Medieval people had social media too
Modern people didn’t invent the doodle, graffiti, tweet or even selfies. In Medieval times, people were passing notes in class, “upping” pictures of themselves, bitching about work and drawing funny faces with big noses.
Medieval Kids’ Doodles
Doodles recently discovered in a 14th-century book were probably made by a team of 2 children a few centuries later.
This medieval sponge bob was most likely the work of a 4-year-old.
This is a doodle drawn by a Russian boy called Onfim in the 13th century. He livened up learning his alphabet with a picture of himself a knight on a horse.
He seems to be impaling an enemy.
This one looks like it should be called “Me and My dad”.
This doodle has a sign saying “Greetings from Onfim to Danilo”, which makes this an 800-year-old note passed between friends during class.
Onfim’s illustrations often include pictures of knights, horses, arrows, and slain enemies.
Timeless boy themes.
Children cannot really be blamed for “improving” boring manuscripts. As the author of one 16th-century treatise on caring for books ruled : “Eighth, one should not let children learn from any books that one wants to preserve. Because whatever comes into their hands, as we see, it either stays there or it is ruined.”
Feels like he’s writing from bitter experience.
Medieval Doodling Not just for kids
When scribes were testing quills, they’d scribble words or doodle drawings. These include funny faces, weird unidentifiable creatures and caricatures of teachers and colleagues.
Erik Kwakkel, a book historian, is making a name for himself by posting “medieval eye candy” that he finds during his research.
Just as the scribe’s writing style in the doodles is more casual than in their ornate work, their subject matter wasn’t pious and formal. It’s their everyday world. And it’s funny and bitchy.
Doodles laughing their heads off at the edge of the page (Paris Mazarine 3466, 13th c).
Important note to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, pointed out by medieval hipster (Paris Maz 3466)
Medieval smiley face. Same in any century. Conches, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 7 (main text 13th century, doodle 14th or 15th century).
This guy liked to create weird hybrid creature doodles
What do you think these two are talking about? Up to no good, I bet.
A little guy holding a flower. Sweet.
But doodles could be profane and bizarre: some days you just feel like firing an arrow into the ass of a merman (marginal image in the Rutland Psalter)
Medieval Bitching about work
Medieval Monks spent long hours copying manuscripts in uncomfortable chairs and cold rooms.
They were the data entry workers of their day.
No wonder they inserted themselves into holy texts with their complaints “I am very cold,” “Oh, my hand” and sometimes not-so-spiritual cries from the heart : “Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.”
This gem of the best marginal notes comes from the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, entitled Means of Communication
The results of the first large-scale survey of early graffiti are astonishing.
A survey in the English county of Norfolk has revealed over 26,000 new medieval inscriptions.
Everyone drew Graffiti : from the lord of the manor and parish priest, all the way down to the lowliest of commoners.
One-third of all recorded graffiti is “witch marks”, which medieval people believe warded off evil.
Other images show what mattered to farmers : windmills, horses and geese and the farmers themselves.
It wasn’t all realism, though.
Like a Medieval “Hello” magazine, there are aspirational images of knights on horseback, heraldry and coats of arms.
They walls also unveiled peoples’ darkest fears.
While there are no Graffiti angels, there are plenty of demons.
Angels stayed in Heaven, but demons were a real, terrifying part of everyday life.
People sent each other short messages before the invention of electricity and the phone: hastily, cheaply and casually. Not meant to last.
Just like a text.
They mostly concern everyday things like requests for money, IOUs, love letters and shopping lists.
This is a rather charming request for wild roses.
Count Philips loved flowers so much so that he wrote his servant this note to bring him some from Heidelberg. “But make sure,” he added to the note from 31 May 1486, “to also include some that are not yet flowering.”
This medieval text brings us as close to real medieval society as you can get.
Unlike accounts, legal papers and so on, these medieval texts were never meant to survive.
This one only survived because it was recycled as bookbinding material in the 16th century.
Jan van Eyck was making sure of his sneaky selfie : he is staring at you from the mirror that is hanging behind the couple in the portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his fiance.
For those who still didn’t get it, he painted above it “Johannes de eyck fuit hic”, “Jan van Eyck was here”. He added the date – 1434!
In this portrait, he shows himself and his wife, who appears to be draped around him drinking from a generously-sized (!) mug.
Nicolaus introduces himself in a note beneath the image: early advertising, perhaps? Even though it looks like they were drinking on the job!
Serial selfie artist
The monk Rufillus inserted at least 2 selfies of himself that we know of into his work. In both he looks the same, making them true medieval selfies!
The decorator Rufillus drew himself in a decorated letter R.
Here he is again, this time as a scribe.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.