The Art of the Doodle

By Jenny Weston

Manuscript doodles—the small sketches often found in the margins of manuscripts—are always a welcome treat when looking through a medieval book. Despite the fact that manuscripts were written entirely by hand, the doodle is somehow a more striking reminder that someone from the Middle Ages actually held the book, read the book, and even decided to doodle a little picture in the corner. It is such a familiar compulsion, the often subconscious habit of scribbling a character or little shape on the edge of the page. Looking back at my own books from school, the margins are often filled with drawings—usually of cats (and usually in rocketships) and typically surrounded by a sea of stars, miniature cupcakes, exclamation marks and the standard ‘abstract swirl’. What a nice thought then, that nearly 900 years ago medieval readers liked to draw in their books too.

So what did the medieval ‘doodler’ like to draw? Based on my brief foray into (the very complex science of) ‘doodle research’ I have come to the conclusion that readers from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries generally enjoyed sketching disembodied heads (often eerily floating in the margin)

Floating Heads in Avranches BM 210 © Enluminures

or animals—many of which are incomplete or apparantly vomiting flowers:

Dog Doodles © Enluminures

Fairly regularly, we also come across ‘little hands’ or manicula, which can be found pointing to important words or passages in the text. One might consider these little hands to be the equivalent of the modern highlighter.

‘Little Hand’ Doodles © Enluminures

Despite my love for the doodle, academically speaking, they are (unfortunately) not particularly useful. The major problem is that they are difficult to date. Unlike script, which can be used to pinpoint the age of the manuscript (as most medieval scribes conformed to specific script-types that changed only gradually over time), the doodle is a free-style drawing, which makes it nearly impossible to determine when it was added. Was it drawn by the original scribe? Or was it added 50 years later? 100 years? 500 years? Since we cannot know when the doodle ‘made its debut’ in the manuscript, it can be difficult to say much about it, particularly in terms of how it reflects specific users of the book.

So what can we learn from doodles? Although they may not be ‘academically’ fruitful, we can learn lots of fun things! Take the medieval hairstyle for example. The following doodles clearly indicate that curls were popular in the Middle Ages, as well as some unfortunate bobs, reminiscent of the late 70s or the band Kiss.

The Medieval ‘Do’ © Enluminures

We can also see the importance of book presentations. There are lots of examples of people holding books or showing off their books to others. Take, for example, this man:

© Enluminures

Or this man, presenting a volume to the back legs of a deer:

© Enluminures

We also see that the medieval doodler often took an interest in portraying medieval animals. Perhaps these rudimentary sketches present an exotic goose, a loving pet dog, or a bird in the garden:

© Enluminures

While the doodle may not be useful to the academic, they add a sense of levity to the books, which in turn, adds a more tangible ‘human’ element to the manuscript—reminding the modern reader that a real person once held this book in his hand. They also offer a fun glimpse into the creativity and imagination of the medieval reader.

For more images of ‘doodles’ and pen trials in manuscripts, check out a few of Erik’s recent Twitter posts:

“Being a monk is serious business”

“Brother John is Crazy!”

“Funny Faces from the Past”

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