Medieval Marginalia

Medieval Marginalia

This is post #13 of #BlogchatterA2Z.

This includes blogging every day in April for 26 days, except on Sundays. What’s special about it is that every day’s post will be corresponding to each letter of the alphabet. 

My theme for 2021 is Bookish TriviaIf you liked this post, don’t forget to “roll” me on Blogchatter’s website!

All my #BlogchatterA2Z posts 2021 can be found here.

Do you write in the margins of your books? Or underline text? Or (the horror!) highlight important lines?

[You’ve probably guessed what my stand is on scribbling in books. At best, I can use a pencil to underline or make notes in the margins, but I hate it when ink or highlighters are used. It feels like disrespecting the book by defacement. ]

Anyway, it turns out that there’s a whole line of study devoted to notes in the margins of texts, called marginalia, especially devotional medieval illustrated manuscripts handwritten before the invention of the printing press. 

Medieval Marginalia
Medieval Marginalia

Weirdly, they’re full of imagery around mythical beasts, hybrid creatures, poop humor and sexually explicit satire. If you’re easily offended, you probably cannot peruse such texts. 

Before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press (12th -14th century), scribes in monasteries copied books by hand, usually for churches or rich patrons. Each book cost as much as a house

Patrons directed the scribes to fill the margins with cheeky illustrations and grotesque hybrid creatures–but we’re not quite sure why.

Modern scholars are probably driven to study these texts because they assume that medieval European society was conservative and to find lurid illustrations in religious texts is intriguing.

Definition of Marginalia

Marginalia refers to anything written or drawn in the margins of a book. It could be in the form of scribbles, doodles, illustrations, or glosses. 

According to a scholar called Michael Camille, marginalia may have originated from glossing, which is a way of providing explanatory notes about a term or a difficult passage in the margin of the book. 

Medieval Marginalia

Medieval marginalia is known for its obscenity and grotesqueness

Imagine coming across a disembodied penis or a naked person shooting an arrow into the butt of another person in the margins of a religious text!

Examples of marginalia can be found in most of Europe, but Northern France and England were prolific in producing such art. 

Obscene medieval marginalia
Obscene marginalia in Book of Hours

There are three theories for such obscene marginalia –

  • The scribes had a fear of empty space or horror vacui. So they filled the margins with meaningless doodles. This theory does not explain why the doodles are of an obscene nature.

  • Only the rich could afford to buy books, thus marginalia were created by owners as a private experience or inside joke. There’s a counter-theory to this as well–that owners defaced or erased illustrations that they found offensive or not in line with their beliefs.

  • The third theory is that margins were a safe space to lodge a protest against the Church and the establishment. Marginalia could have been intended to provoke the reader into subverting the natural order.

Categories of Medieval Marginalia

The study of medieval marginalia helps us understand that period in history, the creators of these manuscripts, and the readers who read the books.

There are different types of marginalia:


Illuminated medieval marginalia
Illuminated medival marginalia

Illumination means decorating a manuscript with color, which includes using gold and silver leaf.

Such marginalia are intended to be a part of the original book and surround the text block with decorated initials and figures and scenes in the margins.

E.g. Statues of the Realm, a 14th century legal manuscript


Drollery medieval marginalia
Drollery medieval marginalia

Drollery involves depicting funny scenes, usually of the “world upside down” or “monde renversé” type.

These scenes may have humans, animals, or hybrid figures called grotesques.

The rabbit was a popular marginal figure representing fertility, innocence, and purity.

The Manicule

To draw attention to key pieces of the text, a disembodied pointing finger called a manicule was used. In Latin, “manicule” means “little hand.”

Wordplay and visual jokes were also used by some authors to highlight important passages.

E.g. John of Arderne’s Medical Treatises



Since scribes copied manuscripts by hand, there were bound to be mistakes – spelling errors, missed lines, repeated paragraphs.

So the scribes (or later users) added glosses (explanatory notes) to the text to correct these errors or translate the text.

A famous example of gloss work was done by the Tremulous Hand of Worcester in Pope Gregory I’s Pastoral Care. The scribe had an essential tremor, hence the name.

Children’s doodles

The most famous example of children’s doodles can be found in a 15th century copy of Life of Our Lady, a poem by Lydgate. 

Nearly every page has pen trial marks, annotations, and doodles in the margins. This shows that the book changed hands through generations. 

The name of its users, the Golding family of Essex, are named in the annotations.

The marginalia shows the changing value of the book–from being closely read to being freely accessible to younger members of the household.

Take a look at Dr. Johanna Green‘s Instagram page, where she showcases fascinating pieces of medieval marginalia:



21 responses to “Medieval Marginalia”

  1. Oh how interesting! I doodled once in a pregnancy book I bought. In the margins with color pencils and crayons. Rest, never! I feel the book cries everytime it’s scribbled on😀

  2. Amazing – so much to learn about books! I think the most probable reason was probably as an act of rebellion, since this was one space where they could unleash their creativity without affecting the actual content of the text they were copying.

  3. Oh boy, I used to underline important content with a pencil (sometimes a pen!). Thanks to your detailed post on marginalia, I’ll try to avoid such mistake 😉

  4. Thank you for reading, Deepika! You were a literature student? Wow! I should have studied it, too but I got distracted by other people’s opinions.

  5. Thank you for reading! There are so many fascinating images on the Internet. I’ve only shared the CC-free images in my post.

  6. I found images of children’s doodles in the book The Life of Our Lady that were so cute–peacocks, ships, what not. I couldn’t put it in the post because it wasn’t a CC-free image.

  7. Thank you! I use pencil, too. I don’t like ink on books. About the obscene images, I didn’t put the really shocking ones in the post. Medieval Europe wasn’t conservative like historians thought, I’m sure.

  8. He! He! He! I haven’t put the really shocking photos that I found during research. If you google medieval marginalia, you’ll see all sorts of things.

  9. Ok, so let me start off by saying I am one of those who highlight books (especially non-fiction) and do write notes, even now. now that confession time is over, let’s get to the post per se.
    Obscene Marginalia hmm? guess they were quite naughty to be putting all this their religious texts!!

  10. Another comprehensive post on a word I didn’t even know existed:)

    I underline and use markings (but always in pencil).

    Those lurid doodles in religious texts have me wondering if the truth will ever come out. And the fear of empty space sounds a lot like modern day FOMO! (in my head)

  11. Wow who would have thought something we do as an after thought or I did in school while the teacher was giving us notes was an actual “thing.” Especially loved the Illumination style of marginalia.

  12. Oh yes, had seen Marginalia but never knew so much about it. Thanks for sharing so much detailed info. I have a habit of writing and scribbling in margins, but never knew there is so much in detail related to it too. Fear of empty spaces, an inside joke, or safe protest space…interesting theories.

  13. Another beautifully detailed and illustrated post. Had read about marginalia as a student of literature, but not in so much detail. Knew only of the notes scribes left and children doodle. It is intriguing to know why grotesque and obscene marginalia were left. A very interesting read.
    Deepika Sharma

  14. love your theme!! anything books is bound to attract me and tempt me to read more.. While I don’t actually write in the margins myself, I love it when I discover marginilia in books I get from used bookstores..
    and love all this post had to reveal about medieval marginalia as well
    I am still on the letter K and playing catch up. constantly.. Kennings Or The Many Different Ways To View Things

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