Age-related milestones reveal who marked up the margins of Medieval European manuscripts
Most of the documents you’ve likely seen from the Middle Ages are beautifully adorned, illuminated manuscripts. Pages are so carefully illustrated and adorned that the words on the page almost disappear behind the colored inks and gold leaf. Of course, just because some pages have been found fit to display in museums doesn’t mean they are really representative of all documents from the 14th century. Most pages lacked carefully rendered designs, although many pages did include some… impromptu illustrations. In some cases, there’s even evidence that keeping kids away from one’s desk was as hard back then as it can be today, even if they had to settle for gold leaf instead of crayons.
Surveys of old documents and contracts have often turned up doodles or scribbles in margins, usually rendered without much care to realism or accuracy. The images depicted range from little stick figures to animals to monks pooping down the margin of a page. While the pooping monk may have very well been the result of a bored scribe working in a monastery (and inspiration to Sergio Argones’ work in MAD?) some researchers have started looking into the childlike way some of these doodles were drawn to see if any were made by actual children, or simply adults with childish taste.
Recognizing kids’ craftsmanship
Since most of these doodles were understandably unsigned pieces of art, they were shown to child psychologists to see how well they matched up to modern children’s drawings. In some work from 14th century Naples, a face in a square on long legs is attached to what looks a bit like a spotted cow, while in another a square entity has eyes, a mouth, legs and two vertical lines from its head, possibly representing horns on a devil. Both drawings were judged to be the work of a four- to six-year-old, as those ages tend to depict people specifically as heads with legs as part of the pre-schematic stage of drawing. Artists at this age are juggling concerns like hand-eye coordination and building mental patterns more than representing what they see. It would appear that the doodler of the cow was relying on a symbol for drawing people developed earlier on, as the cow looks closer to more representational drawings of older artists.
How precious were these papers?
It’s not clear how pleased the owners of these documents was with these embellishments. Most of us try to keep the kids away from formal banking or legal documents, which would seem all the more important in a time when paper couldn’t be cheaply purchased by the ream. In 14th century Italy, where the aforementioned cowherd was drawn, paper was being produced in mills, but was considered inferior to vellum due to price, durability and prejudiced racial associations. The fact that a young hand had access to deface these papers in the first place actually counters the notion that all writing was inaccessible and precious, and that upper classes may have made such media more available to children than we’d expect, to say nothing of the guy drawing the pooping monks.
Source: Children's Doodles Found in Margins of Medieval Manuscript by Laura Geggel, Live Science