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Dark Age Doodles that Disturb and Delight

A cow bends over and farts whilst a knight holds up his shield in desperate self-defence. A man appears from a snail’s shell with a sword-wielding rabbit on top of him, fighting the similarly surprising pair of a dog on the shoulders of a bemused rabbit. A shy lion plays the violin tentatively. A merman does a somersault whilst an arrow is shot up his bottom.

The realm of mediaeval illustrations can be very bizarre indeed.


When thinking of the Middle Ages (Middle as it sits between the more culturally, intellectually, and economically rich Roman and Renaissance periods) it’s natural to think of plagues, battles, muddy peasants, and too many potatoes. This may have been dubbed the Dark Ages, but when looking at the illustrations and designs of the period’s books and manuscripts, a far more exciting world is revealed.


The devotional passages carefully transcribed in beautiful calligraphy, luxurious decorative borders, and vivid illustrations are incredibly detailed and intricate works of art. They also had a didactic purpose, especially in religious and medical texts, communicating ideas visually in a time of widespread illiteracy. Monks working as scribes were incredibly important for the dissemination of knowledge, particularly before the invention of the printing press in 1440. What’s more, these are some of the oldest works in Western art history. They reveal so much about artistic practices and styles from an age in which a lot of literary and visual culture has been lost. The Vergilius Vaticanus from the fifth century, for example, is believed to have taken inspiration from since-destroyed Roman wall paintings.


The marginalia (sketches, doodles, and notes) of these texts can be equally captivating. They provide an unfiltered insight into the mind of the scribe — monks unhinged. The scribes’ writings, beyond that of the official text they were copying, reveal their various laments and frustrations: “New parchment, bad ink: I say no more;” “I am very cold;” “Now I’ve written the whole thing, for Christ’s sake give me a drink;” “The parchment is hairy.”


Images of fighting animals, flatulence, and biomorphic figures provide entertainment whilst also revealing a lot about society in the Middle Ages. However, we do sometimes have to decode these as they are so full of symbolism, sort of ‘in jokes’ that are very time and place-specific. Snails fighting knights is a particularly notable and mysterious motif in mediaeval manuscripts (art historian Lilian Rendall found 70 examples in 29 different books, mainly printed between 1290 and 1310) but scholars can’t agree on an explanation for it.


It may signify wider ideas about the world being turned upside down, overturning existing and expected hierarchies, representing the constant struggle of the poor against the rich, or even symbolising the resurrection. But why is the knight often struggling to defeat his slimy attacker? The failing fighter, seen laying down his sword or kneeling in front of the snail, may characterise cowardice. Or it may be a political commentary: the shell-inhabiting beast signifying the Lombard family (a Germanic people that ruled Lombardy in modern-day Italy), vilified as unhygienic usurers and considered synonymous with non-chivalrous behaviour. However, if this is true, I’m not sure why the snail is usually depicted as winning. Believe it or not, others have suggested that the mollusc could also be a euphemism for female genitals. Illustrations of the slightly more profane variety are, in fact, not uncommon — a nun picking phallic objects from a tree being a memorable example.


Whether these works are intended to be humorous or not isn’t always clear, but either way, there is certainly much for us to enjoy, learn, and speculate about hundreds of years later. And I hope images of mediaeval snail wars inhabit your thoughts today.

Illustration by Hannah Beggerow

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