Elizabeth Reid Davis

Art History

Trumpeting Butts, Combative Rabbits, & Monty Python ~ The Art of Marginalia

Art HistoryElizabeth Reid Davis
A Scene from the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

A Scene from the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

mar·gi·na·li·a

noun

  1. marginal notes; personal notations 
  2. a scribbled exclamation or critique in the hidden margin gutter 
  3. underlining, circling, doodling, and other penciled thoughts

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.”  — Hunter Oatman-Stanford, producer at Collector’s Weekly; excerpt from his article “Naughty Nuns, Flatulent Monks, and Other Surprises of Sacred Medieval Manuscripts.”

From grotesquely detailed illustrations to hastily scrawled notes, the notations and doodles littered across the margins of medieval manuscripts-- called marginalia-- are charming, captivating, and downright naughty.  These decorated marginal drawings depict a variety of explicit behavior — a monk laying an egg, aggressive rabbits decapitating their foe, and of course, defecation… because why not?  Back then, even Jesus liked a good fart joke.

A nun plucks penises off a phallus tree in the Roman de la Rose, c. 1325-1353. (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526, f. 106v.)

A nun plucks penises off a phallus tree in the Roman de la Rose, c. 1325-1353. (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526, f. 106v.)

A nude bishop chastises a pooping cleric in the Gorleston Psalter, c. 1310-1324. (British Library Royal MS 49622, f. 82r.)

A nude bishop chastises a pooping cleric in the Gorleston Psalter, c. 1310-1324. (British Library Royal MS 49622, f. 82r.)

But it is the juxtaposition between overtly sexual imagery and religious text that is most intriguing.  The symbolism and meaning behind medieval marginalia is, ultimately, unknown.  However, “imagination [is] allowed much freer rein in the margins of a book; it’s allowed to run amok.  So monsters or human-monster hybrids, animals behaving as humans, and fart jokes were all fair game” said Kaitlin Manning, an associate at B & L Rootenberg Rare Books and Manuscripts.  Manning continued to say that “some images will include recognizable members of medieval society doing inappropriate things like a nun suckling an ape or the knight battling a snail.  Scholars have suggested that these images were a way for artists to subvert the powers that be, to satirize, to upend what could be seen as a stifling social order.  But I’ve also heard the argument that these sorts of images could bolster the truth of the central image or text on the page, thus reinforcing the world order.  I think they can be looked at at both ways.” 

Detail from The Luttrell Psalter, British Library Add MS 42130 (medieval manuscript,1325-1340), f149r

Detail from The Luttrell Psalter, British Library Add MS 42130 (medieval manuscript,1325-1340), f149r

One of the more popular motifs in medieval manuscripts is of violent, sword-wielding rabbits.  The humorous role reversal of the insignificant, cuddly bunny as a blood-thirsty warrior pokes fun at the military elite, who succumb to the shameful death of decapitation by killer bunnies.  If this image seems familiar to you, it is because it is referenced in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  In scene 20, Tim, the Enchanter describes the killer bunny as “the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!”  In fact, the movie’s animation sequences heavily allude to medieval visual motifs.  Terry Gilliam, co-director and illustrator of the five animation sequences from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, employed the juxtaposition of unlikes.  His “outstanding capacity to cause amusement with his animations is due to his skill in subverting expectations and to his instinct for the humor and the absurd.”  Martine Meuwese, author of “The Animation of Marginal Decorations in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 4.23.17 PM.png

Death by Rabbit

They've beaten the man unconscious, tied him to a tree, and have begun to skin him at the feet. Egad!

Medieval marginalia is a captivating genre because of its anthropological insight into what the 13th and 14th century writers, illustrators, and readers were thinking.  The manuscripts are a medieval time capsule full of intriguing illustrations and side-notes.  And marginalia doesn’t solely exist in medieval texts either— Edgar Allan Poe was known for keeping a pencil in his hand while reading, saying “I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”  Indeed, Severus Snape, Professor of Potions at Hogwarts School of Witch Craft and Wizardry, was known to cross-out, re-write, and invent new and better potion-making methods, operating under the pen-name The Half-Blood Prince.  And finally, in a very loose sense, this blog is my own marginal space where I will come to write about subjects that interest me, my art in stages of “work-in-progress,” and other marginal thoughts. 

  1. 'Folio with text from Psalm 16, with a partial foliate border, hybrid creatures and geometric line-fillers, and in the lower margin, a grotesque merman with a blue body, holding a golden, two-pronged fishing spear.' Description provided by The British Museum, A Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
  2. Rodinesque monkey on a pot (above Saints Peter and Paul ‘Petrus apostolus et Paulus doctor gentium’) Book of Hours, Paris ca.1460 | Morgan Library & Museum, NY: MS M.282, fol. 125v
  3. 'Detail of a marginal miniature of a naked man blowing a trumpet from which a rabbit emerges, with a grotesque entwined and a squirrel holding a nut below.' Description provided by The British Museum, A Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.