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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Medieval Margins

It's always amusing to see how little some things change over time. Even over a lot of time, like hundreds of years. Apparently Medieval monks used to like to complain about their jobs just as much as office workers, state employees, and even students do today. To alleviate boredom and vent their dissatisfaction, monks would doodle and write notes in the margins of the manuscripts they were working on. These comments range from humorous to depressed to surprisingly bawdy.

Lapham's Quarterly cites a list of interjections and sketches that have been found along the margins of ancient manuscripts. For example, in a volume from 1323 you can find "a picture of a scribe harassed by monkeys: while he tries to copy, they mimic him, drink his ink, and distract him." Some of my favorite comments include: "St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing," "Writing is excessive drudgery," "Thank God it will soon be dark," "Oh my hand," and "Now I've written the whole thing: for Christ's sake give me a drink."

Colin Dickey writes "it is in these marginal comments that we learn as much—if not more—about the medieval world as we do from the texts themselves." Annalee Newitz compares the monks' messages to today's texts or tweets: snarky comments about their daily drudgeries released during a brief escape from work.

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