Despite the staid image of religion in the Middle Ages, those who created books of religious and cultural significance weren’t always so boring. In fact, they had pretty darn good senses of humors, often drawing beautiful and unusual pictures in the texts’ borders. These images, called marginalia, were often grotesque or comical in nature. But why would anyone want penises or giraffes in their book margins? No one is entirely sure what the purpose of marginalia was, but they may have just been fun doodles to entertain bored scribes and readers or draw attention to important passages (or those left out from the manuscript). Here are five of the most outrageous and entertaining marginalia from medieval manuscripts.
1. A nun plucking penises from a phallus tree:
One of the most unusual and inventive pieces of marginalia comes from a fourteenth-century copy of the medieval French poem Roman de la Rose. At the bottom of a page, a nun picks erect penises from a phallus tree, placing them in an already genital-filled basket. On the other side of the page, the nun is embracing a handsome young monk in such a way that her Mother Superior probably wouldn’t be pleased with her behavior.
The idea of the phallus tree was actually quite a popular motif in medieval Europe and beyond, one that appeared everywhere from illuminated manuscripts and public frescoes (although other examples of phallic flora may have different meanings). Its blatant sexuality is in sharp contrast to the perceived constant piety of the Middle Ages, let alone the holiness of a woman of the cloth (the nun, in this case).
But the Roman de la Rose wasn’t a sacred text; rather, it was a work of love, so perhaps a penis tree wasn’t too out of place here. Maybe the phalloi were symbols of fertility. The penis tree fresco in the Italian town of Massa Marittima was located right near the public fountain, which was itself an indicator of the town’s prosperity. Some even think the image served as political satire, but its meaning is clearest when compared to the the Roman de la Rose.
The portion of the text near which the nun plucking penises appears discusses sexual liberation. Another nun/phallus tree combo occurs near the end of the text, when the lover’s rose (virginity) is finally plucked. In the first circumstance, as Dilshat Herman notes in an essay on the phallus tree fresco, a woman shows her sexual freedom by engaging with multiple partners’ genitals, while the last reference is a pun on a man taking a woman’s singular virginity, while the nun below gathers multiple genitals. Or perhaps it’s a way for the illustrator to flip the script on the erotic rosebush in the poem, creating a play on religion and bodily passion by combining the two in a way that gives “an erotic sense to spiritual matters.”
2. Rabbits dressed up as priests:
Even rabbits mourn those who have passed on, at least according to the Gorleston Psalter. This manuscript, dating to 1310, is chock-full of inappropriate marginalia, including one image that shows a procession of rabbits taking on the roles of grieving priests in a funeral procession, complete with a crucifix, trumpet, and bells. This scene consistent with the theme of life triumphing over death in grotesque imagery, according to Catherine I. Cox.
Virility comes out on top as a prominent theme in marginalia; after all, “mating like rabbits” is a phrase used to show these cute critters’ generative power, and rabbits emerging each spring (cue the Easter Bunny) is a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. But this image was also pretty punny. Perhaps, as some scholars suggest, a warren of rabbits was included because this psalter was created for the English noble John de Warenne, who liked the warren/Warenne joke.
3. A pair of dancing monkeys:
These swing-dancing simians come from a particular kind of text called a Book of Hours. Such prayer books were designed for secular individuals, contained absolutely stunning marginalia. This small volume from the French diocese of Cambrai dates from the early fourteenth century and contains quite a few fun marginalia, which may have livened up prayer. These images include dancing monkeys, which might’ve made religious individuals get up and jig!
Monkeys weren’t uncommon as marginalia in Books of Hours; as they were exotic creatures, perhaps they were seen as almost as fanciful, ridiculous, and unattainable as the animal-human hybrids and other not-so-true-to-life sketches included in the marginalia.
4. A hybrid animal that boggles the mind:
This confusing tripartite hybrid hails from the Luttrell Psalter, a gorgeously decorated text commissioned between 1320 and 1340 by the wealthy English landowner Geoffrey Luttrell. More specifically, this book was a psalter, which contains the text of the Psalms. But this psalter was chock-full of weird marginalia to delight the reader, alongside scenes of work and play on a contemporary estate like Geoffrey’s.
One such image that confounds the human imagination looks like it contains the head of a French bulldog atop the body and long, supermodel-like legs of a bird. But somehow the Frenchie-bird also has a pointed tail. Was this confusing critter a demon, a product of the artist’s imagination, or something else entirely? We may never know for sure, but one thing is clear: he’s entertaining as all hell!
5. A monk farting into a trumpet:
Finally, the Rothschild Canticles offered up a majestic fart trumpet. An ornate book of prayers and poems from the Song of Songs and the works of St. Augustine, this work of canticles hails from Central Europe, probably Flanders or the German Rhineland. this psalter contains its fair share of madcap marginalia, including a monk blowing a trumpet with his butt. Interestingly, this wasn’t the only instrument-assed man in medieval marginalia; one can’t help but wonder if this image was a play on the fact that both the buttocks and the trumpet are “wind” instruments.
Feature image of what resembles a mutated member of the Blue Man Group firing an arrow into a merman’s ass via C.N. Beyer/Rutland Psalter