Toilet humour?

By Irene O’Daly

One of the things that I first noticed when I moved from Ireland to Leiden was how clean the streets were, at least compared to Dublin.  Not only is there relatively little litter, but there is also minimal graffiti.  This made me think about the nature of graffiti, how certain spaces and places tend to gather writing and street art, ranging from petty vandalism to aesthetic masterpieces like Banksy’s wall-drawings on English streets.  Some locations seem obvious: abandoned buildings and railway hoardings, liminal spaces somehow distinct from the fabric of the city, are common focuses for graffiti.

Graffiti on the walls of Blackrock Baths, Co. Dublin © Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Closer to the office, despite the generally pristine condition of the University of Leiden, there is one area that seems to attract a disproportionate amount of doodles and writing – toilet doors in the University Library.  What interests me about this is the fact that much of the writing is in English, not Dutch.  Here it is not simply the case that a permissible space develops for graffiti, but that a distinct language is used.  Perhaps the use of English is a reflection of the prominent place held by the language in Dutch contemporary pop culture, perhaps it is simply considered more subversive or meaningful to write in a different language in this context.

Toilet Graffiti, Leiden University Library

Graffiti is hardly a modern phenomenon; famously graffiti has been found on the ruins of a brothel in Ephesus, and on the walls of Pompeii.  Medieval graffiti is common too, for example masons often marked their stonework with a special signature; perhaps we could consider this a precursor to the modern graffiti tag.

Mason’s Mark © Durham Cathedral

When it comes to manuscripts, certain parts of the book attract doodles and writing.  Not only do glosses, medieval notes, tend to aggregate – with one reader after another writing in the margins of the text – but other parts of the manuscript also seem to accumulate extraneous material.

The blank leaves at the end of the concluding quire of the manuscript were a favourite zone for doodles and writing, which often served as pen trials for the medieval scribe.

Flyleaf of Sankt Gallen MS 2, Bible 780 (L), Binding of Sankt Gallen MS 42 (R) © e-codices

A medieval parallel to the modern predilection for doodling in foreign languages might be this example of one of the oldest sentences preserved in Old Dutch – “Hebban olla vogala” –  inscribed in the rear of an Old English copy of Aelfric’s sermons (Oxford, MS Bodley 340).

“Hebban olla vogala”, MS Bodley 340 © Bodleian Library, Oxford. Source: Wikipedia commons

In all these cases, what is notable is the fact that drawings and writings tend to congregate in a particular part of the manuscript – the margin or the back leaves.  Just as parts of cities or buildings become accepted zones for verbal and pictorial expression, it seems that certain parts of a manuscript were also seen as fluid and permissible locations for engagement by the reader/scribe.

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