Picture this. A monk. A monk in a high tower. In the monk’s hand is a writing instrument that today would be found behind glass in a museum. What’s this lonesome scribe writing? There’s parchment on the unevenly carved desk in front of him, and on it we may imagine him writing about the heavenly bodies, the saints, or the creator of the universe itself. There’s gold paint there, too, in an ink pot. He may be drawing a crown of gold leaf for a cherub to mark the beginning of a verse.
He may be doing any or all of these things, or he may be doing this:
Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve, MS 95 (Missal 12th Century) Photo: Erik Kwakkel
Leiden University Library, MS BPL 6 C, Photo: Erik Kwakkel
Here are more:
Carpentras, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 368.
Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve, MS 95 (Missal 12th Century)
Conches, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 7 (main text 13th century, doodle 14th or 15th century).
Leiden University Library bpl144, Photo: Erik Kwakkel
Oh, ancient cartoonist scribe, your craftsmanship and whimsical drawings have enlightened me!
Seriously, folks — these cartoon drawings are real.They were drawn in the margins of books in a time before printing. Thanks to the discoveries of Medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel we are treated to the knowledge that the art of cartooning is older than most people think.
Here is an actual comic, with a storyline:
British Library, Stowe MS 49, col. 122r (c. 1300)
Thanks to Kwakkel I learned what the words mean. This comic is about a family on the move, and about how the kids are all tired and complaining. Well. So now we know how old is the cliche, “Are we there yet?” Apparently older than the gags in the Saturday Evening Post during the mid 1950s. Now that’s truly old hat.
Further reading about these ancient doodles turns up the fact that these drawings were sometimes the result of a scribe testing the ink flow on a quill (wow, some things never change!). Also, consider the idea that the doodles were likely made to alleviate the boredom, and lack of freedom of expression that a scribe most likely would have felt copying pages and pages of other writers’ works. The evidence of this is just how many doodles there are on one page alone — proof that the guy, once he started doodling, found it hard to stop (ha! again, I can relate!).
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Lat. misc. c66
I hope you enjoy these wonderful, whimsical pieces of doodle art. They got me thinking. It would be fairly easy to imagine that the men (sadly no women here, most likely) who made these cartoon drawings probably did a lot of other pieces on their own. Like, you know, when the boss was away, or during their lunch break, or something. I’m envisioning thousands and thousands of comics that have been lost over time. The reason we have ancient books is because people, over hundreds of years, conspired to keep them safe, and sound. They are important books. But what about the Medieval cartoons? Stories with funny characters about a bunch of brats saying “Are we there yet, dad?” Except for the few that have remained, those old comics, sadly, would have been lost.
Ancient manuscripts can teach us plenty about history, but I think we might have learned more about the past, and the everyday people who lived it, if we could see more of their cartoons.
Check out Erik Kwakkel’s tumblr. He continues to discover and post all sorts of Medieval treasures like these.