We know, from living in the margins, that much can be done with little space. Often the most poignant and precious expression is that which is made within narrow parameters. In illuminated manuscripts, marginalia carry the possibility of invention and interpretation, even more so than words. The beauty of these texts, made between the 12th and 17th centuries, is to be found in the fringes, like those who created them.
These scholars were usually holy men—and occasionally holy women—housed in monasteries and convents throughout Europe. They worked in silence, during the brightest hours of the day, in the best-lit rooms of their religious complexes. Their clients were the wealthiest: royalty, aristocracy, landed gentry, and, increasingly, the merchant class. Most texts were written in Latin, the official language of the church until the Second Vatican Council in 1965. There were copies of the bible, volumes of psalms, instructions on life for the religious lord or lady, and hymns for the musically inclined devotee. Music notes are personified, taking flight or colliding, among other lighthearted, fanciful representations of sound. Flouncing around Christ’s preferred lyrics might be angels in song—heavenly choirs with radioactive wings and identically frozen faces lacking the creases of human worry.
It is these decorative elements that have helped historians identify texts copied out by a particular scribe. In one pocket-sized processional from 1460, a Cistercian monk by the name of Wilhelm Ketheller living at Herrenalb Monastery in Baden Württemberg copied out religious feast day music for his beloved sister, a nun at the nearby Lichtenthal Abbey. His fancy takes flight in the highly detailed embellishment of the letter L in distinctive blue and red ink at the beginning of a hymn. On later pages, the letters U and H are given the same treatment. Curlicues and swoops serve as signatures.
For the scholars who transcribed religious texts, very little invention was sanctioned in their translations and copies. Lettering and illustration became a vessel for exploration when words were expected to remain within predetermined territory. And some of these texts are solitary shroom trips in paper form. At New York’s Morgan Library, an English bestiary from the late 12th century marries myth and reality with noted zest. A blue beast decorates a page, its modest green horns curving inward above a highly emotive face. Porcupines, rendered in the flattened medieval style, trundle along below an altogether more impressive creature, the onocentaur: half human, half donkey. It looks perfectly at ease, seemingly unaware of the ocean-blue snake writhing in its hands. Flame-red stripes decorate the onocentaur’s flanks, at odds with its sad-sop face under a mop of lank hair. His form delights; his face does not.
His cousins, humans, give us the most narrative fodder. A volume of papal decrees, created in Bologna between 1330 and 1335, illustrates the newly regularized celebration of mass in exquisite detail and with perspectival ingenuity. The faithful kneel with covered heads as a priest consecrates the Eucharist, his back turned to his congregation. The scene is set within a clever architectural framing device that shows both the church interior and exterior, a dollhouse-like configuration. Below, cradled in a letter U, a monk sits for a haircut while two putti skinny dip nearby.
Illumination was a manifestation of the extremity of devotion, countless hours spent in service to the love of a higher power. A level of focus foreign to modern life was required: hours on end filling in the in-between. In their molding of minutiae these scribes created a forum for the expression of beauty, indulgence, and passion otherwise denied by their ascetic vows. In the margins they could live. They could invent. Much like the juicy pulp of ripe fruit, the paper’s pulp bears a sweetness, a decadence, waiting to be eagerly consumed. You would be hard pressed to find more surprising combinations of subject matter in contemporary illustrations, especially in book form. Books have long offered unparalleled opportunities for contemplation. But as these centuries-old examples remind us, twisted, troubling, and thrilling tales have always lived in the margins.
Camille Okhio is a New York–based arts and design writer and historian.