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Medieval Miniature, Diabolic Hares and Marginalia: What it is and Where to Read About it

Medieval Miniature, Diabolic Hares and Marginalia: What it is and Where to Read About it
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Palina Dolia

You probably love illustrations. Who doesn't? Pictures have always been absorbed much easier and faster than multi-page texts, and if they are also pleasant to the eye, then looking at them is a double pleasure. People in the Middle Ages thought so too, and therefore generously gave their books coloured miniatures. You have seen at least one of those – mad hares with spears, serene people in strange poses, knights fighting with snails... Let's bring to our lives some suffering Middle Ages and understand why the book miniature is so crazy.

For a start, the medieval miniature is not what it seems. Books at that time were mostly very pious, unlike images of rabbit killers and battles with snails. There were no such scenes in the Bible, and unlikely in sermons. So why do we have so many crazy medieval plots and what do the pictures illustrate?


The answer: nothing. Medieval art, of course, was specific, but not so much as to create books about the battles of knights with rabbits and so carefully illustrate them. Most of the strange drawings we know are marginalia (or drolleries, in the French manner). These are drawings and entries on the margins of books, and usually, they have nothing to do with what is written in the book. Real book miniatures are much more serious: they are sophisticated, righteous and never include stories with priests hatching eggs in a bird's nest.

About marginal

The word "marginalia" itself comes from the Latin margo – "edge", and that's the whole point. They are illustrations on the verge of reasonable and beyond the bounds of decency. They began to appear in the 13th century in English, Flemish and French manuscripts; before that, the wide fields were mostly empty. Then someone realized that it is a crime against humanity to waste so much space on the pages, and a real madness broke loose. The fields in the books became a platform for parody. Marginalia were a specific medieval humour. Often comedy scenes were depicted, like a man cutting off a branch on which he sat (ridiculous, isn’t it?), or a barber with a wooden leg. Of course, the marginalia include not only images, but also all sorts of markings on the same fields, but today we will touch upon the visual – and the most memorable – part of them.


Marginalia were often very frank and even obscene, and this, of course, is also an important part of the joke. There is nothing funnier than an inversion of the usual order of things: everything turns upside down. Cowardly rabbits hunt people, riders carry horses on their shoulders, and knights flee in horror from big slugs... The relationship between people and animals, women and men, masters and subjects is reversed creating a joke. Opinions about the true purpose of marginalia are still very polarized. Clearly, a comic element is the key, but some researchers believe that through such a demonstration of human vices, the marginalia became edifications. Such an image showed a distortion of the divine order, reminded of devilish temptations at every step and warned: don't do this or that. However, it is a controversial opinion. Yet many of the marginalia, obviously, had nothing to do with didactics and were just a sincere impulse of the soul of a medieval illustrator. He just wanted to decorate the capital letter of the next page of "The Merlin Trilogy" with a brooding knight without pantaloons. Why restrain yourself if you can draw?

Well, we figured out the terminology, let's move on to the contents. If all these funny drawings were originally just a joke, then why are they exactly like that. There is a number of common plots that wander from book to book in the marginalia: the aforementioned killer rabbits, battles with slugs of different sizes, monks in nests, and much more. Let's take a look at the first two points to warm up. We love animals, right? They're cute, even if they're trying to kill someone in the margin of your book.


Man versus rabbit

OK, rabbits often become heroes of the marginalia, but by no means in the role of a cute fluffy. Medieval artists painted them as cruel killers who lust for blood. They were portrayed small and large, in different shapes and colours, but one thing was constant: their victory over humanity.

However, there is more to the image of these eared invaders than just a "victim becomes a hunter" joke. After all, they hunted not only rabbits, so why exactly did rabbits become the personification of evil in the marginalia? Yes, we mentioned earlier that it is difficult and almost pointless to interpret the marginalia. But we can still try.

Well, rabbits were present in medieval art, personifying innocence, purity, spring and so on. In addition, they were a kind of religious symbol. Teaching unrighteous Christians to be righteous is always easier with a specific example, but in order not to go into details, cautionary tales are often dressed in fables about animals. In one of the 12th-century European bestiaries, the role of a hare in such fables was mentioned – usually, it represented a person who loves God so sincerely that he listens to him instead of his many brethren. Rabbits were considered so pure that images of Jesus in their company were often found in medieval manuscripts. So far, everything is harmless, zero knights killed.


Actually, it's their innocence that was the reason why rabbits were chosen for inverse jokes: in marginalia they avenge not only people but also – attention – hunting dogs. They besiege dog fortresses, remove skins from hunters and rejoice. Now justice has been restored.

In addition, as it is known, rabbits in popular culture were perceived as cowardly and stupid animals. Therefore, every knight, whom the evil hare with a spear cornered, is vilified twice: he is not just a wimp, but also a coward. Often people in such scenes cover their eyes with their hands for they are scared. Well, it makes a simple hare hunt on a man the pinnacle of medieval comedy.

There is, however, a dark side in the image of rabbits and much more ancient than Christian motives. In antiquity, a hare was often associated not just with fertility but also with promiscuity in every sense of the word. Not that the ancient Greeks or anyone condemned rabbits because of this, but Christians, of course, did not take this interpretation of the rabbit image too favourably. As a result, the image of the hare remained twofold. On the one hand, the innocent companion of Jesus, on the other hand, the devil himself in the fluffy flesh. In general, a perfect hero for jokes and social comments on book fields.


Fight me, snail.

Another popular plot of marginalia, as you might realize, is closely related to the battles against giant (and not so much) snails. Why one would think? Were there not enough bloodthirsty hares with big knives? Obviously, not.

Scenes with snails appear in English manuscripts of the 13th century, and there is an incredible number of them. Sometimes brave knights sit on top of them, sometimes the snail overtakes the warrior off guard and he runs from it in horror, throwing away the sword. Sometimes it's just a snail crawling peacefully on the edge of a sheet of paper.

Lillian Randall puts forward an interesting hypothesis in her book "Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts". Perhaps, the snail shell is the point. Their cosy shell could become a funny parody of heavy chivalrous armour, which is so heavy that they can almost live in it. In addition, the snail is a rather down-to-earth creature, and therefore to tag it a noble knight, albeit metaphorically, is quite comical. The result is a hilarious scene, where a knight in full ammunition is afraid to attack such an armoured enemy. Stupid, stupid knight, it's just a snail!


There is, however, another, more noble interpretation of battles with snails. Researchers put forward a version that this very snail can represent the poor – again, a down-to-earth animal, which slowly but surely seeks its place in this difficult life, and instills terror into a couple of knights and aristocrats along the way. In the end, let the poor win on paper. This may explain one of the popular motives in such marginalia: the naked rich man prays the snail for mercy. It probably won't forgive.

Anyway, now we can only assume what the authors of the manuscripts were thinking, painting them with marginalia. No formalism in symbols, no interpretive collections, only guesses and assumptions. However, this doesn't stop us from loving the marginalia. The space for imagination remains. Isn't it good?

What to read and where to run

If stories of hare cruelty and successful snails have inspired you to read something more serious about marginalia, we strongly recommend that you read a few books on this and related topics.

First of all, get "The Mousetrap of St. Joseph" by Maizuls M.R., or any other books of this wonderful mediaevalist. After all, you've probably heard of the "Suffering Middle Ages"? You can certainly read it, too. If the heart asks for something more serious and monumental, take up the "Miniatures of the Grandes Chroniques de France" by Chernova G.A. If you seek stories about text marginalia in Belarusian literature, look for “Book Heritage of Belarus” and the catalogue “Belarus and the Bible”. Not enough art? “Book culture. Branch "will quench your thirst for beauty – it contains not only examples of unique book miniatures, but also charming text marginalia.

Do you know what is better than reading about marginalia? Of course, viewing them. The collections of the National Library contain not only impeccably cleaned volumes – in many of the books, the marks of the previous owners have also been preserved, from a simple name to sweeping donation inscriptions and sincere comments on the text. There are even drawings. Are you intrigued? Breathe deeply: here you can take a look at the whole complex of Old Believer manuscripts, generously supplied with marginalia and illustrations. For example, the "Liturgy of John Chrysostom and the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts" on hook notes from the end of the 18th century fascinates with its simplicity and spontaneity – there are even log churches here! "The Teachings" of Ephraim the Syrian of 1791 are painted with charming birds and flowers. Curious textual marginalia have been preserved in the "Primer of the Slavonic Language" – the entire chronicle of its study in the illegible font at the bottom of the pages. Want fewer words and more pictures again? See what images with book miniatures are kept in National Library. They will surely charm you.


Separately, we will single out one of the most curious specimens of the library collection – the marginalia by Marc Chagall himself. Almost a hundred years ago, he barbarously painted a naked woman right on the title page of his own book – just above the autograph. Real art.

Modern literature lost so much when it gave up on drawings on the margins: now marginalia appear only in school textbooks. Too narrow fields, no space for creativity. However, everything is fixable. Next time you fill your home library with a book with wide fields why don't you draw a perky snail, eating a knight in the corner?

Just for heaven's sake, don't draw in library books. Use paper liners. The National Library takes care of your creative impulses!

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