How many of you would own up to writing in your books?


It’s a divisive issue. For some, the idea is horrifying. For others, it is an everyday part of reading. Whatever your view, each time you open a book, you leave behind evidence of you, the user: a note in the margin, a thumbprint on the cover, a folded corner acting as a bookmark, or perhaps even a crinkled edge or two from having read it in the bath.

Books live lives. They amass a biography as they pass through the hands of their creators and readers. And that’s every bit as true of medieval texts as it is of the thrillers, the fantasies and the romances (not to mention the history books) we read today.

In the case of medieval books, this lived biography can be traced through the strange assortment of doodles, notes, annotations and illustrations – things that we now call ‘marginalia’ – that inhabit the edges of these precious manuscripts.

Medieval marginalia takes many forms. It may consist of decorative schemes designed to embellish the prose. It may be tiny illustrations whose function is to lead readers to particular segments of text. It may be a child’s playful scribbles.

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Marginalia was sometimes added by the original manuscript creators themselves. But, just as often, it was the handiwork of readers – decades, even centuries, after the book’s creation. What the creators and readers . left there was both strange and enlightening: killer rabbits, animal-human hybrids, small figures lassoing chunks of text.

These additions may live life in the margins but, as the following examples prove, they play a key role in our interpretation of medieval books – not only in our understanding of their authors, but also the generations of readers who opened the books long after their creators were dead.

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Marginalia was used to both praise God and subvert the natural order

The format most commonly associated with the term ‘marginalia’ is, perhaps, the manuscript illumination. Illumination, from the Latin ‘illuminare’ (meaning to ‘enlighten’ or ‘illuminate’), refers to the decoration of a manuscript with colour, including gold and silver leaf. This form of decoration, designed as part of a book’s original scheme, surrounds the text block with any combination of decorated initials, as well as border design including marginal figures and scenes. As such, it gave rise to many of the marginal characters with which historians are most familiar today.

One example shows these elements of decoration in a 14th-century legal text entitled Statutes of the Realm, designed for use by an itinerant lawyer. The full-page miniature depicts the crucifixion opposite a decorated initial of an enthroned king, an embellished border and a lower marginal illustration of two birds. It’s a sumptuous example of a biblical scene working in conjunction with a legal text, demonstrating the conjunction between church and state. The manuscript was small enough to be carried around, and its condition reflects daily use.

Not all manuscript illuminations were as earnest as the one above. Today, perhaps the most well-known medieval decoration is the drollery, which depicts humorous scenes, many of a ‘monde renversé’, or a ‘world upside-down’, which could include human, animal and hybrid figures known as grotesques.

Among some of the most popular of these marginal figures (particularly from the 13th–15th centuries) was the rabbit, who was traditionally depicted in medieval art as a symbol of purity, innocence and fertility. In the example above, however, rabbits are deployed to subvert the usual order of things for comedic effect, with scribes using the marginal space to play with and question ideas about society. Here, these fluffy little animals are shown in a position of power: the hunter, not the hunted.

Rabbits exact revenge on hunters in the Smithfield Decretals
Rabbits exact revenge on hunters in the Smithfield Decretals. Marginalia was often used to portray a world turned upside down. (Image by Bridgeman)

Helping hands and feathered friends

In an age before highlighters and marker pens, authors used comic illustrations and wordplay to alert readers to key pieces of text

Marginalia wasn’t only employed to make manuscripts look beautiful, express religious devotion or indulge in a little irreverence. It also had more functional purposes, such as acting as memory aids.

Today, we might use a highlighter pen to draw attention to a key piece of text. Back in the Middle Ages, however, the indicator of choice was something called the manicule. Taken from the Latin for ‘little hand’, the manicule was what can only be described as a disembodied pointing finger. In an image of a tiny 13th-century Bible, we can see our reader has decorated theirs with a rather fetching cuff. Given the diminutive wording (these lines are less than 5mm tall), this becuffed hand would have proved particularly useful.

A pointing hand is an obvious choice of highlighter. Some scribes, however, chose to be a little more playful – like the creator of John of Arderne’s ‘Medical Treatises’, shown below. In this manuscript, offering insights into the practice of surgery in the medieval period, marginal images helped the readers visualise procedures, instruments and herbs. The marginal scheme remained largely unchanged across different copies of his texts, and even when it was translated from Latin into English.

As with manicules, the marginalia directed readers to particular pieces of text – with the help of a series of visual jokes and wordplay. In one image, an owl indicates a discussion of cancer of the rectum, whose symptoms included a swelling known as a ‘bubo’. Why an owl? Because the Latin word for owl was also ‘bubo’. If the reader needed to locate this section quickly, they simply had to search for this feathered ‘bubo’ in the margins.

The beauty of blunders

Some of the most fascinating examples of marginalia were inspired by attempts to correct scribes’ errors

Medieval scribes made mistakes. They misspelled words, they repeated themselves, they forgot to include entire paragraphs. That’s where another form of marginalia – the ‘gloss’ – came into its own. Glosses were added by later users to correct errors or even translate text.

Three images (taken from a 10th or 11th-century version of Pope Gregory I’s Pastoral Care) show the gloss work of one of the best-known of all medieval scribes: the Tremulous Hand of Worcester, so-named for their shaky handwriting.

The Tremulous Hand’s edits and annotations – visible on numerous manuscripts – are unmistakable. They are also intriguing. What condition, historians asked themselves, was this prolific scribe suffering from? The answer was provided in 2015 by Deborah Thorpe and Jane Alty, who combined neurological studies with handwriting analysis to conclude that the Tremulous Hand had an ‘essential tremor’ (a type of uncontrollable shake or tremble of part of the body). Thanks to Thorpe and Alty’s research, we now know a lot more about the life of a 13th-century scribe, and the history of the condition from which they suffered.

Gloss work often involved one scribe editing another’s text. But it could also see scribes correcting their own work – and, as the image below proves, they often did so with no little imagination and humour.

The image shows a section of Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, written in the early 15th century. Scribes would have been tasked with painstakingly copying the text to parchment. But there’s a problem: a stanza of text has accidentally been omitted during the copying process.

The scribes, as the image shows, have corrected themselves by adding the missing stanza in the blank space of the right-hand margin. But what is striking about the correction is the decoration produced to accompany this error: the limner (the painter of portraits and miniatures) has added a man beside the stanza, and depicted him lassoing the stanza back into its correct position. Similarly, in the Book of Hours shown below, marginal figures and maniculae work together to drag a missing line into its rightful place.

Both of these examples suggest that, rather than attempt to cover up their mistakes, medieval scribes were often happy to highlight them and the effort they had to take to put them right.

Living happily ever after

Childrens doodles and the muddy scrawl of chickens suggest that some medieval books enjoyed long and colourful afterlives

Some medieval tomes were filed away soon after their completion, rarely to see the light of day. Others became one of the family. The 15th-century manuscript copy of Lydgate’s Life of Our Lady shown below certainly falls into the latter category. It is a fantastic example of how generations of owners engaged with their books in ways we might now find surprising. Almost every page is embellished with a series of pen trials, annotations, and wonderful marginal doodles, all added in the 16th century. Some of them may have been drawn by children.

While at first glance you might conclude that the manuscript had been defaced by these users (members of the Golding family of Essex, named throughout in the annotations), closer inspection reveals these hands have been respectful of the text, almost as if they were using the blank margins as scrap parchment. In a number of places, the artist has enjoyed their handiwork so much they have cut out their doodles as a keepsake (see below).

What is striking about these marginal drawings is their sheer volume and their playfulness. And while they might suggest that the book was not being closely read in its later life, it does imply it was still in active use within the household. The doodles’ presence in the margins demonstrates how this family made use of materials available to them and provides insight into the shifting value of this book – from a text to be read, to a material object to be used. What’s more, this manuscript was clearly not kept out of reach in a library but was well within the grasp of younger family members.

Finally, no discussion of such unexpected users would be complete without mentioning the animal prints found on the pages of manuscripts and rare books. Across a 1537 copy of ‘Matthew’s Bible’ (shown above) is strewn a series of brown v-shaped prints, brought to light by University of Glasgow student Isla MacFarlane in 2016. Just as with our Lydgate manuscript, this evidence points less to active reading, and more to Where a book may have been used. After careful scrutiny of the size and shape of the prints by the book history community, it appears that, in this book’s life at least, chickens also had reading rights.

Johanna Green is a lecturer in information studies at the University of Glasgow. She specialises in book history and digital humanities. You can also listen to Knight Fights Giant Snail, a BBC Radio 4 documentary on marginalia,


This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine