a thieving dog with a hen in its mouth. The letter D (meaning Domine labia mea … [The Lord opens my lips …]) contains a pieta, the body of Christ seated across God's lap, but in the margins, there are two human couples whose lower bodies emanate from masses of flowers: one finely clad woman placing a crown on the man's head while another plays the harp to her devotee. An impish simian exposes his rear to a farmer pushing a farm implement. Now a woman underlines her barely hidden nudity with a transparent strip of cloth, and a naked, winged androgyne shoots an arrow at the next page of the manuscript.

These images take their full meaning in the gender lexicon as types in the corpus of medieval marginalia: Women are easily recognizable by clothing and body shape, but the addition of the distaff and spindle, incorporated into numerous variants, conveys the message that they are not just women but seen according to a gendered script, the more obvious when it is Eve who figures with distaff and spindle. Further, the distaff-wielding woman is shown as combative, charging on horseback at a frightened knight or at another woman, both mounted on rams, and this type of imagery creates tension between a normative gender code and codes of a female unruliness that even has devilish associations.

Thus, as carefully combined visual codes, the standardized motifs of medieval marginalia at once provide commentary on sex and gender, and, mirroring text, a parallel space where the illicit and the transgressive can be scripted.

see also Art; Bosch, Hieronymus; Erotic Art; Obscene.


Black, Nancy B. 1993. "The Language of the Illustrations of Chrétien de Troyes's Le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain)." Studies in Iconography. 15: 45-75.

Camille, Michael. 1992. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Inglis, Erik, comm. 1995. The Hours of Mary of Burgundy: Codex Vindobonensis 1857, Vienna, Osterreischische Nationalbibliothek. London: Harvey Miller.

Randall, Lilian M. C. 1966. Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Walters, Lori. 1992. "Illuminating the Rose: Gui de Mori and the Illustrations of MS 101 of the Municipal Library, Tournai." In Rethinking the Romance of the Rose: Text, Image, Reception, ed. Kevin Brownlee and Sylvia Huot. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

                                 Francesca Canadé Sautman