In the Margins

Massimo Perrone


Unicorns[1], dragons, sirens, griffins, skiapodes, blemmyae, cynocephali and many others fabulous beasts or strange hybrid creatures populate the margins of illuminated medieval manuscripts. These amazing and wonderful creatures illustrate not only deluxe bestiaries but surprisingly also many books of prayers, psalters and even the Bible, where the presence of these colourful illustrations appears to be in contrast to the seriousness of the text. It is known that artists and scribes used marginalia for many purposes: they personalized the manuscript for the owner, added levity and irony to the text or represented funny stories in order to make it more interesting; yet, but monsters were especially used to express the ugliness of sin and thus they were often portrayed as physically deformed.

The contrast between solemn religious texts and playful and provocative creatures painted in the margins is particularly evident in the well known Luttrell Psalter, commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, Lord of the Manor of Irnham in Lincolnshire, and probably written in the first half of the 14th century. It is one of the most intriguing examples of the manuscripts containing illustrations of the English medieval daily life and of a large number of figures of human-animal hybrids: dancers, musicians, wrestlers and a wife beating her husband kneeling with her distaff in a sequence of images of martyrs (fols. 29r–60v): misogyny or something else? Here are some funny images of this amazing Psalter:

 Two men fighting with jars:


London, British Library, MS Add 42130, fol. 153r

Triangle-face man:


London, British Library, MS Add 42130, fol. 80r

A lion sticking out his tongue:


London, British Library, MS Add 42130, fol. 178r

A cephalopod:


London, British Library, MS Add 42130, fol. 62v

A griffin:


London, British Library, MS Add 42130, fol. 160v

A bishop monster flying:


London, British Library, MS Add 42130, fol. 79r

A wife beating her husband kneeling with her distaff:


London, British Library, MS Add 42130 fol. 60

A happy dragon:


London, British Library, MS Add 42130, fol. 196r

In the Middle Ages many monsters with physical deformities and exotic names (perhaps signifying savagery of non-Christian people) were thought to live on faraway lands, especially the three categories of Blemmyae, Cynocephali and Sciapods. Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia tells us that the Blemmyae had no head, but had the face on their chest and lived somewhere in Africa. On the existence of Cynocephali in India, the main source for us is the Greek physician Ctesias of Cnidus, but also Marco Polo mentions them when he describes his travel to the island of Angamanain. In the Ctesias’ History of India, Cynocephali are described as men with dogs’ heads who speak no language, but bark like dogs and live for a very long time, sometimes 200 years. About the mythological people called Monopods (that means «one-foot») or also Sciapods («shadow-foot»), Pliny the Elder says they have a single, enormous foot and are used to lie on their backs during the time of the heat and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet (Nat. Hist, VII 2).


Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 291, detail of f. 75v



Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. Ludwig XV 4, fol. 117v



Paris, BnF, NAL 1366, f.25r


New York, The Morgan Library, MS M.102, fol. 136r

But non only monsters and exotic creatures… After the 12th century it was usual to put in the margins quite a few maniculae or “little hands”, consisting of a hand (sometimes very elaborate and realistic) with an extended finger to indicate a significant passage of the text. These pointing hands feature very often arms attached, or consist of fully figures, hybrides creatures or animals.

Look at this beautiful manicule-dog that explains the text of Aristotle to a bunny:


London, BL, ms Harley 3487

or at this angry manicula:


Glasgow, UL, MS Hunter 369

or at this full body manicula:


Paris, BnF, Lat. 6306, f.75v

Medieval manuscripts feature also quite a few angry creatures, like these:

an angry oyster, perhaps it means protect its pearl…


Den Haag, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KA 16, fol. 108v

an angry snail:


Den Haag, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KA 16, fol. 109v

or an angry bunny:


Verdun, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 107, fol. 96v

But also happy creatures, as the cheerful unicorn depicted in this Coptic manuscript:


Incidentally, in the Physiologus, written in Alexandria between the 2nd and the 4th century, the unicorn is considered the symbol for Christ, thus in many manuscripts the Virgin Mary is represented holding the unicorn on her lap, like the virginal maiden depicted with a spotted unicorn in the Maastricht Hours:


London, BL, Stowe MS 17, f. 90v

Several other unidentified entities and impossible hybrids can also be found like this fish with arms:


Den Haag, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KA 16, fol. 108r

the snail-man:


London, BL, Stowe MS 17, f. 193v

the egg-man:


New York, Morgan Library, MS M.1004, XV sec., f. 120r: Libro d’Ore di Charlotte di Savoia

However, as Alixe Bovey writes in his recent instructive book «Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts» (Toronto 2002), in some cases the bizarre figures or the presence of drolleries in the margins of manuscripts having serious contents is more subversive than pertinent to the text and suggests that the artist has inserted this grotesques with the purpose of slaving off the boredom, rather than to instruct the readers. This is evident in the scene representing a monkey with a unicorn:


Cambridge, Trinity College B.11.22, fol. 11r

or this smoked salmon:


London, BL, Add MS 36684, f.40r

or the snail-stag from the Hours of Joanna the Mad, f 305v


But it is also possible that illuminators wanted to condemn sins in the flesh or ridicule the false prophets, like in this case:


British Library, Royal MS 19 B XV, fol. 30v

Any way, even if in many cases medieval marginalia resist interpretation, whatever was the purpose of their message, if they wanted to entertain the readers or ridicule the sin or, on the contrary, mock the religious authority, we are thankful to the medieval illuminators, because in their own spirit of irreverence and rebellion gave us surprise and entertainment and probably they will continue to do this for a long time still to come.

[1] [1] For further reading on the topic, cf. Michael Camille, Image on the Edge. The Margins of Medieval Art, Cambridge MA 1992.

Philosophia 14/2016, pp. 114-127