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  • Writer's pictureCarol Harris and Mike Brown

Medieval Manuscripts, Monks and Marginalia

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

In medieval times, before printing was invented, each book would be made by hand by monks. Only very wealthy people could afford books and very few people could read. Typically, at this time, a book made by monks would cost as much as a farm.

Not surprisingly, religious themes were common and bestiaries -- books about real imaginary animals, illustrating a suitably moral idea -- were very popular. So a bee might appear in a medieval manuscript to illustrate the virtue of hard work; a lion usually means God or the king.

J K Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter books, drew on the idea of the medieval bestiary for her book 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'.

The British Library has a wonderful collection of medieval manuscripts and you can see many of them on their website:

Hares and snails were popular images -- they would have been very familiar to anyone living in Britain at that time.

When Hereford Cathedral's Mappa Mundi was made, they thought a swordfish was literally a fish wearing a sword much like medieval men wore them.

Here is another 'artist's impression' of an animal, this time of an elephant -- the head and eyes are not like they are on real elephants, but it is a good guess. You can see also the man at the back, stabbing the elephant with a spiked instrument to make it walk.

The Cremona Elephant, from the Chronica Majora, a history of the world written in the 13th century by Matthew Paris. From the archives of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Animals often featured in illustrations known as marginalia, which were pictures drawn in the borders of manuscripts. Some marginalia are as beautiful as the main pictures; other drawings look like doodles or graffiti. Jokes are quite common too and they tell us about the medieval sense of humour, for example, that that they liked jokes about bottoms.

Sometimes monks who wrote and illustrated these books complained about their work. 'Thank God it will soon be dark', wrote one. 'New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more,' said another. You can read a list here:

Apart from the obvious interest to us as historians, medieval manuscripts also give us an insight into how, then and now, people try to make sense of things even if they don't have all the information, but the results can be quite misleading!


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