Medieval doodles prove it's good to scribble
Medieval scribes got just as bored at work as you do. Hunched over
piles of parchment and the heavy books they were tasked with copying,
long before Gutenberg and Xerox changed everything, they responded in
the same way - by doodling.
Stick men, scribbles and 1,000-year-old smiley faces adorn the
margins and blank pages of the world's oldest manuscripts.
For a book historian in the Netherlands, they represent a portal to a
lost time, and are as rich a source of discovery as the texts
Erik Kwakkel, from Leiden University, the oldest university in the
Netherlands, says there are two types of medieval doodle: the idle
shapes that we all produce; and "pen trials", which scribes used to get
their nibs flowing after regular cutting.
"This was a time when a book cost as much as a second-hand car today
and there was no scrap paper," Kwakkel explains after revealing his
latest discovery: a rare medieval bookmark. "One of the few places you
could test your pen were the pages of completed books."
Some of the scribbles are elaborate and diversionary, taking longer
than needed to test a pen. Others are more basic and reveal that scribes
were no artists. The least imaginative doodlers would write, repeatedly,
"probatio pennae" ("I test my pen").
The doodles, often made by monastic scribes who worked only for the
glory of God, are "the closest we can get to the users of these books
and their lives", Dr. Kwakkel said.
The 44-year-old, whose work is fascinating the modern reader via his
blog and social media, has studied scribes who moved from the
Netherlands to Kent. "You can see how they adapted their writing style,"
he says. "But when you look at their pen trials, they switch back." Dr
Kwakkel uses these accidental signatures to trace the movement and work
of scribes, the nameless printers and photocopiers of their time.
They also offer clues about personality and mood. Law manuscripts
feature more smiley faces than other types of work, the academic says.
"In general there is hardly any book that doesn't have at least one
addition to the text. Some books have lots from scribes, opening a
window on the scriptorium [writing room]."
The unearthed bookmark, which is headline news in the Netherlands
this weekend, had been lost for at least a century inside the pages of a
manuscript at Leiden University. A circular disc that the reader could
also turn to mark the column they had left, it is one of only 35 that
survives, and dates to the 13th century.
"You can see thumbprints on it," Dr. Kwakkel says. "You're on that
level of contact with these people. It shows that manuscripts are not
dead things on shelves, but almost living organisms we can use and learn
so much from."
- The Independent