1320 – 1340: Medieval Symbolism and Manuscript Marginalia 🎨 📜

Sometime between 1320 and 1340, the psalms collection Luttrell Psalter was commissioned by Geoffrey Luttrell in England. It is notable for containing paintings with vivid colors and inventive decorations accompanying the text at the margins, often contrasting their austere subject matter, known as manuscript marginalia. Manuscript marginalia contained a great deal of detail and often provided images that ranged from subtly humorous to downright bizarre. Some examples are “wrestlers, hawkers, bear baiters, dancers, musicians, throwing games, a mock bishop with a dog [jumping] through a hoop- and a wife beating her husband with her spinning rod” and what was then known as the “grotesques”: hybrid creatures that combined a human head with an animal/fish/bird body and plant tail. 👨🏽 🐡 🌿

luttrell.jpgIt is within medieval images that we find the first inklings of rich symbolism, word associations and hidden meaning. For instance, floreat, which meant “to flourish,” was represented with a blooming rose 🌹 in the psalms. Similarly, nocte, or “night,” 🌃 is followed by a black bat 🦇 in the margin. This gave the text a mnemonic purpose which made the manuscript “memorable and meditative.” Aside from mnemonic function, however, scholars cannot agree on whether the marginalia were purely decorative or had symbolic meaning. As with emoji, marginalia served as a shorthand for ideas, and especially grotesque or obscene images were interpreted as a kind of satire 🎭 and subversion of the human condition.

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