5 Very Weird Themes in Medieval Manuscripts

Left: NY, Morgan, MS G.24, fol. 25v / Right: British Library, Add 62925, fol. 67r
Left: NY, Morgan, MS G.24, fol. 25v / Right: British Library, Add 62925, fol. 67r / Left: NY, Morgan, MS G.24, fol. 25v / Right: British Library, Add 62925, fol. 67r

Every generation thinks they were the ones to invent the fart joke. The truth is that people have been laughing about bodily functions—and other low-hanging humor fruit—for a long, long time, even in the margins of medieval texts. (Fair warning: Some of these images are legitimately R-rated.)


Image Credit: British Library, Royal 15 E IV, fol. 192r

Contradictory though it may seem, the margins of religious texts were a perfect and popular place for crude humor during the Middle Ages. If the scripture was king, the margins were its jester, poking holes in the text's (or author’s) grandeur and commenting pointedly on issues of the day. Some of that commentary was nuanced or couched in metaphors. The poop drawings … a little less so.


Image Credit: British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV

Art and religious historians have debated this one for centuries. Some theorize that the snail and its trail of slime represent death; others think it signifies the Resurrection. Some believe it’s a metaphor for the lower class and their struggle against the armored aristocracy. Still others think scribes liked snails because, well, they kind of look like penises. Which brings us to our next item ...


Image Credit: Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale, Ms 5128, fol. 100r

So. Many. Penises.


Image Credit: British Library, Yates Thompson 8, f. 294r.

Margin art was a complex, labor-intensive game for both reader and scribe, as symbolic as any family crest. Lions had one meaning and monkeys another, as did their behavior and placement on the page. Illuminators swiped existing symbols and appropriated them for new, bizarre uses. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we're still doing it.


Image Credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Monty Python may have made illuminated butt trumpets famous, but they certainly didn’t invent them. No, those very special instruments came straight from the borders of religious texts, where they lay for centuries, amplifying and directing farts right into the holy gospels.

(Need more marginal mayhem? Check out Discarding Images on tumblr.)