Marginalia is an umbrella term for anything written, painted or drawn in a book that was not originally intended to be main text. This includes everything from the life-saving notes scrawled in a rented biology textbook to lewd doodles in Leonardo da Vinci’s journals left by a cheeky apprentice to the painstakingly painted miniature tableau of a knight losing a fight with a snail in a medieval manuscript.
While there is rising interest in what famous writers and thinkers scrawled in their favorite books as it gives us greater insight into what influences their thinking and how their minds worked, the marginal paintings left by medieval scribes have been largely disregarded simple jokes. After all, it is much harder to find meaning behind drawings of rabbits riding lions than it is to simply go through Nabokov’s personal copy of “Fifty-five Short Stories from The New Yorker” and see how he graded them. But just because something might look like nonsense doesn’t mean it is.
The reason why these paintings exist is obvious. Illuminated manuscripts required decoration on every single page, but after a few hundred pages of rich foliage and exotic animals any artist would inevitably run out of ideas. But why the scribes of old would choose to draw so many variations on poop jokes and snails in combat isn’t entirely understood to this day.
The snails in particular have fascinated and baffled scholars for centuries. Some hypothesize that they illustrate the everyday struggles of the artists who were constantly defending their gardens from pests. Others say that they were references to current events and the context has been lost to time, the snails representing a Germanic people who had moved into the area around the same time that the snail motif became prevalent. There’s also a theory that they are scathing commentary on the idea of chivalry, as the knights seem to always be losing to the snails.
All these theories seem equally likely as each are incredibly difficult to verify because the original artists never saw any reason to explain themselves. They would leave notes in the margins, but they were mostly complaints about the long work hours or poor materials.
Perhaps they assumed that the meaning behind their drawings were so inherently obvious as to not need explanation. Or maybe they hoped whoever read the manuscript would be so focused on the main text, they wouldn’t notice the fart jokes until it was too late to ask for a revision.
Whether these doodles were intended to offer tongue in cheek commentary on the political conflicts of their day, express the personal frustrations of the hard-working scribes or simply offer some commentary relief between the dense pages of scripture, there’s no doubt that they still have value today. These drawings still intrigue modern audiences even when completely removed from their original context.