Writing in the margins (and on the walls), Medieval style

The other day I came across a great article on the website Brain Pickings. It’s all about the crazy things that monks have written in the margins of  illuminated manuscripts.

I love this article because it makes you realize that in the grand scheme of things people really haven’t changed that much from one century to the next. It makes these monks much more relatable to those of us living in the 21st century. How much more we learn about them from these long ago scribblings and doodles then we ever would from some dry, old text book.  Who knew they were just as bored, tired and human as we are!?

The first time I realized that human is human no matter when or where you’ve lived was when I visited the Tower of London back in the 70’s and saw the graffiti on the walls of the Beauchamp Tower.

This was the intricate, magnificent bit of graffiti I saw on that first visit. What made it so fascinating and exciting to me was the fact that it was placed there by a name in history that I had actually read about, John Dudley.  Imprisoned in 1554, Dudley was a member of the family that tried to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne in the place of Mary Tudor. Obviously that didn’t go so well for them and the Lady in question, thus his and his family’s imprisonment in the Tower. While the rest of the Dudley clan and Lady Jane Grey were executed, John, only in his mid 20’s, was unexpectedly released on the day of his execution but unfortunately died only a short time later.

What’s amazing to me is that this mark he left on those ancient walls has kept him alive to millions of people and many generations of visitors to the Tower in a way that no history book could have ever done. I’ve seen it four times now, and I have never gotten tired of standing in front of Dudley’s handy work and imagining what it must have been like for him and the others imprisoned in that tiny space. Of course being jostled and elbowed by a dozen smelly tourists on a hot summer day can give you a bit of an idea!

Dudley wasn’t the only one to leave his mark in Beauchamp Tower. This simple carving is pretty amazing too!

Did Lady Jane Grey carve her own name on the wall of her prison, or did one of her many imprisoned supporters? Most historians think the latter but I like to think Jane carved it herself!

If you do a search for ancient or historical graffiti on the internet dozens of images pop up. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that people have always had the urge to leave their mark places , whether it’s on a tree, in the tower of a prison, or on a cave wall. I guess no matter where or when people have lived we all just want to be remembered.


2 thoughts on “Writing in the margins (and on the walls), Medieval style

  1. Wonderful post! My favourite bit of manuscript doodling has always been Pangur Ban – an Irish monk’s poem about his cat (http://www.ceantar.org/pangur.html). It is in a ninth century manuscript of classical Latin works such as Virgil. For more Pangur Ban goodness, watch the cartoon The Secret of Kells: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTiSak8r9P8 (this is an excerpt).

    My other recent truly delightful find was Henry VIII’s scribbling in a book in the Lambeth Palace Library, in his own copy of Thomas Abell’s Invicta veritas: An answere, that by no maner of lawe it may be lawfull for … Kinge Henry the Ayght to be divorsid ..(1532, shelfmark [ZZ]1532.4.01). Henry was not best pleased that the author did not support his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, and duly – no doubt angrily – annotated the title page with “This is rubbish!”, or Latin words to that effect.

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