Doodling Art is Centuries Old

Here’s something interesting: Doodling is not a creation of the modern mind.

Doodling art has been discovered in manuscripts going back hundreds of years, with drawings of cats, funny faces and naughty stuff showing up in the margins of everything from Bibles to texts about King Arthur and Merlin.

Medieval doodle 1

CreditUniversity of Pennsylvania/PA

That’s right, medieval people indulged their inner 12-year-olds just like we do.

The people who came before us were just as creative with their pens, and just as apt to grow bored copying texts by hand in the days before printing presses became widely available. The doodles added to the margins of their pages show they had a bawdy, sharp-eyed sense of satire.

A few years ago, classical music writer Tom Service explained in the Guardian that he saw a bit of this doodling art while traveling through Wales. He stopped at Bangor University to see the Bangor Pontifical, a medieval text containing notes on music for church services.

Next to a chant sung to consecrate a church bell, he found “a cartoonish scribble of what looks like an unshaven 21st-century bloke with curly hair, a big nose, bejewelled beard, flat cap and shades.”

Except that it wasn’t modern. Researchers told him a medieval scribe had tucked it in there.

Historians call this doodling art “medieval marginalia” and some have made a project of cataloging it. Erik Kwakkel, a book historian at Leiden University in the Netherlands, is probably one of the most well-known.

800 Year Old Doodle

Credit Eric Kwakkel

(You might remember a couple of years ago, Kwakkel tweeted a photo that went viral showing cat paw prints on the pages of a medieval text. He’s also been interviewed numerous times about his work with medieval marginalia.)

Cat Paw Prints on Manuscript

Credit Eric Kwakkel

He led a research team that examined how the look of medieval manuscripts changed over the course of the 12th century. As part of the project, which has now concluded, his team posted a a few examples of medieval doodling art on Flickr.

They also kept a blog called “Medieval Fragments” that explored some of the strange marginalia they came across. One team member, Jenny Weston, described her take on medieval doodling art.

So what did the medieval ‘doodler’ like to draw? Based on my brief foray into (the very complex science of) ‘doodle research’ I have come to the conclusion that readers from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries generally enjoyed sketching disembodied heads (often eerily floating in the margin)or animals…Fairly regularly, we also come across ‘little hands’ or manicula, which can be found pointing to important words or passages in the text.

The purpose of medieval marginalia is open to interpretation.

Kwakkel has said that much of it is similar to what we do now when first starting to write – doodle in the margins to get the ink flowing. He calls them “pen trials.”

From his team’s Flickr account:

While most pen trials concern words or short lines (including “I am trying out my pen!”) there are also occasions where scribes were doodling or trying out decorated letters. These doodles are often found on flyleaves (which tended to be blank) but also in the margins or in between the text columns.

The doodles could also be drawn by scribes copying the text who’re feeling a bit impish or subversive (that would explain the poop in the margins). Or, as Weston mentioned, they could be added later by someone reading the manuscript. Or, doodling art in medieval texts could have an even loftier purpose.

Medieval Margin Pooping


Bryn Mawr College puts medieval marginalia in this context:

Initially dismissed by scholars as purely decorative or simply the daydreams of an imaginative illustrator, marginalia is now interpreted by some as exemplifying how the sacred was defined in opposition to the profane within the rigidly hierarchical organization of the medieval world.

One interesting distinction is that not all drawings in medieval manuscripts are examples of doodling art.

Carl Pyrdum, on his blog Got Medieval, pointed out that images are sometimes drawn into medieval texts because the person who ordered the book asked for them. This marginalia would not really count as doodles, then.

And even way back when, not everyone appreciated doodling art in their manuscripts.

The Black Book of Carmarthen is a Welsh manuscript written in the 13th century, containing poems with some of the earliest mentions of King Arthur and Merlin.

Black Book of Carmathen

Credit: National Library of Wales

Earlier this year, researchers examined the text with UV lights and high-res photography. They discovered something they’d never seen before – remnants of some medieval doodling art.

Specifically, a couple of faces and one fish. They’d apparently been added as the book had passed from owner to owner over the years.

Paul Russell, with the University of Cambridge, told the BBC that three centuries after it was first written, the Black Book of Carmarthen ended up in the hands of a man named Jaspar Gryffyth.

He must not have liked the doodles.

Prof Russell added: “This man in the 16th Century went through the book tidying it up. The owner erased a lot of material from the left, right, top and bottom margins. Anything he thought was an addition, he got rid of.”

Everybody’s a critic.

But never mind them. Next time you find yourself, pen in hand, hunched a book while your mind wanders, add a little doodling art. And when you do, know that you are just the latest in a proud, long tradition of margin artists.

(Note: Please only do this to your own books. We don’t want to get angry emails from librarians and school teachers.)

Photo of author

Tony Bridges

As a seasoned journalist and freelance writer, I've spent over three decades telling stories and exploring the world through the written word. With a passion for writing instruments, I found my niche at The Pen Vibe, a blog that shares our collective fascination with pens, pencils, and other tools that have shaped the art of writing.

2 thoughts on “Doodling Art is Centuries Old”

  1. Great piece! I was wondering about the first image, credited to University of Pennsylvania, which book it comes from? Would love to know!


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