October 24, 2013

Now I’ve written the whole thing. For Christ’s sake give me a drink.


Medieval monks doodle the darndest things.

On Lapham’s Quarterly‘s Roundtable blog, Colin Dickey notes that their Means of Communications issue features an amazing collection of “complaints and marginal notes” left by medieval monks, who had to copy manuscripts by hand prior to the invention of the printing press. “With their bitchy complaints — ‘I am very cold,’ ‘Oh, my hand’ — they insert themselves into the holy texts and often, in the process, disrupt the sanctity of the words they’re supposedly copying …'”

I09 describes medieval monks as “the bored data entry workers of their day, spending hours copying manuscripts in uncomfortable chairs and cold rooms.” Much like a bored office worker in a seemingly endless meeting today, the monks would doodle or draw silly pictures in the margins of their texts.

Stephen Greenblatt described the medieval marginalia of monks in his 2011 book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, and a review of the title in the New York Times takes note of some of the more interesting messages that were left behind:

He observes the hilarious complaints that overworked monks, their hands cramped from writing, sometimes added to the margins of the texts they were copying:

“The parchment is hairy”; “Thin ink, bad parchment, difficult text”; “Thank God, it will soon be dark”; “Now I’ve written the whole thing. For Christ’s sake give me a drink.”

Mr. Greenblatt reprints a curse that one monastery placed in its manuscripts upon those who neglect to return books. Some readers, I suspect, will wish to write it in their own books, perhaps even this evening. It begins: “For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted.” It goes on: “let bookworms gnaw his entrails”; “Let the flames of Hell consume him forever.” Amen, brother.”

I’m not sure why this strategy hasn’t been adopted by libraries everywhere.

Of course, the monks didn’t limit themselves to just words, and, back at LQ, Dickey writes of the interesting doodles left in the margins.

Marginal illustrations could be profane and bizarre: one manuscript of the romance of Lancelot shows a nun breastfeeding a monkey; another marginal image in the Rutland Psalter features a demon of some sort firing an arrow into the ass of a merman.

Depictions of sexual consort are frequent, among men and women, among various species of animals, and enough other combinations to make even contemporary readers blush. Camille cautions against reading such images as violations of the sacred text; because the medieval world was so rigidly hierarchized and structured, “resisting, ridiculing, overturning and inventing was not only possible, it was limitless.” That these psalters and books of hours often contained sacrilegious sentiments right alongside their holy piety, it seems, was perhaps the point: “We should not see medieval culture exclusively in terms of binary oppositions—sacred/profane, for example, or spiritual/worldly,” Camille explains. “Travesty, profanation, and sacrilege are essential to the continuity of the sacred in society.”

The allure of writing in the margins has never really gone away. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a whole column about marginalia, for five years. BrainPickings has noted that “In 1844, the godfather of the detective story began a column for The Democratic Review titled Marginalia, collecting his fragmentary reflections on writing and celebrating the joy of conversing with literature in its margins.”

Earlier this summer, BrainPickings also reminded us of the 2005 poem, “Marginalia,” by the great Billy Collins.

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

The whole poem is posted on the Brain Pickings site, along with a recording of Collins reading his own poem.


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.