Was medieval manuscript marginalia pure distraction?

Was medieval manuscript marginalia pure distraction?

By Henning Hansen

Published Online (2012)

From British Library MS Yates Thompson 19   f. 65

From British Library MS Yates Thompson 19 f. 65

Introduction: It is almost impossible to determine when it became common to use the margins of books to write comments or to make drawings or pictures, but it started without doubt long before the birth of Christ. It is easy to associate marginalia with the modern book format, the Codex, but examples of papyri with marginalia have been found, for example in the Oxyrhynchus collection. The marginalia evolved during the centuries and became more and more advanced and elaborate. Marginalia exist in a huge spectrum of qualities and appearances. There is for example a vast difference between the modest scholarly annotations in the margin of a book and the marvellous pictures of the margin in the late Middle Ages, that could be fantastically rich in detail, gold and colour.

This essay aims at investigating the roles and meaning of pictures in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts, and I will try to reach some conclusions through looking at examples from some European manuscripts of mainly the high and late Middle Ages.

Pictorial marginalia exists in a Sometimes initials are great, expanding illustration example is the Lindisfarne 8th century, which contains some of them fill the better Lindisfarne Gospels, the become the illustrations. illustrations in the large variety of styles. enlarged and made into a in gold and colours. One good Gospels, dated late 7th or early large and beautiful initials, part of a whole page. In the letters and initials almost There are full-page Lindisfarne Gospels as well, frontispieces, or made to mark chapter. Some illustrations but they are often used as the beginning of a new are like patterns, covering the whole page, except for the text-block, in the style of horror vacui – fear of the emptiness. Others are illustrations, made to exemplify and clarify aspects of the texts. In yet other cases, mainly in manuscript from the high middle ages, manuscripts contain pictures that tell a parallel story, disconnected from the text of the book.

In medical works, recipe books, herbals and scientific works, it was very common with marginal illustrations, or even full-page illustrations. The illustrations were used as an aid to understand the text, and could be used as help in following steps of a recipe or a medical procedure. These illustrations can, but do not have to be, of great artistic quality – because their main purpose was to be clear and explaining. Good examples of this kind of illustration can be found in Ms 26 (a collection of alchemical recipes) and Ms 230 (an anatomical treatise) in the Wellcome Collection in London. In the Ms 26, the illustrations for example depict bottles and a distillation apparatus.

Click here to read this article from Henning Hansen’s website


Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine