Doodle by bored medieval school boy

This 15th-century doodle is found in the lower margin of a manuscript containing Juvenal’s Satires. This classical text was a popular device to teach young students - kids - morals. The medieval teacher Alexander Nequam stated: “Let the student read the satirists […] so that he may learn even in his younger days that vices are to be shunned” (quote here). Spoken like a true optimist, because this page shows what young school boys like to do with rules: disobey them. And so in stead of studying the student who used this book drew a funny doodle in the lower margin: a figure with a flower in one hand and what appears to be a pipe in the other. Could it be his teacher? Doodles are of all ages but those produced by bored school kids are the most entertaining.

Pic: Carpentras, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 368 (here). Here is another example of school kids doodling.

A medieval manuscript that was peed on by a cat 

Scribe was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:

“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.”

[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]

Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r

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Losing yourself in a labyrinth

Here is something special I happened upon by coincidence in a French database today. These unique drawings are found in a handwritten book from 1611 produced by Nicolas de Rély, a monk from Corbie. We know little about the author and the book is relatively unknown in scholarship, which is kind of amazing considering its topic: a study of medieval labyrinths. These large objects were mazes of up to 40 feet in diameter, built into the floor of cathedrals of twelfth and thirteenth-century Europe (see Chartres Cathedral, lower image). Church visitors, which included a lot of pilgrims, had to undertake a journey to its centre - the latter on their knees, by means of repentance. The labyrinth is also an intellectual exercise, of creating an object of perfect harmony, of balance and calculation, like the Gothic cathedrals which housed them. The monk in the early 17th century was so fascinated by them that he devoted a study to their shapes and routes, replicating them in detail: what a beautiful way to lose yourself!

Pic: Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 405 (dated 1611). More images and some more information here. More information of labyrinths here and in this PDF. More about the Amiens labyrinth here.

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Beginner and veteran transcribers, this app is available for free, on both Android and iOS devices. Manuscript database, basic info on each of them, typography galore… 

The origins of this app lie in online exercises in palaeography developed for postgraduate students in the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds in West Yorkshire, U.K. The aim is to provide practice in the transcription of a wide range of medieval hands, from the twelfth to the late fifteenth century. 

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Truth be told, some of the pages might be in higher resolution, but still, it’s one of the best edu apps I’ve seen lately. 

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Medieval dachshund - Or: drawing with words

Here are three examples of a technique called “micrography”: decorative scenes that are drawn with words written in a tiny script. While there are examples from Latin books made in the West (here is one), the technique is particularly common in medieval Hebrew manuscripts. The drawings are usually found in biblical manuscripts and they appear to be commentaries to the text. The technique, whereby a scribe wrote in the smallest handwriting possible, goes back to the 9th century AD. The examples here, from the 13th century, shows just how entertaining the word-made drawings can be: they are an opportunity for the scribe to frolick in the margins of the page - like drawing a creature that looks like a dachshund.

Pic: London, British Library, Additional MS 21160 (13th century, more about the manuscript here). More about micrography here.