Young hands, old books: Drawings by children in a fourteenth-century manuscript, LJS MS. 361
By Deborah Ellen Thorpe
Cogent Arts and Humanities, Vol.3 (2016)
Abstract: This article scrutinises three marginal drawings in LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries. It first considers the provenance of the manuscript, questioning how it got into the hands of children. Then, it combines developmental psychology with close examination of the material evidence to develop a list of criteria to attribute the drawings to children. There is consideration of the features that help us estimate the age of the artists, and which indicate that one drawing was a collaborative effort between two children. A potential relationship is identified between the doodles and the subject matter of the text, prompting questions about pre-modern child education and literacy. Finally, the article considers the implications of this finding in both codicology and social history since these marginal illustrations demonstrate that children were active in the material life of medieval books.
Introduction: Added to manuscripts by scribes or illuminators during the production of a book, medieval marginal illuminations might include and combine defecating monks, tumbling animals, grotesques and various other “weirdnesses”. Though the exact intention and meaning of these images is debated, they can seem to reflect a juvenile sense of humour to the modern eye. Similarly, some marginal “doodles” of human or humanoid figures—scribbled by readers or scribes or used as a method of testing the pen—often have an unsophisticated, childlike quality, with their comically exaggerated and crudely executed features. As Kwakkel has pointed out, these doodles provided scribes an opportunity to “sidestep seriousness” to finally escape the “narrow horizontal tracks on which the lines of text were written”, and for readers to relieve boredom and help formulate their thoughts.