Mad Medieval Marginalia

All of us, at one time or another, have written in the margins of our books. I continue to do it (e.g., my copy of Allan Holtz’s American Newspaper Comics). Not as many of us doodle in the margins, though at least one person has made a career of it.

But centuries before Sergio Aragonés the craft of marginalia was being practiced in the Middle Ages.

Marginalia are essentially cartoons that were found in the margins of prayer books and other manuscripts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when books were bound by hand and the pages had a large amount space around the intended text. As Dr Bovey notes, the images were “often funny, sometimes rude, obscene or absurd” and had “no meaningful relationship to the texts they accompany.”

Dr. Alixe Bovey, for BBC Radio4, explores how images of walking fish, knights fighting snails, murderous rabbits, and mischievous monkeys give us insight into ideas of society in the Middle Ages.

Further reading at the Centre for Material Texts and Atlas Obscura.


Flipping through an illustrated manuscript from the 13th century, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jesus loved a good fart joke. That’s because the margins of these handmade devotional books were filled with imagery depicting everything from scatological humor to mythical beasts 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.

Collectors Weekly interviewed Kaitlin Manning on marginalia.

The tradition of marginalia is carried on to this very day.