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.


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.


Smart page with string

These pages from a late-16th-century scientific manuscript share a most unusual feature: they contain a string that runs through a pierced hole. Dozens of them are found in this book. The pages contain diagrams that accompany astronomical tracts. They show such things as the working of the astrolabe (Pic 1), the position of the stars (Pic 4), and the movement of the sun (Pic 6). The book was written and copied by the cartographer Jean du Temps of Blois (born 1555), about whom little appears to be known. The book contains a number of volvelles or wheel charts: revolving disks that the reader would turn to execute calculations. The strings seen in these images are another example of the “hands-on” kind of reading the book facilitates. Pulling the string tight and moving it from left to right, or all the way around, would connect different bits of data, like a modern computer: the string drew a temporary line between two or more values, highlighting their relationship. The tiny addition made the physical page as smart as its contents.

Pics: London, British Library, Harley MS 3263: more on this book here; and full digital reproduction here.


Inside the Codex Rotundus lays a 266 page book of hours in Latin and French.

The manuscript is unique in form and size: the pages are cut approximately circular in shape and measure a little over 9cm in diameter. The book binding feat here is enormous: since the layers are bound together on a mere 3cm book spine, the body of the book must be held together by 3 clasps.

The original clasps were re-used when the book was rebound in the 17th century; each clasp an artful monogram shaped in the form of different gothic alphabetic letters.