Art History Illustration
Why Knights Fought Snails in the Margins of Medieval Books
When thinking of a symbolic foe to battle in a medieval book, many creatures come to mind: dragons, wolves, or perhaps rabbits, but the poor defenseless snail? It hardly makes for a powerful image. But it turns out, as with most artwork, the answer is more symbolic than literal. In the 1960s a book historian named Lilian Randall thought the illustrations found in the margins of illuminated books required more attention, leading to the publication of her own book, Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts. In this episode of Vox Almanac, Phil Edwards shares what Randall learned as she investigated the curious snail fights.
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Violent Rabbit Illustrations Found in the Margins of Medieval Manuscripts
The typical depiction of a rabbit, especially when used in Medieval art and literature, is an image of purity and innocence—a harmless puff of cuddly cuteness. Another common association with the rabbit is that of fertility, a sensical comparison when one is aware of the speed at which the species copulates. In some medieval illuminated manuscripts however, the illustration of a rabbit turns from harmless to violent, with several examples showcasing the formerly innocent creature in the act of decapitation and other sword-wielding wrongdoings.
A way to analyze these drolleries, or medieval margin illustrations, is to think about the violent role reversals as humorous symbolism. Because these animals were so low on the totem pole of fear, it was quite amusing to the medieval illustrator to draw them enacting a revenge—silly animals on the opposite side of the slaughtering. This was also a way for the artist to show the stupidity of the human who was the object of the rabbits’ anger, one who was foolish enough to be bludgeoned by bunny.
If all of this is hitting a little too close to Monty Python and the Holy Grail for you, read this comparison by Sexy Codicology between the historical illustrations and the film. Oh, and of course watch the killer bunny scene to see a modern day take on these vengeful rabbits.
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The Ingenuity and Beauty of Creative Parchment Repair in Medieval Books
Another day, another collection of fascinating discoveries from medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel who previously introduced the internet to his observations on the history of doodles, color theory, and rare forms of bookbinding. Kwakkel has also been investigating how bookmakers found creative solutions around damaged parchment—thin membranes of cow and sheepskin used for printing books between the fifth and thirteenth centuries before the rise of paper. Parchment was extremely delicate and costly to manufacture well, so imperfections from animal hair follicles to small tears and texture anomalies were left for the poor scribes to contend with.
After witnessing their doodling artistry, it should come as no surprise that medieval scribes had a host of ideas to work around bad parchment, from webs of silk embroidery to cheeky illustrations, the blemishes were incorporated right into the physical texts. Although a different medium, the process is uncannily similar to the ancient Japanese process of repairing broken ceramics, Kintsugi, where fractures in pots or bowls are mended with precious metal, acknowledging the history of the imperfect object instead of discarding it.
You can learn much more about Kwakkel’s parchment discoveries in his article “The Skinny on Bad Parchment,” and in these two posts on Tumblr.
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