Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • A rabbit attempts to play a church organ, while a knight fights a giant snail and a naked man blows a trumpet with his rear end.

  • Painted with squirrel-hair brushes on vellum or parchment by monks, nuns, and urban craftspeople, these bizarre images populate the margins of the most prized books from the Middle Ages.

  • Their illustrations often tell a second story as rich as the text itself.

  • Some images appear in many different illuminated manuscripts, and often reinforce the religious content of the books they decorated.

  • For example, a porcupine picking up fruit on its spines could represent the devil stealing the fruits of faith, or Christ taking up the sins of mankind.

  • Medieval lore stated that a hunter could only capture a unicorn when it lay its horn in the lap of a virgin, so a unicorn could symbolize either sexual temptation or Christ being captured by his enemies.

  • Rabbits, meanwhile, could represent human's lustful natures and could redeem themselves through attempts to make sacred music despite their failings.

  • All of these references would have been familiar to medieval Europeans from other art forms and oral tradition, though some have grown more mysterious over the centuries.

  • Today, no one can say for sure what the common motif of a knight fighting a snail meansor why the knight so often appears to be losing.

  • The snail might be a symbol of the inevitability of death, which defeats even the strongest knights.

  • Or it could represent humility, and a knight's need to vanquish his own pride.

  • Many illuminated manuscripts were copies of religious or classical texts, and the bookmakers incorporated their own ideas and opinions in illustrations.

  • The butt tuba, for example, was likely shorthand to express disapproval withor add an ironic spin tothe action in the text.

  • Illuminations could also be used to make subversive political commentary.

  • The text of the "Smithfield Decretals" details the Church's laws and punishments for lawbreakers.

  • But the margins show a fox being hanged by geese, a possible allusion to the common people turning on their powerful oppressors.

  • In the "Chronica Majora," Matthew Paris summarized a scandal of his day, in which the Welsh prince Griffin plummeted to his death from the tower of London.

  • Some believed the prince fell, Paris wrote, while others thought he was pushed.

  • He added his own take in the margins, which show the prince falling to his death while trying to escape on a rope made of bed-sheets.

  • Some margins told stories of a more personal nature.

  • "The Luttrell Psalter," a book of psalms and prayers commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, shows a young woman having her hair done, while a young man catches a bird in a net.

  • The shaved patch on his head is growing out, indicating that he is a clergyman neglecting his duties.

  • This alludes to a family scandal where a young cleric ran away with Sir Geoffrey's daughter Elizabeth.

  • The family's personal spiritual advisor likely painted it into the book to remind his clients of their failings and encourage their spiritual development.

  • Some artists even painted themselves into the manuscripts.

  • The opening image of Christine de Pisan's collected works shows de Pisan presenting the book to the Queen of France.

  • The queen was so impressed by de Pisan's previous work that she commissioned her own copy.

  • Such royal patronage enabled her to establish her own publishing house in Paris.

  • The tradition of illuminated manuscripts lasted for over a thousand years.

  • The books were created by individuals or teams for uses as wide-ranging as private prayer aids, service books in churches, textbooks, and protective talismans to take into battle.

  • Across all this variation, those tricky little drawings in the margins are a unique window into the minds of medieval artists.

A rabbit attempts to play a church organ, while a knight fights a giant snail and a naked man blows a trumpet with his rear end.

Subtitles and vocabulary

Click the word to look it up Click the word to find further inforamtion about it