Holy texts and illuminated manuscripts denotes a pious world foregone. Yet in the margins of these books you’ll find humor not unlike our own. The Monks were not above being raunchy fellows: featuring images of everything from scatological jokes to sexually explicit satire:
Though we may still get a kick out of poop jokes, we aren’t used to seeing them visualized in such lurid detail, and certainly not in holy books. But in medieval Europe, before books were mass-produced and reading became a pastime for plebes, these lavish manuscripts were all the rage—if you could afford them. The educated elite hired artisans to craft these exquisitely detailed religious texts surrounded by all manner of illustrated commentary, known today as marginalia.
Kaitlin Manning, an associate at B & L Rootenberg Rare Books and Manuscripts, writes that “marginialia helps us recognize that medieval society was as complex as our own.”
“…The images vary widely, but they tend to be very strange and even disturbing—overt sexual acts, defecation, monsters, human-monster hybrids, animals acting like humans. There’s also examples of clergy behaving very badly, the sort of thing you would not expect to see in the margins of a sacred book. There are some motifs that do recur, and one that comes to mind is a knight battling a snail. Monkeys often roam the margins, as the monkey was a convenient foil to man, the idea being that they hold up a mirror to our own follies.
I should also mention that not all marginalia is vulgar: It can be helpful by pointing out passages of interest or inserting missing text. It can be a commentary on the text, like a gloss to help you understand the message or illustrate something the text is getting at. I think the rather shocking images are allowed to exist because of the space they occupy. They’re marginal. They’re outside of the conventional picture space. I think boundaries and delineating the known world was really important for medieval society, as much for reasons of survival as for political ambition. What lay outside of these constructed borders was the mysterious unknown. You can see the fear of this idea expressed in world maps at the time, with monsters and freaks inhabiting the unknown spaces.
From a modern perspective, it can be difficult to understand how sacred text and bawdy images could exist side by side, especially given our preconceived notions about the uptight religious fervor of the age. But I think marginalia helps us recognize that medieval society was as complex as our own. While it might be tough for us to grasp the meaning behind such seemingly opposite imagery drawn together on a page, perhaps for the medieval viewer the conflict wasn’t quite so black and white.”